The Times, 3 July 2009


First-time buyers are a rare breed, and in London, rarer still. Dips in house prices haven't come close to making even tiny flats affordable for most twenty- and thirty-somethings who don't have major financial backing from parents or the kind of job that means you can endanger a multinational banking corporation before lunch. And yet, we're the same as previous generations: we want homes of our own, enough space for ourselves and our stuff, and an address that the local pizza place isn't afraid to deliver to, because they keep getting mugged by twelve-year-olds.

But for years, that has been impossible to find. I, at least, was never remotely consoled by endless articles telling me that only in the UK do we have an obsession wth house prices; on the continent, you know, they rent, and it's normal. Yes, I would think, through gritted synapses, of course it's normal. My Belgian cousin used to rent a three storey house in Eeklo for less than it cost me to rent one room in a damp basement in Islington. Anyone who tells you that you should get used to renting is, in my experience, invariably a home-owner.

I spent years saving to buy a flat, earning more every year but seeing it become less, rather than more, likely that I would ever be able to afford one. And then hoardings went up at the end of my road. It became clear that it was a new block of flats: another set of homes my boyfriend and I would never be able to afford. Then the details of the sellers were painted on the hoardings: Notting Hill Housing Group. That didn't sound cheap. But when we got home, I logged on to their website, and discovered they provided shared-ownership schemes. You buy a percentage of the flat, you pay subsidised rent on the rest, and you end up with a toe, or at least a bit of one, on the housing ladder.

So I registered, safe in the knowledge that nothing would ever come of it. I received the occasional offer of half a flat in Hendon, or a third of a place in Colindale. We watched the building at the end of the road get taller, smarter, better. When a letter came through asking if we wanted to see the show flat, we thought it would just sate our curiosity to see the inside of the place. Neither of us is a key worker, so we hadn't a hope of getting a flat. Plus we couldn't go to the first viewing, because I was away working, and the flats would clearly all be snapped up straight away. So there was no point going, really, except for nosiness.

We looked around the show flat, and loved it. There were loads of other people viewing it, and it was all I could do not to trip them up, so certain was I that they would get a flat and we would not. We sat on the end of the bed together, while everyone else was in the living room. We started going through the numbers, and decided that even though it was ridiculous, and a waste of paper, I would give Notting Hill £250 reservation cheque, to register our interest officially. When they called the following Friday to tell us we'd been accepted, pending the financial interview, I felt genuinely sick.

But, of course, it still couldn't happen, because I had to get through the interview. And then they would realise that I am a writer and my boyfriend is an actor, and people like us don't buy flats. We rent, resentfully, instead. Then the interview went well. Tim Jones, at Notting Hill, was the exact person you want to talk to when you're trying to do something which seems impossible: kind, clever, and vastly reassuring. Not that it mattered, because we had to arrange a mortgage, in February, when politicians were demanding that banks be forced to lend again, as they were refusing even the safest of loans, and strangling the economy in the process.

Finally, a lifetime of keeping paperwork like someone is going to test me on it paid off. I have documentation of everything, and Nationwide needed to see all of it. Bafflingly, since we are both self-employed and banks weren't lending to anyone, they agreed our mortgage. Perhaps because we weren't borrowing very much, and our outgoings were clearly going to drop, as the mortgage and the subsidised rent were significantly lower than the £14,000 we were paying in rent to a private landlord each year.

Arranging the details of the mortgage, the valuation, and the moving date was vile, and incredibly stressful. And I don't care, because now I am sitting at my desk in my flat, investing in my future instead of my landlord's. I'm not even angry that there are roadworks outside, even though they’re noisy and I'm trying to work. They're building a new pavement outside, so I don't care if there's a week of noise: my home will be nicer for it.

So don't listen to the people who tell you it's impossible, or to get used to renting. Put your name down on a list for a shared ownership scheme. If there aren't any near you, badger your MP, your council, anyone you can find. This is the bridge between the haves and the have-nots. And you might just get across it like we did.