Excuse me if I seem a little distracted, but I am looking at a bungalow in a Yorkshire fishing village. It has an original, 1950s, green-tiled kitchen with a walk-in pantry and a carpet that looks like broken cornflakes. I have never been to Robin Hood’s Bay, nor do I know anyone who lives there. I haven’t inherited a lump sum from a distant, childless uncle who died while trying to fix his car on a steep slope, and £365,000 is way beyond me, even if it does have original fireplaces.
I am supposed to be writing a book. At least, that’s what I say every morning when my alarm goes off at 4.15 and I creep downstairs to type in an unheated shed for two hours before my son wakes up. Two hours? In fact, it’s probably more like an hour and a half. The rest of the time, I am on property websites, looking up houses I can neither afford nor want to live in.
As house prices fall like a toddler down a slide and my home slowly reaches the value of a Crunchie bar, for some reason I find myself – between bouts of fevered typing – gazing at the wallpaper, kitchen cabinets and mobility baths of strangers. I have never tried to use traditional concentration techniques, such as the Pomodoro method or Oblique Strategies cards. Instead, every eight minutes or so, I minimise my Word document and turn to Zoopla.
Sorry – there I go again, looking at a £398,000 new-build in Birmingham in which all the furniture appears to be made of beige suede, as if Buffalo Bill had decided to get himself a little executive flat in the West Midlands. Or I go to Rightmove. I type in the name of a city or village and, well, just see what’s out there. Have a poke around. Riffle through someone else’s fixtures and fittings and see just how close to an army firing range they sell houses these days (pretty close, if the £600,000 former lime kiln I found on the Isle of Portland is to be believed).
The thing is, for many people of my generation, home ownership has always been a fantasy. According to the Office for National Statistics, people in their mid-30s to mid-40s are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago. We don’t look at property websites because we are seriously thinking about adding to our property portfolio; we look at property websites because we are nosy. Or we have active imaginations. Or because it feels like a game.
It is fun from time to time to take a break from emails or scrubbing the bathroom floor and have a quick look at what a four-bedroom house in Ruyton XI Towns is worth – £725,000 apparently. Although, for that, you do get a raw-plaster attic bedroom with church windows as well as a home gym that looks like a school corridor. They might even throw in the print on the wall that says, rather threateningly: “Enjoy this moment – this moment is your life.”
If you had told me when I was 16 that one day there would be a place on my computer where I could access the insides of strangers’ houses, free, with no time limit and no need to wear a suit, I would have been delighted. Sorry, there I go again. A £115,000, three-bedroom, end-of-terrace house in Carlisle with its own minibar and an avocado bathroom suite. On the internet, you can go so much deeper. Spotting the rooms being used to grow cannabis, admiring the hideous Bedouin-by-way-of-Stevenage decor, wondering what they do with all those porcelain figurines. I love it.
Sometimes, I look in places of sentimental significance: a village where I went on holiday with an ex, the last residence of my favourite writer, my old student house. Sometimes, I do it as research; while writing my first novel, I happily spent a morning online, looking around a £2m Oxford townhouse that I eventually gave to my protagonist’s father’s girlfriend. But most of the time, looking inside other people’s houses is just a distraction. A hammock for my brain. An escape into somebody else’s life. And who doesn’t want that?