1. Built environment
April 26, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 8:34am

Young people can’t afford to buy or rent, so they're building their own houses

By Joe Smith

Young people are screwed: we’re just never going to own houses. Here are some numbers. This year’s economic review by the ONS shows that, while in 1987 just 9 per cent of those aged 26 to 30 were private renters, that number had risen to 39 per cent by 2014. In the 1980s, less than 20 per cent of 21-25-year-olds lived in private rents; now, it is more than 60 per cent. In 1996, over half of 25-29-year-olds owned their own home; now it’s less than one third.

Young adults (those aged 20 to 34) are now more likely to be living with their parents than at any time since 1996. And to cap it all, in 2013 the real earnings (adjusted for inflation) of people in their 20s were 12 per cent lower on average than they had been in 2009.

When faced with the prospect of living with your folks well into your 30s it’s no wonder that some young people have got creative about finding an affordable place to live.

Jamie’s house sits on the green, southern slopes of an Oxfordshire valley under the spreading branches of a giant oak tree. It is a cosy wooden structure, completely off the grid with solar panels, a wood burner, rainwater collector and a composting toilet.

He’s has spent five years living on this piece of land. Although it’s not much bigger than a large garden shed, Jamie is proud of his tiny home. He should be; he designed and built it himself.

The only problem is, he isn’t allowed to be there.

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At the bottom of the valley sits a sweet little village, the kind of place people retire to. Jamie tries to stay hidden from his neighbours. He feels his unlicensed cabin might not go down too well in the village where the average house price is over £371,000, according to property website Rightmove.

Jamie, who is 28, works as a musician, photographer and carpenter. He says he likes the challenge of living without the on-tap amenities most of us are used to. “Living off-grid you start with the most important things. So to begin with that’s staying dry, staying warm, being able to cook food – then afterwards come things like being able to use your electronics and stuff.

“These are all necessities which at some point you’re going to have to address. You have to work it out yourself, which can be pretty difficult when it doesn’t work; but it does mean that once these systems are set up you know them inside out because you’ve made them yourself. I think that engenders a lot of resilience in your living situation.”

Jamie’s decision to live this way is in part an environmental one. He wants to live as lightly on the land as possible. But there are other reasons too. “From my point of view, rents are unaffordable and mortgages are unaffordable. I think it’s an inflated cost that doesn’t truly reflect the real value of these things, so purely on an economic level it makes a lot of sense,” he says. “That’s something that informed my decision to live off the grid and to do something for myself.”

There isn’t a lot data about young people building their own abodes, but Jamie says he knows others who are living similar lives to him. “Lots of people can’t afford rent and mortgages. In my lifetime I’ve seen more people turn to this way of living; I’ve got several friends who live like this and I know many more who want to so I think it’s something which is a big issue, obviously.”

Jamie tells me he loves living in nature; he loves the space and the independence. And although it can be very cold in the mornings, his new wool insulation should help with that.

However, there is another big drawback to his lifestyle. “The fact that it’s not legal,” he tells me. “It’s not something which is endorsed by the government or the council, so there’s that aspect of insecurity – not knowing you’re safe, that your living space is always going to be there for you.

“But I think all the pros outweigh that and ultimately if you’re not doing any harm to anyone else then you’ve got to live with your own conscience. I can live easier with my conscience knowing that I’m living sustainably and if I have to accept that there’s a risk that I might get a snotty letter from the council then so be it. It’s part of the deal, you know?”

Rose is 24, studying for a masters, and lives in a windmill in Dorset. “It was built in the Seventies,” she tells me, “for generating electricity. It’s not an old building although it looks like an old building – it was built in the vernacular style, I guess. I think it was lived in by someone for a while about 10 years ago, after that it just sat getting gradually more and more derelict until I saw it.”

She adds: “Last year my student loan didn’t even cover my rent for the year. I had to work three nights a week plus weekends to have money to live on. I was just sick of having to work all the time, and my studies were suffering a lot, so I looked into other options.”

Rose spied the derelict windmill while visiting a friend who lived nearby and fell in love with it. “You know when you have a pipe dream?” she asks me. “I was aware that it was really unrealistic and that it needed loads of work but I was just like, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if…’”

So she got in touch with the owner of the windmill, a retired building contractor. He agreed to provide the expertise and let Rose live there rent-free, while she did the work to make it inhabitable.

Rose worked on the windmill for four months straight. She patched the roof, rebuilt the floors, filled and weatherproofed the outside, installed a kitchen and a wood burner, created a bedroom and installed the electrics – all while studying for her masters degree and working a part-time job.

But she says it was all worth it. “I never dreamed of being able to afford to live in the countryside in my own house at 24,” Rose tells me. “You pay all your money for these awful houses and you know the people who own them are just rolling in it. You have no control over your surroundings. If the walls are magnolia then the walls are magnolia.”

Being able to have a space of her own has been very important for Rose: “I decided where the bed went, how deep the shelves, how to put in the sink, exactly how I wanted to live in my house – because I did all the work. Now I can be so proud of it.”

Like Jamie, Rose sees her decision to live outside the law as a response to the economic pressures facing young people. “I think it’s very important for young people to take this crisis into our own hands, find our own solutions,” she says.

“Obviously, it’s not legal for me to live there,” Rose admits. “If the council found out I’d be out. I have an outside compost toilet, no running water, a ladder rather than stairs, a wood-burning stove – I think the council would have a heart attack.

“I’ll never own my own home the traditional way. Where would I get the deposit? I don’t want one or both of my parents to have to die for me to own a home – that seems so morbid. They don’t have money to give me and why should they?” she asks. “I suppose I could try to get a salary job and save up, but what would be the point of my whole education then? I want to have the space to be an artist like I trained to do, and not compromise that.

“The housing situation in the UK is criminal,” she concludes. “It’s no surprise that young people are turning to more illicit means to provide a proper home for themselves.”

This article was previously published on our sister site, the New Statesman.

Names and locations have been changed. All images courtesy of Joe Smith.

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