I was looking through a newspaper last year and a full-page ad stopped me in my tracks. In bright colours of blue, red and white, there was a graphic of a very nice, detached house, with the tagline, “The perfectly detached for the recently attached’. I already knew that unattached people (those who are single by choice, separated, divorced, bereaved or however they want to describe themselves) were not part of the conversation on housing, savings, deposits and mortgages, but to see yourself so clearly excluded in print was tough. Someone decided on that wording, and that ad repeated back to us what we already know - two people are better than one. And don't get me started on the single supplement in hotels.
One tweet, so many questions.
It happened again on Twitter last week when the Prime Time property special stirred up a lot of housing commentary. One tweet, in particular, described the changes over time in how much disposable income couples (yes, specifically couples) needed to save for a deposit in one year. And it’s grim reading. In 1989 a couple had to save 25% of their disposable income for a 10% deposit in one year, today it is 50%, rising to 75% for couples in Dublin. Now I’ve never been very good at Maths, but if two people have to save 50% of their joint disposable income so that they can buy a house (or depending on the location, an apartment), then does one person have to save 100% of their disposable income in order to buy a very small and pokey apartment in a town an hour’s drive from a city?
And what if you are in Dublin and single (to be fair, you already have enough to deal with, and then throw renting into the mix), does that mean you have to save 150% of your disposable income in order to buy a shed in the Leinster commuter belt? And can one person even save €150% of disposable income (as I said, I am not very good at Maths). And what if both sets of parents give the couple money, how much then do they have to save? Bonus question - can you even save if you are single and renting in Dublin? (These could be very good and practical maths question on the Leaving Cert, while also scaring the shite out of the teenagers).
One tweet, so many questions. And as I looked through the quote retweets, one caught my eye - “Couples, couples, couples….single people don’t even get a look in”. At last, I thought, someone else who feels like I do.
I brought this topic up with my single friends recently, who, like me are saving to be first time buyers on one salary. They have all noticed this wording and exclusion and it’s made them feel tired, fed up, angry and invisible. We’re working hard in our jobs, battling the gender pay gap, and saving whatever we can, and yet we know we cannot compete against two incomes, but we are still trying to be part of the mortgage club. So why are we not included in the narrative?
Now, let’s be clear that it is shitshow for everyone, couples and singles, who are trying to get on the property ladder. Property prices are increasing every day and it's freaking us out. Parents are almost expected to give lump sums towards a deposit. People with children already have a mortgage with childcare costs. And that is just for starters. It is a shitstorm out there for us all.
But the tipping point for single people happens when someone decides that the vocabulary must constantly refer to couples and families. You can't open a newspaper, read a report, walk past a billboard or open Instagram stories without being hit in the face with couples and mortgages. So I ask, and I am genuinely curious to know - how have the single people been removed from this conversation, and what can we do to change this narrative?
Banks, advertising, estate agents, policitians.
My theory is that the unattached are deemed by banks to be undesirable and poor customers (literally) with our measly little mortgage, so why waste money selling to us, when you can sell to high earning couples with ‘big jobs’ in demand of ‘big mortgages’, surely they must be more lucrative? (I don’t work in banking but ultimately it’s about margins and profit, isn’t it?) For estate agents, bigger houses mean a bigger sale price and a bigger commission. It’s just business really.
But it’s not only the housing industry that ignores single people. Have you ever noticed that politicians (on both sides of power) have an obsession with seeing how many times they can cram the words ‘couples’ and ‘families’ into their soundbites when discussing housing? It was nauseatingly bad in the run-up to the General Election, so much so that if it were a drinking game, we’d all have been permanently locked. But I have a vote too remember, and it would be a wise move to be more inclusive and broaden the vocabulary.
Also, there is some sort of a traditional element, something that society can’t let go of yet. I don’t know enough about this one, but houses = couples and families, and it just rolls off the tongue without a thought.
And then there’s that dreaded phrase, “a working couple would need a combined income of €150,000 to qualify for a mortgage of XX” which drives us all demented when it makes an appearance. Depending on what circles you move in, you might read that and think - “two people on €75,000? Yeah I know a lot of people like them with decent jobs, fairly normal, what’s the big deal?”. Well it completely erases a percentage of the population who don’t fall into that category, and it hides just how penalised single people are because we simply cannot compete with two salaries.
In a very practical sense, this impacts where I can live, not just in terms of geography and location, but in terms of the dwelling. And yes, this is the same issue for everyone who is trying to buy, I know, but honestly, I am resigned to buying a shed on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere because I firmly believe that’s all I will get with my one salary and €2 mortgage. There will be no perfectly detached house for me if I want to live in an urban area - but hey I am unattached so that’s the deal right? I don’t get to live in a house in a city. I don’t get to have a garden or a driveway. I have to buy an apartment because of my one income. And pay a single supplement on hotel rooms (yes, this one really bothers me).
Just move to a cheaper location
And by the way, for anyone who says - move to the country, it’s cheaper there and you can get a house - I tried remote working in Clonakilty last year and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Walks on Inchydoney Beach and the Long Strand are lovely, but house prices there are extortionate, and I couldn’t get a GP even though I joined waiting lists for three GP practices. Realistically, the only way I could afford a shed in Clonakilty is if I won the national lottery, or one of the GAA ‘Win a House’ lotteries (but there are only so many of them you can enter when you are saving 150% of your disposable income for a deposit).
An 'income of €150,000'
However, what if media reports used a neutral phrase instead of a relationship-centric one? Recently, I read one article which made my day just by saying ‘an income of €150,000 is required for a mortgage of XX”. and I thought to myself - finally! Someone did it. It's just a small change in wording, but it meant a lot to see this inclusive phrase, while also shining a light on just how far out reach a lot of property is for one person.
So how do we go about getting this as a standard phrase in reports and discussions? Set up a lobby group? Give out in Instagram stories and tweets? Write a blog?
All we need is a dedicated banking official and a cute red brick house
And then there are the TV ads. I don't know what we can do about them, but they seem to be pissing everyone off. For me, they are a very solid slap across the face, shouting that you are not the target market as the ads always feature either young couples with no kids, or couples in their late 30s / early 40s with kids (and perhaps a parent that they put in a granny flat).
I especially think of that ad where the young woman is out running and she sees the house of her dreams. A neat, 3 bed, red brick house with a little tree out the front in a small square garden and a mint green door. A 3 bed house, mind you! Not a pokey 2-bed apartment or a shed on the side of a mountain. Notions or what. “Did you see it”, she says into her phone, her breath appearing in front of her as stares at the house with a big smile. No wonder she is smiling. Not only does she have a partner, but she also has a dedicated banking official with her every step of the journey. Daytime, nighttime, meeting in cafes. Always there working tirelessly to get the deal done (and a decent commission I wonder?). And it turns out that it takes one woman and two men to get that mortgage for the cute, 3 bed, red brick house.
Truth be told, it took me about two months to realise that the banking official was not her partner and that she was not cheating on him with the other man who answered the door at the end of the ad, who was indeed her partner. I think it was when she put her hand on the banking official’s shoulder when she walked into his office and their late-night phonecalls that confused me as to the nature of their relationship. This could also be a question on the Leaving Certificate, but which paper though, I don't know?
How about putting people like me in the ads?
So why don’t these ads show people like me? I’m 40 years old, single, living at home with my parents in Fermoy, Co. Cork. In November 2020 I stepped away from my own business and started interviewing for in-house roles as an employee. It was my only option as I must show consistent income and savings to keep the banks happy for the mortgage application. It wasn't an easy decision and I arrived at it after availing of financial coaching through the Network Ireland mentoring program and a lot of soul searching. Thankfully, it has all worked out very well as I got my ideal role with a great company, working with a fantastic team where remote working is standard. It is a very nice silver lining to a tough decision.
I’ve also kept my business but scaled it down to a very small side-hustle, mostly doing the odd webinar and keeping my online LinkedIn school ticking over. I was made redundant suddenly in 2016 and it left a big impression, and by keeping my own company it functions as a plan B giving me security in case the worst happens again. It doesn’t generate a second income, dividing tax credits is messy, and if there is any little profit, corporation tax takes any joy out of that. But it’s a security blanket and I worked hard to build up a strong brand in the area of LinkedIn training and I still really enjoy helping jobseekers, students and sales professionals get to grips with LinkedIn. As I have learned, sometimes people just need a helping hand to enable them to move ahead in their life.
But the mad thing is that my story isn’t unique. After I announced my new role on LinkedIn, five female connections got in touch with me, all in the same boat - self employed consultants considering going back in-house as employees for financial security. Some were saving to be first time buyers and had their businesses wiped out by the pandemic. They wanted to know how I went about getting a role and what it was like being an employee again. And I am seeing this happening more and more across my network, quietly but definitely a growing trend. If I were a bank, I’d be one step ahead and exploring this new customer segment and reflecting them in my advertising - just saying.
So I may not be like the young woman with her eye on the red brick house and a banking official beside me every step of the way, and a partner with a decent second income. And I may not fit the desired customer profile of a high earning couple. However, I am taking on this big task by myself. I am saving and one day I will be getting the keys to my own place. I will join the mortgage club and start my repayments.
I'm being brave and I am backing myself. And I ask, why can't the vocabulary evolve to reflect that and include all of the unattached people out there doing the same thing?
We matter. We exist.