“How about the house?”, I asked Francesca every time we met for the last six week when she was bidding for the house of her dreams. “We bought it yesterday”, she said and laughed happily. “Let´s write about housebuying”, I proposed, glad to have found the topic of the week.
Later, I regretted this swift decision. Am I really qualified to write about housebuying? I never bought or built a house. Furthermore, I´m afraid I´m not typical German when it comes to houseowning. Till late in my teens I even didn´t know that private property of houses existed.
I grew up in a community where every house and all the land were state-owned. Don´t get me wrong. I didn´t grow up in the German Democratic Republic or any other socialist country of Europe. I grew up in free market “Wirtschaftswunderland” West Germany, in a community where the conservative party gained absolute majority in any election. Nothing was more remote to the minds of this hardworking people than ideas of collectivism and state run economy. Nevertheless,that´s how it was.
The story started in the 1920ies, when the village was still the property of the families living there. They owned the 12 farmhouses, the few acres of farmland, and the far more acres of woods. The wood payed off so well that they started to spend big money: they bought cars, smoked cigars and lived far above their means. When the financial crash came in 1929, they found themselves deep in debt and had to sell everything. From these days on, they lived in stateowned houses and worked in the woods as lumberjacks, the state being landlord and employer at the same time.
As late as the 1980ies, the government started to sell back the houses and to allow the building of new houses. That´s when private property of houses came back into the village and a war broke out about who gets the best piece of land to build a house. Till today, I can feel anger and resentment in my mothers voice when she talks about her neighbor who got what she considers to be the best building site.
When I write building site, I feel a shiver of excitement. From the Second World War till our days, the term Baugrundstück meant windfall money. Most of the people I know could only afford to buy a house because they inherited a Baugrundstück, and inherited it as the sole heir. Thus, they could sell it profitably and live happily hereafter. The unfortunate ones had to share the inheritance in an Erbengemeinschaft. As an Erbengemeinschaft consists of people who never can agree on anything, these poor souls still own a scrap of land but can´t get anything out of it. Francesca was lucky. Had she dealt with an Erbengemeinschaft, she would wait for her buying contract till Sankt Nimmerleinstag, the day that never comes.
But then, for a German, house building is much better than house buying. When we spent such a huge amount of money, we want the house to be custom made, planned according to our wishes from cellar to attic. Though this doesn´t mean that you will find a huge variation of styles in a housing development or Neubaugebiet. To build houses is highly regulated in Germany: local laws tell what sizes and shapes are allowed, and what materials should be used. Neighbours have to agree to your plans, as well as the Ordnungsamt or local council.
Given that Germans are born with a Bausparvertrag, the savings plan parents sign the day mother comes out of hospital, I was surprised to find that–according to polls–half of the population still lives in rented rooms. Even in the agegroup from 60 to 64 only 61 percent of the people own their house or flat. Am I more typical than I imagined?
In Germany to build a house means to settle down. Once, people own a house, their mobility equals nil. They stay, come what may come. When Germany´s capital moved from Bonn to Berlin, for more a than a decade people working for the government commuted every weekend 400 miles back to Bonn because they didn´t want to sell their house. So, people who like to move, like me, rather rent than buy.
Francesca never ceases to tell me that of course I can move when I have bought a house, as I can always rent it out to somebody else. My mind accepts her reasoning, but my stubborn German soul knows that I will never move again if I own a house.
As I haven´t moved for 15 years now, maybe it is time to buy a house?
Maybe next year.
For this year I will see what happens to Francesca. Last time friends bought a house that “of course, needed a bit a redoing”, they didn´t have one weekend off for six years.
The life of a houseowned can be hard.
Will this be another story?