Sunday, 1 April 2007

Flats for sale

The fashion for apartments is still all the rage in Belfast (and Northern Ireland generally). The Titanic Quarter will have heaps of them and so will St Anne's Square. All over the city they are still sprouting everywhere like mushrooms. But personally, having lived in three flats in London, I wouldn't want to live in one again.

The fact is that apartments are more in the builders' interests than the occupants. The builders make shedloads of cash packing the maximum number of people into the smallest possible space, while the residents are always at the mercy of noisy neighbours, hopeless management companies and runaway service charges. And probably you don't have your own garden or a permanent parking space either. But the builders can get away with it because the soaring property prices (the fastest rises in the UK) mean that flats are now the only affordable option for a lot of first time buyers.

By selling our ludicrously overvalued flat in London, we were able to buy a house in Belfast outright so we finally escaped the mortgage millstone as well. Now we have complete control over the maintenance of the house, we have a biggish garden, we have one adjoining neighbour who is never a problem, and we have plenty of parking space.

Flats are falsely glamourised as being compact (i.e. small) and easy to look after (i.e. small), with all the tedious maintenance taken care of by someone else. But the rosy image doesn't necessarily live up to the reality. You may very well find out the hard way that in a block of flats none of the residents care very much about the other residents, and expect to lead their own (sometimes raucous) lives regardless of anyone else's well-being. If you make a polite protest about someone's selfish behaviour, you may get a very impolite response.

I remember an occasion in London when I complained about the constant noise from the flat below, only to find my car tyres let down the next morning. The downstairs neighbours at another flat had to be prosecuted and fined by Environmental Health before stopping their all-night, drug-fuelled parties.

I think there should be a strict quota on the number of flats allowed to be built, with a presumption that the majority of new-builds are houses with all the civilised qualities they imply. In my opinion, flats are strictly last-resort accommodation for the desperate, the deaf and the debt-ridden.

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