Six Years of Living in Substandard British (Student) Housing

Inevitably, there comes the point where you wish to complain about British plumbing to your fellow Germans or Italians or Romanians behind your hosts’ back. The time-honoured opening move for this conversation is to raise the enigma of the double taps. The British, you see, do not seem to know about mixer taps, insisting instead on two taps, one giving scalding hot water, the other freezing cold. This is one of the few instances in practical life where one solution is simply inferior in any respect—there’s no instance where two taps can do what a mixer tap can’t. Still, one finds separate taps installed even in renovated or modern homes, where neither tradition nor price can justify them.

There’s more wrong with the taps as well. Often the taps have insufficient clearance, both vertically and horizontally, from the wash basin. This means that you must wash your hands by holding them close to, sometimes really pressing them against, the ceramic of the basin. The experience is uncomfortable. Of course you can clean your hands; but it feels awkward, unsatisfying, suboptimal, as if someone slightly incompetent had designed the whole experience.

If taps were their only weakness, that could be written up as one of the many British eccentricities, to be weighed against the country’s many advantages. But the inconveniences accumulate, and the enigma deepens. Whether it’s windows, doors, furniture, plumbing, heating, kitchens or stairs, everything always feels slightly sub-standard. Almost all foreigners I’ve talked to notice and complain.

British people, of course, also incessantly complain about the housing market. Many of these complaints are directed against high prices or rents, especially in London, and the lack of new homes. These complaints aren’t wrong, but they miss the many other ways in which the British housing stock is simply awful. Even setting price aside, British standards on comparable levels—e.g., for student housing, or a semi-detached middle-class home—seem lower.

It’s useful to highlight some of the peculiarities of British housing. The British door producers’ lobby, it seems, has done an excellent job at convincing the British people that houses need many doors, especially fire doors. In different houses I’ve lived in, it might be three doors to the bathroom, four to the kitchen, five to the living room, six to the outside. This separates the house into tiny, lightless compartments, and makes moving through it an obstacle course. Not only are there too many doors, but they are low-quality as well: they slam, smash and squeak, they do not properly fit into their frames, they let light and sound through half-inches and inches of gaps.

And door handles! There’s no discernible pattern to British door handles—you pull, push, twist, turn, or combine several of these motions to hopefully make the door open or close properly. Some house doors look like scarred war survivors, multiple generations of now-defunct locks interspersed, with a depressingly ugly Yale lock the consensus solution for now. So even opening and closing doors, while doable, often turns out to be a surprising challenge in British houses. (Then there’s the one time I couldn’t leave the house, because the door wouldn’t open.) You might think that these basic crafting tasks would have been perfected by now, especially by a country which managed to have a world-spanning Empire; but weirdly they haven’t been.

Where the door salesmen lobby seems to have been quite effective, their success seems to have come at the expense of the window sellers. The British surely must be keen fans of the outdoors, because their windows might as well not be there. This is a standard observation amongst Germans coming to the United Kingdom, and almost too boring and obvious to raise in conversation, but it doesn’t make it any less valid. A never-ending vision of badly fitting windows sitting in their rotten wooden frames, so flimsy that strong winds can move the curtains—that could be a German engineer’s nightmare, or a cross-country train ride across Britain.

I’ve never seen mould in (comparably rainy) northern Germany: it was a rumour known only from documentaries about dodgy landlords exploiting the poor. It  came as a nasty surprise to find that most British houses I’ve lived in had some dampness problem or other. If the British were to take the Biblical command to tear down houses inflicted by mould seriously, only city destruction on a large scale could save them. Similarly, I realised, you could have pests—ants, bugs, bees, wasps, squirrels, mice, dead(!) rats—in your house, and only more exotic ones like badgers or giraffes would be genuine surprises.

The list of complaints can be prolonged. Floors are wooden, creaky and uneven, staircases are too steep and narrow and their handrails would sometimes menacingly sway, bathroom locks are antiquated and need coaxing to work, the heating gives a non-stop puckering noise, the electric heater meant to cover over the central heating’s weaknesses spontaneously bursts in flames, the hot water boiler doesn’t work reliably and has alarmingly limited capacities, toilets could fail to flush, taps drip and give curiously gurgling noises, you can burn yourself touching parts of your shower, electrical outlets are too sparse and in awkward places, springy mattresses are still the standard as if it were the 1980s, chairs have to be inspected before they can be trusted, everything is repaired by applying a new layer of paint to it. All of these I have experienced.

There’s also the simple issue of size. New British homes are amongst the smallest in Europe, a study finds. My personal experience supports this. British terraced houses, for example, always strike me as lacking at least a meter in width or depth, and a level in height (lacking either a basement or a third level). What’s sold as a “master bedroom” in the UK would just be a bedroom in most European countries. Living rooms, bedrooms, halls: they always feel too small or too narrow. Americans tend to notice this the most, as they’re used too much bigger homes, but it’s noticeable even to the continental Europeans. Indeed, the numerical differences in the study linked above are dramatic: 76m² floor space in the average British new home versus 109m² in Germany and 137m²—coming close to double!—in Denmark.

Even considered together, these facts do not make British houses unliveable. Indeed, the invidious fact about British housing standards is that everything is normally at 85%, that awkward part of the quality scale where you have reason for complaint, but your complaints can also feel minor and overly demanding in the larger scale of things. For this reason, you feel you cannot effectively share this experience, other than with fellow foreigners. You still feel, in the end, like a guest in the country, and it feels rude to raise the issue with other British people. Many of them also simply do not see what you and your fellow foreigners perceive so clearly. They develop, for example, a plumbing-related false consciousness in which two taps come to be seen as normal and even preferable, and they have lots of flimsy stories to tell which justify the double tap. They listen politely as always to your complaints, but you have a feeling that most of your observations get put in the category of weird views foreigners have, or (in the German case) as a stereotypical obsession with “efficiency”.

It’s even worse where your complaints matter, because you’re effectively rightless as a tenant, especially if you’re a student. If your German flat’s hot water stopped working in winter (as it did for me in Britain, repeatedly), there would be powerful tenants’ associations giving you advice; there would be developed case law describing similar cases and normally judging in favour of tenants, and most importantly, you would have various rights—for example, to unilaterally deduct from the rent you pay unless the issue is fixed.

Nothing comparable seems to exist in the United Kingdom (though tenants’ legal position in Scotland seems to be slightly better). A private landlord deducts—as happened to my housemates and me once—close to a thousand pounds from our deposit for mostly imaginary infractions, and there is little we are able to do. Exploitative letting agencies try to take money where the landlord hasn’t already. Councils squeeze the market for students even more by limiting the number of HMO licenses they give out. These experiences reflect small structural injustices, but they’re injustices nonetheless. It’s not just that Britain has a quantity and price housing crisis; it also has a quality and rights crisis for those who rent.

Through all this, one cannot shake the pervasive feeling of the 85% standard (or, in The Wire terms, the forty degree day). Many things are just not up to par. They just about work, on the level where your landlord (normally) fulfils their duties, but you never fully and comfortably feel at home. Even in happy moments, there remains a nagging feeling at the corner of your consciousness that the place you live in would be nicer and larger (and either way, cheaper) if this weren’t Britain. Here’s a scene from Orwell’s 1984 that expresses a similar sentiment:

[Winston] meditated resentfully on the physical texture of life. Had it always been like this? Had food always tasted like this? He looked round the canteen. A low-ceilinged, crowded room, its walls grimy from the contact of innumerable bodies; battered metal tables and chairs, placed so close together that you sat with elbows touching; bent spoons, dented trays, coarse white mugs; all surfaces greasy, grime in every crack; and a sourish, composite smell of bad gin and bad coffee and metallic stew and dirty clothes. Always in your stomach and in your skin there was a sort of protest, a feeling that you had been cheated of something that you had a right to.

There’s of course much more wrong with Winston’s society than an uncomfortable canteen. (The scene comes early in the book, when Winston hasn’t yet fully articulated what is wrong with the dystopia he lives in.) Indeed, the main difference is that modern Britain is in many ways an enjoyable country with many great attractions, and also some breath-taking architecture and cities. But a vague uneasiness with the “physical texture of life”, specifically with houses and furniture, has been a constant companion when I lived in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps this is the inevitable experience of student life (though I never experienced anything close to this feeling during my undergraduate). Perhaps it’s just an instance of cultural differences in preferences and priorities. Perhaps my experience reflects the subjectivities of a particular place and time, or the particular awfulness of the Oxford housing market and housing stock. I genuinely hope so. No one deserves the 85% I’ve experienced.

Edit. I should add that this post wasn’t meant as an objective evaluation of all British housing, nor do I think that other countries’ housing is flawless. (Perhaps the Winston feeling is universal when you’re a student.) I’m also happy to accept that British tastes differ, and I mean to pass no judgement in that respect. The post is meant as a subjective recounting of six accumulated years of experience, which hopefully resonates with others who have felt similarly—but not all will have made the same experiences.

Posted on: 2 Comments

2 Responses

  1. Carl says:

    And the carpets, my God, those bloody disgusting carpets everywhere…

  2. J.L Walter says:

    You’re absolutely right.
    The terrible system of building new homes we have has meant that for too long there has been no motivation to build better housing, as we are thankful for what we get and fight amongst ourselves to try to win the housing.
    Hopefully we will replace it with something that allows us to build enough housing, but I fear the entrenched landlords, landowners (and people who don’t know any better protecting those people), will manage to prevent it. We don’t build tall enough, we just get crap fake towns and fake villages in the middle of nowhere because no one was there to protest it.

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