“Buying A Flat Was The Biggest Mistake Of My Life”

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
In 2017, 29-year-old Sophie Bichener made what she describes today as “the biggest mistake” of her life. Did she break up with the love of her life? No. Did she take the wrong job? No. She fulfilled what, for many people her age, is little more than a pipe dream: she bought a flat of her own.
“Officially a homeowner,” she captioned a photo of her beaming and standing proudly in an empty home with keys in hand on Snapchat. 
“Getting on the property ladder was the best day of my life,” she explains, “but in the months and years that have followed it is just one thing after another and I know I’ve made a huge mistake. I am now trapped and taking medication for anxiety.” 
Sophie earned around £50,000 a year in her job in marketing. She had been saving for years and was able to buy her £200,000 flat because of that and a small inheritance from her grandmother.
Britain is now the “property-owning democracy” envisioned by Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative forbears. The overall homeownership rate is 65.5% but, for younger people, it is far lower at just 41% according to the English Housing Survey. For younger generations, though, the dream is statistically less likely to become a reality. It’s now thought that as many as one in three young people will never own a home of their own. To put that statistic in context, it accounts for approximately 14 million 20 to 35-year-olds. Call them what you want - Generation Rent, the Jilted Generation, millennials - one thing is for sure: Britain’s crisis in affordable, accessible housing has defined the salad days of millions of people. And as house prices continue to rise (in no small part because of deliberate inflationary policies put in place by the current government), it will likely shape their futures, too. 
Sophie, then, overcame the odds faced by her generation. She escaped the private rent trap and completed Britain’s equivalent of the American Dream by becoming a homeowner. It should have been the start of the rest of her life. But what she didn’t know on that day, exactly four years ago this month, is that, far from homeownership being the answer to all of her problems, it would all be downhill from there. 
Problems came to light shortly after Sophie moved in when it emerged that the flat she had bought in Stevenage, Hertfordshire was unsafe. She is one of the millions of people who are victims of the building safety scandal that has emerged in the wake of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire which claimed the lives of at least 71 people. The block that houses her flat is around 30m tall and covered in high pressure laminate (HPL) cladding. This is not the same type of cladding which aided the flames that engulfed Grenfell but it is also deemed unsafe. Her building also has missing fire breaks and, until recently, fire alarms that didn’t work properly. This means that, as things stand, Sophie is not safe in her home. There is a government fund for remediation work on buildings taller than 18m to fix building safety defects but it only covers cladding. Arguments rage about who should pay these bills: the government, the building owners (freeholders) or the companies who built them.

It is just one thing after another and I know I’ve made a huge mistake. I am now trapped and taking medication for anxiety. 

And so, Sophie, like thousands of leaseholders across the country, is facing life-changing bills for the rest of the work. “As things stand, I’m now paying around £1,500 a month on top of my mortgage,” she explains, sounding defeated. “£600 a month goes on the waking watch - that’s the guy we literally pay to sit and stare at our building to make sure it doesn’t catch on fire. Then we’ve just had a bill for £110,000 to make our lifts fire safe which is being split between the 73 leaseholders in the block.”
Once a dream home, Sophie’s flat is now a nightmare that she is trapped inside day in, day out. “I can’t sell it because it’s unsafe. I can’t rent it out. I can’t move,” she explains. “I’ve always been really careful with money. I’ve always put a few thousand pounds aside as a buffer in case something goes wrong but, in total, I’m looking at a bill of around £20,000 here and I don’t have that kind of cash. The only reasonable outcome here is that I take out some kind of loan.”
Sophie Bichener
If she does this, Sophie will be saddled with debt to make a home she no longer wants and wishes she’d never bought. She is being asked to pay for other people’s mistakes - those of the government and the company that built her block. Sadly, she is one of many people in this situation. The Labour Party has analysed figures from the New Build Database and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), finding that 11 million people in the UK in around 4.6 million flats could currently be living in homes affected by ACM and other unsafe materials (including but not limited to high pressure laminate (HPL) cladding, missing fire breaks and timber frames) identified since 2017.
The toll these financial worries and safety concerns have taken on Sophie’s mental health is immeasurable. “I’ve been prescribed medication for anxiety,” she says. “I’d never had anxiety ever before in my life. My symptoms are very physical. I struggle to breathe and feel like I have a tight chest, I get headaches and I want to sleep all the time. It’s all down to the situation that I and everyone else in my building is in.”
The Grenfell Tower fire was as tragic as it was preventable. Years later, it’s bad enough that people like Sophie are still trapped in unsafe buildings. The fact that they are facing financial ruin to make them safe on top of that is hard to comprehend. 
There have been countless debates in parliament about the building safety crisis. The government has rejected calls from Labour and about 30 rebel Tory MPs who called for them to meet the cost of repairs and recoup the money from property developers. Unless the government position changes, Sophie's future remains uncertain.
“You trust everyone in the process when you’re buying a property,” Sophie reflects. “Solicitors, mortgage advisors, surveyors, builders... everyone. But the building safety crisis has completely undermined that process. So many people, like me, are now in financial turmoil and it’s a ticking time bomb for mental health, financial health and the housing market. At the moment I’m feeling okay. I can talk about this and fight. But there have been dark times over the last year and I don’t know how long I can cope with this for."
The government estimates that there are 1.27 million leasehold households in residential buildings over 11m in height in the whole of England - and not all of these leaseholders will live in buildings that require the removal of unsafe cladding. A Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government spokesperson said:
“We understand many people are worried – that’s why our comprehensive £5 billion plan will help protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding on their homes."
“Government intervention does not absolve building owners of the responsibility to make their buildings safe. Where developers or contractors have undertaken defective work, building owners should take action to recover costs.”
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.

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