The issue of our generation

26-06-2005

"Property is the issue of our generation," a friend of mine said the other day as we were discussing tiles and door fittings. And it suddenly dawned on me how right he was. Almost everybody I know is buying, building or renovating. It's like an epidemic.

Owning one's own home does not have a tradition in this country as it does in Britain or America. In the recent past (that is in the four decades of communism), very few people owned property - at least in cities. Most apartment buildings were state owned, having been nationalised - that is seized - from their owners by the communists. Although a lot of the houses were returned to their original owners after 1989, many have stayed in the hands of town councils.

The rent in about a quarter of all Czech households is controlled by the state, regardless of the financial status of the tenants. This fact creates a double standard on the Czech housing market and if you're not one of the lucky people enjoying a controlled rent, your monthly salary can be easily swallowed by a free-market rent. In that case it's better to buy because the mortgage payments are about the same as what you would pay to a landlord.

So everybody who can just about scrape together the down payment is buying. And that's where it all begins... dealing with banks, insurance companies, tax offices... As most of the older flats in Prague are in bad repair after decades of neglect by the state and pathetic DIY attempts by the tenants, they need to be turned into human dwellings once again.

Getting a construction permit involves dealing with the local council, the land registry, the national heritage office, the environmental authority, the fire fighters, chimney sweeps and a number of other authorities, depending on the location and state of the flat. Many of those will unashamedly ask for a bribe to speed up the lengthy process. The result is a pile of applications, extracts from various registries, certificates - you name it - and a lot of despair and frustration. But eventually, when you hope no more, you get "The Permit" and you can start building.

And the hassle begins anew. Everyone who has ever had builders in their house will know what I mean.

So these are things members of my generation talk about when they get together. It's not music, it's not literature, nor politics. The issue of the day is insulation, wall plugs, U-bends, rising mains, plaster, window fittings and mortgages. We seek advice from each other as we were thrown in the deep end and our parents don't know how to help. In many cases the only financial products they know how to use are saving accounts and often the only renovation work they ever did in their flats was a new paint every five years.

By refurbishing old flats my generation are still redeeming what was the communist regime's internal debt. We must only hope that some new generation of confiscators will not emerge one day and take the property away from us again as the Nazis and later communists did from our grandparents.

26-06-2005