Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes

Social Commentary

Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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ollowing an unfortunate misunderstanding last year, a close friend of mine married a girl and found himself house-hunting in the city of Mumbai. I accompanied him because I’ve heard that’s what adults do – go looking for houses.  

The first flat we saw was in Traffic Lane, past Pothole Street, in the Too Far suburb. “Two minutes from mall(s),” the broker explained to us, aggressively honking his Activa at a pregnant lady who seemed to be setting up shop on the street, “one-and-a-half second to train station”.

We realised he wasn’t lying about the second part: The train tracks almost went through the flat, and the smell of shit overpowered the 20 agarbattis the neighbours had lit at the entrance. It was the kind of place you’d expect to encounter the ghost of a baby who died in the 1800s. “Gothic architecture,” broker bro called it.

The sole light source in the corner of the 1BHK was, at the time, covered by three planks of wood. The landlord beamed with excitement, “Sunlight, full day-night, sunlight”. My friend responded enthusiastically, “Yes, I love sunlight, too”. Around the corner from sunset boulevard was a toilet that looked like it was home to a notorious rat king who didn’t want to be disturbed. Perpendicular to this was a kitchen space that made even the five-foot-nothing broker look like a giant. He towered over the stove: “Can make pasta also here.”

My friend, who has always been a simple person, was visibly excited by the prospect of settling down in this Gothic apartment. So, at a fair price of only ₹2.25 crore, he and his wife moved in. That’s a little short of the kind of figure you hear people made in a defence or telecom scam, but apparently it is also the true value of a Gothic apartment. My friend, or “the guy who lives in Too Far Suburb” as I now know him, was apparently willing to slog all through life at a dead-end job to be able to afford it.  

The more I thought about this day, the more I realised that I could never bring myself to do something as vacuous. I don’t know of many young folks today who don’t think of buying houses for a variety of reasons. For one, the real estate market is super inflated, especially in the cities. Then, several of us have grown up with the idea that we have to follow our dreams and passions, and live from paycheck to pink slip. But we’re able to do it with the comfortable knowledge that our parents EMI’d their way through life so that they could build houses for us – what’s the point of owning another? The rent economy also frees up so many of us: If we don’t like/grow bored of an apartment or an area, we always have the option of moving on. And that’s the heart of what (a privileged subset of) my generation is good at: We do moving on really well.  

As for me, there are a number of ways I can think of spending ₹2.25 crore and I can say with utmost certainty that none of them involve taking a rickshaw to Too Far Suburb. As things go, buying a house in this space is basically selling your soul to the devil, only your devil carries two cellphones and takes a giant fee, and your reward is a close-up view of the vada pav guy outside the train station from your bedroom.

" After a quick calculation, I realised it will take me 1,000 months of living hand-to-mouth to be able to afford a house in the city."

I wonder how we shifted to this way of thinking only in the span of a generation. Because things were more than a little different for our parents.

Back then, owning a house was a necessity. A “kiraye ka ghar” was something to be embarrassed about; our parents were taught that rent was money poured down the drain. They’d work for years – scrimping, saving, juggling – trying to afford an education for their children and bleeding EMIs for whatever a real-estate agent thought their houses were worth. Some, like my parents, pay an EMI to this day for a ground-floor apartment in a colony that believes potted plants take up too much parking space, and have no regrets. Because for the city-dwelling middle class, buying your own apartment in a gated colony was a sign of security, and prosperity, no matter how many used condoms are thrown out of the sixth floor on your doorstep. (Buy a dustbin already, Mr Patel).

For millennials, whose parents did the scut work, that sign of prosperity already exists, so they don’t need to strive for it.  

Younger people are slowly starting to realise that no one in their 20s can really afford the house of their dreams, and dreams are in fashion these days. Besides, current housing rates in the city of Mumbai are basically a poster of a slimy guy holding up a gun and saying, “Give me all your money.” If you think this is an exaggeration, read this account of a guy who actually took  laser area calculator to find the floor area of the house being sold, and found out that most builders who claim to have a 25 per cent attributed to super built-up area actually have 40 per cent mark-up! Which means that the houses are even smaller than the brokers’ shite claims. Great, where do I sign up?

Despite whatever Facebook may say, the average age of Indian kids getting married is increasing. More people are waiting until they’re in their late 20s or early 30s before settling down. Jobs are progressively more esoteric and cursory (waiting for the day I meet a professional avocado toast-Intagrammer). More millennials than ever value unusual experiences: A recent survey suggests 49 per cent of Indian millennials live at home with their parents, 43 per cent of that figure plans to stay for three years or more, and 12 per cent having no plans to ever leave.

So even while our disposable incomes increase with our random jobs, the things we choose to spend our money on diversifies. Ask any millennial dancing away at, say, Khar Social: Spend a chunk of your money for the next 30 years on this 2bhk apartment in this fugly suburb, or stay at home for a few years and visit Spain? Fleeting joy or permanent hell?

Even as I type this, I’ve had at least six real-estate developers trying to sell me “affordable housing” via text message. Earlier this morning at least four billboards announced a new set of affordable housing in the outskirts of the city (still somehow starting at ₹3 crore). I’m starting to wonder if people are aware of what the word affordable means. After a quick calculation, I realised it will take me 1,000 months of living hand-to-mouth to be able to afford that. Or… I could use it to buy land somewhere outside the city, where I can slowly build myself a palace over years, with a gazebo and a balcony.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, to get the house of my dreams in the city, I’ll probably have to befriend a man who goes by a mononym such as Raju, or Tipu, who is familiar with both the underbelly and the rules of real estate. Together we’d go out trying to evict old aunties in Bandra bungalows, before one day, he decides to do me a favour – and gives me that sea-facing house.

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