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Why millennials are obsessed with Homes Under the Hammer

Why millennials are obsessed with Homes Under the Hammer

The Times Online

The property auction show depicts a fantasy world they crave to join but can’t get into

Millennials did not know that reading Harry Potter was preparing them for the property market.

The books depicted a fantasy world they craved to join but could never get to. Now they get much the same experience as adults by watching TV shows about house-buying.

Yes, there’s a lot of love for the shimmering sleek dreams of Grand Designs, the platonic romance of Kirstie and Phil and watching literal escapism to the country, but Generation Rent has a peculiar favourite show. The question is, why are so many millennials watching Homes Under the Hammer?

The show garners about 1.5 million viewers per episode and no one loves it more than the millennial. According to YouGov, more people aged between 21 and 38 like the show than they do Killing EvePeaky Blinders and Game of Thrones.

For those unfamiliar with BBC One at 10am, the show’s format begins with a hellish property that has apparently been maintained by the characters from Withnail and I or The Inbetweeners on their first stag do. These range across the country, from damp and musty mid-terraces in County Durham to graffiti-covered bedsits in Wolverhampton. Someone buys the hovel of their choice at an auction, renovates it and then we (usually) end in the paradise of the finished product and discover its resale value. It is real estate programming’s answer to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the unlikely object of devotion for people aged 35 or under, perhaps watching in their childhood bedroom where their landlord still does their laundry.

Why does something so mundane command such support? Is this, in fact, a budding generation of property developers?

“No,” says diehard fan Henry Salmon, 32. “I have no intention of buying a property at auction.” He’s representative of his peers. I find just one person who has actually been to a property auction, while another views it as a barely tangible dream.

Grand Designs and Escape to the Country: those properties will never be obtainable,” says Tristan Rogers, a 31-year-old games designer. “But I can imagine scraping together enough money to bid at an auction for a property and think, ‘I could get a bargain here. Sure, it doesn’t have a roof, but it’s still technically land.’”

Yet even such lowly aims remain remote, so why are they watching the show? It appears the obsession started not in a search for knowledge but in not having anything better to watch. Homes Under the Hammer began in 2003, just in time for the eldest millennials to become undergraduates. Ben Mepsted, a 31-year-old sales manager, says: “It’s ideal when you’re a student because it’s on roughly at the point that you get up.”

What started as a hangover cure, however, has had lasting appeal. “There’s something inherently quite interesting in watching somebody do a house renovation,” he says. “Especially when you can sit at the end and go, ‘I wouldn’t have picked those tiles.’”

It’s not just judging others’ poor decor. The show also provides Generation Renters with something sweet as they watch homeowners: schadenfreude. A vintage edition of Homes Under the Hammer features a project that has taken so long to complete that the presenters change halfway through the episode.

Emma Skinner, an actor who has watched the show since her early twenties, relishes it. “The buyers always overspend and the project normally takes far longer than planned,” she says. “It’s very entertaining to see others suffering because of their lack of experience.”

Skinner has benefited from watching the show for almost two decades. A year after it premiered she even went to an auction in her native Aberdeen only to be outbid on some flats. But the show educated her in other ways. “I rented for about 15 years, so to see how estate agents price a property gave me the confidence to barter when trying to rent,” she says.

Some of the appeal is more ironic. The presenters have cult status, from the ruggedly dishevelled property expert Martin Roberts to the inexplicably present former Aston Villa striker Dion Dublin. Then there is the music.

Everybody mentions the on-the-nose soundtrack as a highlight. Salmon, a trained musician, has a particular ear for it. “I don’t know who picks the music, but they are an absolute genius,” he says. “They obviously have the best laugh.” For example, on a recently broadcast episode the discovery of dangerous Japanese knotweed in a small Chatham back garden is greeted with the Jaws theme tune and then by Junior Murvin’s Bad Weed, a reggae song that, to put it mildly, is not about potential damage to retaining party wall structures.

Despite affectionate mockery, the show has lasted and lasted; 1,498 episodes cannot come about through eccentricity and schadenfreude alone. Something deeper is at work. The show is telling cash-strapped millennials that they have a chance.

The words “aspirational” and “optimistic” are frequently mentioned. The feeling is summed up by Dan Wiseman, a 32-year-old tech entrepreneur. He got into Homes Under the Hammer a little while after becoming interested in property when he was 13 and now has a portfolio of properties (though hasn’t dared buy one at auction). He watches the show not for knowledge but for encouragement.

“It’s the dream of a better life,” he says. “In modern times you can feel like you don’t have much control over your life, so to watch a programme where you’re literally rebuilding it and improving it is quite profound.”

This profundity can be found at 10am every morning. “Followed by Escape to the Country at 11am on the Home Channel,” adds Salmon. “For the purist.”

23 October 2020
Jack Blackburn - The Times