'It's a look at the tangle we're in with housing'

​In the new novel, ​A Beginner’s Guide To Breaking And Entering, the main character is an uninvited guest in the empty second homes of the super rich. It is a thriller, says author Andrew Hunter Murray, but one with an underlying critique of the housing inequality in the country.

Here is my favourite but least appealing habit: I snoop.

Not badly, of course, not criminally. But just to take a little glance into the houses up and down my street as I walk. What about the people who live in the really nice place up the road? Who’s got a huge collection of books, or really weird paintings on their walls? Basically, how do other people live?

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Go on, admit it. You do the same.

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In his novel A Beginner's Guide to Breaking and Entering, Andrew Hunter Murray explores the fantasy of helping yourself to a swish pad that's emptyIn his novel A Beginner's Guide to Breaking and Entering, Andrew Hunter Murray explores the fantasy of helping yourself to a swish pad that's empty
In his novel A Beginner's Guide to Breaking and Entering, Andrew Hunter Murray explores the fantasy of helping yourself to a swish pad that's empty

This habit of mine got a bit out of hand a few winters ago. It was the first lockdown, and there really was nothing to do but go for long walks on the cold nights. I live in London, and just as in every city, you often get very different kinds of house within a few hundred metres. The rule is: as long as you’re still moving, and not actively pointing and laughing, a quick peek is ok. Just to see what’s going on. And to be fair, a lot of people leave their curtains wide open and the lights blazing.

The next summer, I went on holiday to the seaside, and a friend told me they had a beach hut I could use. As I got into the key box and unlocked the flimsy padlock, I thought to myself: I bet I could have got in here without permission if I’d really wanted to. Now, a few years on from those two formative experiences, here we are: I’ve written a book all about breaking into other people’s houses.

I should stress that my hero, Al, is scrupulous about the kind of places he gets into. It’s never anywhere occupied. He only makes his way into second homes – the more luxurious the better – and he’s already worked out how long the owners will be away, to avoid bumping into them. He doesn’t steal anything, or smash anything up. He’s more of a Robin Hood-style parasite than an actual criminal, or so he tells himself. And he has a fine-tuned set of rules to keep him from getting out of trouble.

Needless to say, within a few chapters he and his friends are in more trouble than they could have imagined, and before long all Al’s carefully crafted rules are broken beyond repair.

The book – A Beginner’s Guide To Breaking And Entering – is about housing. It’s meant to be gripping, pacy and funny, but it’s also an attempt to step back and look at the tangle we’ve got ourselves in about houses, because this is a national disease across the UK. We watch shows about people with unimaginably nice homes; we look at property websites featuring more lovely places we may never live in; we watch people do mad franken-renovations to build their dream home, often losing their money and sanity in the process.

Those of us who own our homes are thrilled to have such a stable asset despite knowing the next generation are struggling. Those of us who don’t own yet feel like we’ve been cheated by prices which have rocketed up and away, taking all the affordable homes with them. Disclosure: I own my home, through good luck, and not without help from the Bank of Mum and Dad. But I shouldn’t have needed that help. Thanks to decades without enough building, houses have slowly transmogrified from somewhere practical for people to live in, to an unattainable dream for anyone not backed by family wealth. Eighty per cent of Scots say Scotland is likely facing a housing crisis. Wherever you look across the UK, things are scandalous. At the moment 10,000 Scottish children are growing up in so-called ‘temporary’ accommodation, which is often unsanitary and unfit; in some London boroughs it’s one child in ten.

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This is the mad, unsustainable situation Al has been forced to find his own unique way out of. And he’s got plenty of places to play with. He might try properties owned by offshore companies (from 2005-15, the value of property in England and Wales acquired by offshore companies based in tax havens was £170 billion.) He might try long-term empty homes (Scotland has 50,000, while England has 650,000 empty homes and 300,000 more second homes, known as ‘furnished empties’). He might – as he often does – try the empty homes of the very wealthy, who often own multiple homes depending on which time zone they feel like being in.

But along with all the fun in the book – and I promise there is plenty of fun, including high-stakes government machinations, sinister goons and a lot of money-laundering – it’s also a sneaky attempt to try and say: look, this system we’ve somehow ended up with doesn’t work for anyone.

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It obviously doesn’t work for young people who have to spend a crippling proportion of their income on rent. It doesn’t work for the rest of the economy, which would otherwise be able to get some of the cash young people are currently spending on all that rent. It doesn’t even work for older people, who might have a big cash asset to help them in retirement but who also might well not. Across the UK older people often end up trapped in their current homes for want of suitable alternatives. And it doesn’t work for the government, which has to pay huge amounts of money in housing benefit to help people who are often in work, but work that doesn’t pay enough to cover exorbitant housing costs. Except for a lucky few, the system doesn’t work.

The answer to all of this is to build several million more houses, which is going to be very difficult. But it would be even more difficult to keep the awful, counterproductive, non-solution we live with every day now. Ideally Al wouldn’t have had to start on his life of (really very minor) crime, because he’d have had a nice affordable flat where the landlord couldn’t kick him out at a moment’s notice.

I’m running short on space, but before I end, here’s one final quote about housing. “There was never a time when rooms were harder to get, or rents so high, or competition so keen among work-people to get houses. They compete against each other for houses as their masters compete for trade… they underestimate the number of their children so as to improve their chances; they will take a house, no matter how insanitary. Those who intend to leave will levy blackmail on those who want to come in. With all this going on, landlords can well-nigh get any rent they want.” It’s from a book called No Room To Live. And when were those modern-sounding sentiments expressed? Er, 1900. In the 120 years since that, Britain entered a spell of mass ownership and, worryingly, it now seems to be coming out the other side.

Al’s life – living in unimaginably beautiful second homes without ever paying a penny in rent – is a fantasy. (At least, it is until people start following him and trying to bump him off.) But I hope that between all the fun, there’s a glimmer of an even deeper fantasy – one where all of us have secure, decent housing that doesn’t cost the earth. If we manage that, and we finally feel secure in our own homes, we might even stop peeping through our neighbours’ windows.

​A Beginner’s Guide To Breaking And Entering by Andrew Hunter Murray is out now in hardback, published by Hutchinson Heinemann, priced £18.99