A Dream Home In Ireland, It's Purely A Dream

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Our correspondent in Dublin is gripped by the new Irish dream of owning a home in Ireland, but feels the Celtic Tiger's bite.

By Breda Heffernan

Last Sunday morning my newspaper was delivered incomplete, leaving me distraught. I thumbed anxiously through travel, food and business supplements, but there was still no sign of the one section I crave. Glossy magazines, children’s comics…still not here! Like many other people my age in Ireland, I don’t own a home and haven’t even scraped together enough for a down payment. Nonetheless I’m fixated on the property pages.

Discussing property - its scarcity, cost and investment potential - has become a national pastime in these post-Celtic Tiger days. Depending on their economic status, everyone seems to have their own particular real estate fantasy.

Home in Ireland: Bono's neighborhood
Naturally, we all follow the real estate habits of the rich and famous. Celebrities in Ireland often find their appropriately lavish homes in Killiney, Dublin’s answer to Beverly Hills. Nestled on a series of steep hillsides above azure-blue Killiney Bay, this neighborhood feels more like a Mediterranean hideaway than a suburb of Dublin (just 30 minutes from the city center). Bono, The Edge, film director Neil Jordan and author Maeve Binchy all call this oasis of cool home. Enya, the reclusive singer and composer, lives alone in the 15th century Ayesha Castle which is worth in the region of €7 million. Style here is bespoke -- opulent but understated. Georgian and Victorian villas mingle with modern steel and glass cubist homes. Ten-foot-high gates are the norm here, not because of high crime rates, but to keep prying eyes like mine out. However, if you don’t have a hit record or own a movie studio, you can forget about enjoying the pretty beaches and waterviews (complete with lots of tall pine trees) in Killiney.

County Cork is a newer celeb favorite, though the locals aren’t always happy about it. A few years back, Jeremy Irons and his wife Sinead Cusack paid €2m for 15th century Kilcoe Castle, near Skibbereen. Irons, a fanatical history junkie, decided to paint it a shocking salmon pink, a color he said was “authentic” for the period and location of the building. His neighbors, expressing their opinions in various newspaper articles, seemed to view his work as a major eyesore.

Home in Ireland: Real People
At the other end of the spectrum, first time buyers are finding that Ireland’s new “ownership society” is pretty difficult to join. Thanks to the economic boom of the 1990s, the average house price in Dublin is now over €300,000, while the average worker earns only €27,000.

The solution: for the first time, we’re turning into a nation of commuters. People who work in Dublin are looking for homes in Counties Meath and Kildare to the west of the city, and Louth and Monaghan to the north. Small market towns like Longford in the Midlands are seeing an influx of residents the first time in over 200 years. And now, thanks to road improvements, even parts of east Clare are being touted as commutable distances to Dublin. It’s a lovely spot to live in, if you don’t mind spending five hours a day behind the wheel! Generally speaking, the Irish first time home buyer is finding he can own small three-bedroom home with patch a garden out back only if he’s willing pass a great deal of his life fighting through traffic to get to and from work (the houses are usually red brick or pebble dashed, with no personality at all). Of course, you can always stay in the city, and pay 950 Euro per month for a one-bedroom flat like I do in Christchurch, Dublin.

newsletter irelandDotcom Yuppies
Our new generation of “dotcom millionaires” has exacerbated the problem for people like me at the bottom rungs of the property ladder. Loaded with cash, they see property as the only safe investment in the midst of a turbulent stock market. Their favorite strategy is to slap down €400,000 on a luxury apartment in Dublin’s revamped Docklands, bring in a young professional tenant to cover the monthly mortgage payments (and then some), and watch the property’s value rise by 15 per cent every year.

And it’s not just happening in Dublin. Cork, Galway and even Limerick are seeing construction booms, with wealthy absentee landlords gobbling up much of the new housing stock. First time buyers are left just picking up the scraps.

I notice that when it comes to their own homes, the dotcom millionaires wealth does not translate into taste. Many of them have flocked to the posh area known as Malahide, north of Dublin. Here, prices for faux Regency and Georgian monstrosities start at €1.7m and go up to €2.2m. The architecture screams “fake,” but the homes include the all-important state-of-the-art kitchens and every cyber gadget imaginable. Finally, people in more refined Killiney have some other rich people to look down on.

A Summer Place
Summer homes have become so popular that the Government is considering a special tax on them to safeguard rural communities. Nowadays, one in every five new homes is either a “holiday home” or a home bought purely as an investment. Many are left vacant most of the year, while the natives of these scenic areas struggle to meet rising house prices.

Holiday homes Killarney going for a half a million Euro, while they can run even more in Connemara. The best properties in Clifden and Roundstone can fetch €750,000. The buyers come from Dublin and the east coast, as well as Galway and Britain. “Bargains” can be found further south in County Clare, where houses in Doolin, Liscannor and Lahinch can still be found for a mere €200,000.

According to Tralee auctioneer Eddie Barrett, the old adage of “location, location, location” has translated into “water, water, water.” “The key to pricing in this area,” he says, “is that if you want a house where you can smell the sea air, you can expect to pay 50 per cent more for it than for a house 5 miles inland, where you can still get a decent property for under €150,000.”

Home in Ireland: The Occasional Drop
Every now and then I read that the rich have stumble with their real estate investments. A guy in Westlife, and Irish pop group, splashed out €1.5m for a house. When he tried to sell it shortly after 9/11, the market value had fallen under €1m. Served him right! Of course, the man who bought it has put it back on the market, less than two years later, for €1.5 again. I guess it won’t fall into my price range any time soon.

But my search through the property pages goes on. In last week’s edition, I read that a garage in Ranelagh, one of Dublin's most sought-after neighborhoods, was the subject of feverish bidding at an auction. Boasting no bathroom, bedroom or any other home comforts, it went for €340,000. Maybe some day I’ll be able to afford a garage like that.

Breda Heffernan lives in Dublin.