As I write this the sun is hunched over Fort Jesus, casting its glare over the waters of Mombasa harbour. Soon it will slink between the crenulations and vanish fast, as the African sun is want to, precipitating the Old Town across the water from me to light up and the evening prayer calls from the muzzenims to remind us that another day has past.
Swallows, swifts or perhaps both wheel overhead, and the tide slowly retreats, as they both have for thousands of years, despite the human intrusion.
I’ve just come back from a swim in the harbour, which starts at the end of the garden I’m staying in, right opposite the heart of the Old Town. The water is clear, blue and refreshing – surprising given the industries and people that press against its edge.
A friend has lent me his house here as he heads to Nairobi to sell furniture he has made from old dhows. He is a wonderful, giggling Captain Jack Sparrow-esque man. The man Aiden Hartley describes as ‘Mud Prawn’ in his diaries.
He bought this plot of land for very little when it was wasteland, because it was the closest plot he could find to his beloved surf break. Now there is a multi-million dollar development that is pounding its foundations into the earth right next door and the haphazard house he built with his own hands and the half-acre plot it sits on is worth over a million dollars. He is faced with a quandary – whether to sell the plot and live for the remainder of his days off’ve the profits, or remain poor as he is, but with one of the most spectacular views I’ve seen of a city that bristles with life, energy and licentiousness. Fortunately he is angling for the latter, concerned that his love of a good party might result in him parting with the money rather too quickly and without the memories it deserves.
My sense is he loves this house. The interior is a-jumble of random pieces of his furniture. Crazy, funky and loved. Sadly it’s so hot my camera has steamed up, but these photos enable you to get the drift:
I write about this place because it’s hard to write about anywhere else when sitting here. I also write about this place because it reminds me that despite being in my 30s, I have not lived permanently anywhere (by permanently I mean longer than a few months) for a good few years. I’ve lived in rented accommodation with others, or at friends houses. Yet despite that, I am as happy as I’ve ever been.
We long for belonging and ‘an englishman’s home is his castle’ – yet I sense that if you can free yourself from this bond, you can be truly happy. For me, I’ve been able to live in a collection of wonderful places and enjoy indelible experiences these last couple of years. For my friend in his house, he has chosen to live where he loves, despite the accidental wealth he sits on. Yet I’ve seen others sweat to get together a deposit for a house, only to find themselves shackled to their property in mortgage repayments in the less desirable parts of London, resulting in lengthy commutes to their work.
Don’t get me wrong. Owning a property can be the most wonderful thing in the world. My current freedom is due, in part, to a owing a property and selling it before the crash. But one of the reasons I sold it was because I wasn’t financially free – all my money was tied up in the place.
Before you jump in to buy a place, make sure you can afford it, both in terms of your finances and your soul. Although you can make money if you time it right, you can also time it wrong – deeply wrong in the case of people with negative equity. Plus you have to furnish the place, fix it when it breaks and you’re tied to it. There’s a lot of intangible hassle that’s not calculated into the expenses people associate with buying. I won’t do a detailed financial breakdown, because it’s different for each of us – but before you leap, be realistic. Examine your true motivations. Is the money you ‘might’ make, worth the freedom you will loose?
As for me – for now I choose freedom.
Wall Street Journal: Your Home Isn’t the Nest Egg That You May Think It Is
New York Times: A Word of Advice During a Housing Slump: Rent
New York Times: Is it better to buy or rent? (graphical calculator)
The Motley Fool: The Worst Investment Ever
SmartMoney.com: Renting Makes More Financial Sense Than Homeownership
CNN Money: Stocks vs. Real Estate
Priced Out Forever: Renting vs. Purchasing