A Pot of Gold or Not? Immigrant Property Ownership and Problems With Irish Landlords

We’ve always been cautious about real estate.  But, as newly minted immigrants, we, or at least I, heard the siren song of Irish landownership.  We’ve fought the urge, but for many immigrants, the idea of buying land, and buying into their new home is sorely tempting.  But is it a good idea?

As an immigrant, freshly resident in a “foreign” country, you’re desperate to come to grips with your new home, and have some tangible connection to the community. You see houses, buildings, businesses, farms, and such everywhere.  But they are all at arm’s length.  You have no physical stake, no sense of “belonging” or “place”.

Pretty soon you begin to imagine that it’s as easy as buying a place of your own.  You tell yourself, “Then I’ll be one of them.”  Sadly, stories abound of people who’ve lived somewhere for decades and are still thought of as being “fly-ins”, “from away”, or whatever the local pejorative happens to be.

When you add to this the bureaucratic and banking obstacles thrown in your way, it’s a wonder that anyone ever buys in another country.  Sure, there are legal instruments like the infamous 100-year leases sold to gringos in Mexico.  Though it may be “as good as” buying, to my mind, if buying real estate is supposed to make you a “local”, no lease scratches that itch.

“But, the market is down.”

“Real estate is cheap.”

“It’s a great time to buy.”

No. Really. It’s not.  If buying isn’t right for you emotionally or culturally, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is, it’s still a bad deal.  And you should never fool yourself into thinking that because you’ve forked over some money and signed a few papers, you will suddenly be “Irish”, or “Danish”, or “Sudanese”, or what have you. Eventually. Maybe.  But first you’re as likely to be seen as a real estate opportunist (if you bought cheap), or just a cultural carpetbagger.

For us, Ireland is a beautiful country, and I’d love to secure my own little piece of the countryside, but I realize now, that a place in the “country” here is even more of a cultural challenge than just buying a flat in Dublin.  The Irish countryside is a wholly owned subsidiary of Irish culture (just as all subsets of any culture are).  It resembles the culture in Ireland’s urban centers, but demands a unique investment all its own.

And, quite apart from the cultural and interpersonal investment you have to make to own property in Ireland, you must come to grips with Ireland’s rather fraught notions of landownership, long-term stewardship, and property management.

Irish Rant:

Okay, landlords everywhere are pains in the ass, and are generally money-grubbing wankers out to turn a buck.  I know that’s not universally true, but for the purposes of this discussion, and to lessen the deluge of “but that’s just landlords everywhere and not Ireland’s fault” comments headed my way, it’s best to just concede this, and further concede that I may simply have hit the bastard jackpot in our current rental situation.

But the reports I’ve received from other renters (immigrant and Irish) are that Irish landlords are among the worst.  Their willingness to settle for less ,  shameless lack of accountability, and their adherence to bad building practices (such as unhygienic split tap plumbing) because, well, ”that’s how we’ve always done it, and it works well enough”, is proof of something deeper festering under the surface. I’ve been told as much from the Irish.

The Irish are simultaneously thrilled at the notion of owning property, and really bad at it.  During the Celtic Tiger (as admittedly was the case in the U.S., and now in Australia, and other places), the notion of more is better, and there’s no end to how much we have and how much we can sell, was a cancer festering in the economy.  But on a tiny island, “there’s no end to how much we have” is a uniquely ludicrous and ultimately catastrophic state of mind.

That cancer, linked with Ireland’s primitive sense of stewardship and lack of experience planning and saving for the future conspired to put the economy in the tank.  As happens so often in Ireland, when entire classes of people who’ve never had access to property (or wealth and power/control of any kind) suddenly got it, rather than thinking long-term, they simply hoarded for themselves. Hence the shoddy construction, and landlords who don’t realize that property management requires you to fix things in a timely manner, and preserve the general state of your investment.

Now, many Irish have told me, we’re not good at being landlords because we’ve never been allowed to own land.  That’s crap. And it’s exactly the thing that holds Ireland back again and again.

The wealthy in Ireland have always owned land.  Granted, the poor haven’t.  And, yes, the Irish have a long and terrible history of oppressive foreign governance.  But you cannot tell me that their imperial masters held them down and beat the business ethics and right thinking out of them.  They can blame it on England, and the Vikings, and religion.  Given what they’ve been through, the Irish have certainly earned that.  But at some point that’s merely an excuse for bad behavior.

End of Rant

We love it here. But this is the Irish property culture we have to think long and hard about buying into.

In the end, immigrants must decide how important land is to them, and what, if anything, it says about them. And what will they be sanctioning and saying about the land?

Are you buying because you think it’s a shortcut into the culture?  If so, think again, and again….

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:

Why The Irish Like Being Ruled

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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5 Responses to A Pot of Gold or Not? Immigrant Property Ownership and Problems With Irish Landlords

  1. kathomeara says:

    Hey! Nice post.

    Yes, I’m an immigrant. Yes, I just bought a house. But because this is (long-term now) my home. I like the points you make about people potentially buying property just to fit in, I have not come across that myself but it’s interesting as it illustrates the lengths us foreigners are willing to go to, to fit in & be accepted.

    I rented an old Georgian house with 4 other students in Rathmines in 1996/97. We should have known the landlord was especially dodgy when he told us he’d only rent to students. When we viewed the house he assured me all the fireplaces were in good working order. When October came and we lit fires, the smoke came back in our rooms so I paid to have a chimney sweep out who told us all the masonry had fallen in and there couldn’t have been a fire lit in the house for 20 years. We told our landlord, who did nothing but provided one small space heater per bedroom. This was the legal minimum at the time. There were cracks in the bathroom (an addition) so that you could see outside.

    I am glad to be a homeowner now but only because its the right time for me. I agree with you – if it’s not a good purchase for you, it doesn’t matter if its a buyer’s market etc. and many in mortgage trouble now mightn’t be if they’d had that advice years ago.

    Take care, I look forward to your next posts!

  2. Cecelia McBride says:

    Great article Glenn, very good point, we can’t continue to play the victim as an excuse for bad behavior.

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