How To Live Mortgage Free was a six-part series presented by property expert Sarah Beeny for Channel 4. The show was designed to provide alternatives to traditional buying and selling because the UK market can be so expensive.
As a wannabe first time buyer I took notes. If you missed the show, this blog series is my recap of the case studies in each episode.
When I saw the programme, it looked unlikely that I would ever be able to save and borrow enough to buy a typical bricks and mortar home. I was earning a low five figure salary across two jobs while haemorrhaging rent in London. Prices were climbing quicker than I could save no matter how much I cut back or invested. I’ll go over how I overcame this and why I went the route I did at the end.
The other reason “alternative living” seemed attractive is because of the financial freedom it provides. Avoiding monthly payments and 25 or more years of interest can mean having a lot of disposable income. Or simply less pressure to earn as much. The adventurers on the show can either invest their surplus money and probably retire before middle age, or spend less time working.
Benefits to getting off the beaten housing path
Besides the savings!
- The design is under your supreme control
- You can learn DIY skills for life
- You can be as creative as you like; budget restrictions especially can make you more innovative!
- You get to recycle/upcycle
- You can spend time with friends/family doing something active
- If you are converting a small space you become less reliant on possessions (and can clear out anything you’re hoarding!)
You can achieve some of these things with a traditional property, but alternative living takes them to the nth degree.
Sarah says in episode one that we need to create 250000 homes per year to meet demand, so the ideas on the show are meant to be ways for individuals to solve the housing crisis. Developers might be building, but if you grew up somewhere rural and pricey like me, you probably can’t afford what’s being built. Same if you rent somewhere urban and pricey!
We could also go into a long debate about people owning houses with far more bedrooms than inhabitants or whether landlords are a help or a hindrance, but let’s focus on what we each have the most control over.
The grafters across the series proved that we can make a home whatever we want it to be when the traditional route isn’t calling our name. If you DO want to become a traditional homeowner, then I’ll be posting lots of blogs too on how that’s more in reach than some of us think, so subscribe for those.
Otherwise make yourself comfortable (and subscribe anyway for all the coming goodness on property and how to save more). The show featured a lot of solutions across six episodes, so you’ll want to read the whole series for maximum inspiration.
How To Live Mortgage Free Overview
Here were all the options from the whole series:
- Brownfield sites
- Tin churches
- Moored shipping containers
- Prefab house
- Ex-council homes
- Mobile homes
- Shipping containers on land
- Horse boxes
- Garden cabins
- House divisions
- Green belt land
- Agricultural land without permission
- Driveway builds
- Disused land
Unsure whether you have no choice but to go mortgage free? Then you should read this mighty trifecta to work out what you can afford:
How To Live Mortgage Free Episode One
First we’re covering these lightbulb moments:
Moored Shipping Containers
Disclaimer: If you sign up for a free trial or purchase via an affiliate link below, I earn a commission from the seller at no extra cost to you that might one day go some way towards covering the cost of producing lots of free content and hosting the blog etc.
Buy land: brownfield sites
Wait, isn’t land crazy expensive and the reason I can’t afford property anyway? Brownfield sites without planning permission are worth far less to the seller. Examples include former industrial works, like old petrol stations, factories, and offices.
The savings: Sites with planning permission cost five to six times more than land without. They sometimes need decontamination though, so you pay less upfront to allow for what the project might cost you after.
Case study: Annie paid £20000 for a site without planning permission and built a three bed tardis-like home for £75000. She designed it herself after taking an online course to avoid architects fees. She thinks she got planning permission by designing an eco house with a greenery roof that blends into the landscape. The eco-friendly features include an air source heat pump for warmth and a soakaway.
To do the same: Google “Brownfield land register” and the name of your local council for a list of sites. It’s not mentioned on the programme, but there’s such a thing as self-build mortgages. Unlike normal mortgages these give you some of the money from the mortgage so you can start building. They also don’t say whether the architecture course was included in the budget. (Online courses are often cheaper than offline study though).
Total cost: £95k with approximately 26% deposit
22000 people live in boats in the UK, and 10000 boaters live in London. Once you’ve paid for your boat, there is still a mooring cost, but this is cheaper than renting on land in most of the country. Sheltered marinas cost more e.g. It’s £30000 per year for a premium marina in London, but only £3500 for the same standard in somewhere like Lancaster.
The savings: Bee and Theo spend only £200 annually on wood and coal and £50-100 for gas cylinders depending on how often they oven cook their meals.
They bought their 26 year old boat for £15000 and spent £1000 doing it up. They used to rent at £600pm for a one bed flat in Birmingham. Theo still drives a van and Bee rides a bike to work (aff link). They still have a gas boiler for hot water and electricity. Water is free in their licence which costs them £600 each year.
How to avoid £100000 in rent
Case study: Kimberly spent £100000+ on rent because she was in a Highgate flat that cost nearly £20000 yearly. She saved up £18000 to buy a 100 year old boat.
She has to move every two weeks, but the cruising licence is only £15 weekly; this is typical for the UK.
The boat is 51ft x12ft giving 195 square feet of living space including a double bed, bath, kitchen, and wood burner. Kimberly didn’t want a washing machine and made a hole in the floor lined with steel instead of a fridge because it was cold enough under the boards.
Timescale: Six months to refurbish
The obstacles: Kimberly had £7000 to upcycle the inside, but spent £4000 on welding to secure and waterproof the wheelhouse. This meant she had to do the other work herself.
The show sent architect Max McMurdo to help because she had no experience building boats. Kimberley’s boat ended up in the dry dock after a survey revealed structural problems i.e. £2000 to fix the hull. Max helped her spend the last £1000.
He thought storage was tricky because the hull was so shallow, but he championed using under the floorboards as a wine cooler. Kimberley went back to work to pay workmen to raise the bedroom roof to the height of the main cabin.
The result: Kimberly made all her furniture from scratch including a toilet from a dining chair, and a sink unit from drawers and scrap wood (Aff links). She found a hob for free and even had space for a bath. She also made a sofa with storage underneath from found wood panels.
Total cost: £33000 vs the original budget of £25000, but Kimberly found the extra £8000 easily because she wasn’t paying rent.
If you’re unsure whether you could live on a boat full time, try staying on one via Airbnb to find your inner sailor.
How to live mortgage free step one: get a mortgage. Step two – hang on a frigging coco!
Erm…how do I pay my mortgage off early if I don’t have a mortgage?
I’m including this part of the recap as something to think about if you do get a traditional mortgage after all, or a self-build mortgage.
Case study: Orrell and Carla bought a three bed semi in London for £233000 in 2006 in North London. They borrowed £210000 then realised over 25 years this would cost them £400000+ to pay off.
Their income was circa £55000. Orrell worked for an energy company and Carla designed clothes part time. They saved moolah by staying in with their munchkins and shopping in cheap supermarkets. Regular overpayments of up to £3000 meant they cleared the mortgage in eight years.
How to save £148000 in interest
So…once you have your house, continue to save like a bear and overpay if you want to be mortgage free rickety tick. Here are other things a savvy soul could do to get rid of their mortgage:
- Use a mortgage broker to ensure you’re on the lowest interest rate
- Remortgage regularly to get the cheapest deals
- Consider an offset mortgage which pays off the mortgage from a savings account instead of paying you savings interest
- Take on a lodger, or rent out your home via Airbnb whenever you’re away
- Increase your income but not your lifestyle
The last one is easier said than done, but I have lots of blog posts on the way about how to earn and save more wherever you are in life. Subscribe at the bottom of this page for when those drop.
It seems odd to suggest ways to get rid of something most of us will spend a long time wishing for! But I agree with the principle on the show that if you do take on a mortgage, even to self-build, the idea of paying it off early can be very attractive indeed. It could save decades of interest. (Also, let’s take a collective moment to either laugh or cry over house prices in 2006).
Don’t want to live in a tin church? The principle here is to buy a property the banks won’t mortgage.
These buildings are made from unusual materials or lack kitchens or bathrooms (at first. By all means add them later. Apparently hygiene is socially acceptable or something).
Case study: Artist Nick bought a grade II listed tin church for £90000 in Faversham. It didn’t qualify for a mortgage because the construction is basically flatpack, although it had been standing for over 100 years. It is one of 100 Victorian tin chapels left standing.
The loophole: He raised the £90000 by selling a previous property that had been mortgaged. (There’s nothing to say you can’t find a cheaper building that doesn’t need a mortgage). His marriage failed mostly through working too much to pay his previous mortgage anyway. Anyone saving for a deposit in London might not think £90k is such a scary number.
Also, the main unheated nave is a workshop/gallery and he lives in the side chapel because it was too impractical to heat the larger space. He found a spiral staircase online so he could create an upstairs bedroom.
There’s potential with these kinds of properties therefore to make them pay for themselves by running a business out of part of the space (a shop/office without a lease!) Or you could split buying a property with someone else who is interested in converting the other part of the building. Regards the heating, just because this wasn’t economical to solve at first, doesn’t mean that situation has to be permanent,especially as energy efficiency evolves.
Total costs: £90k + including the cost of replacing the floor joists and installing hot water. Nick did the rest of the work himself.
To do the same: Tin churches are sometimes listed on property sites like Zoopla just like any other building ripe for development. Or the more determined could hunt down a church or spy a building that isn’t for sale and then enquire with the owner.
Moored Shipping Containers
Live on water, but not in a boat.
Designer Max McMurdo built a home from a reclaimed shipping container in his local marina. Innovations include a dual bathroom and kitchen sink(!), a table hidden in the floor, and a wardrobe under the bed.
The loophole: As with a houseboat, Max rents the mooring. He also raised the money to do it by selling a one bed cottage in Bedford for £110000.
Total costs: £50k (leftover from his house sale). As mentioned above though, a budget depends on you, not on how someone else lives. Consider it a budget to beat rather than a target to spend.
To do the same: You can actually hire Max McMurdo himself.
Episode One Winner For First-time Buyers
What do you think?
….houseboats. And I don’t even like water that much.
In the intro to How to Live Mortgage Free, Sarah says the average deposit is over £30k. Apart from the brownfield site and the boat, the examples in this episode don’t technically solve this problem. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog that I think we should forget about averages though. The only solution is increasing your earnings and savings.
I think this show actually caters for a broader audience than first expected though, so there are lots of ideas here no matter what stage you are at in your home owning journey. Once you become a homeowner by any means, I think this series is worth revisiting too.
Mortgage free isn’t always cheaper
If you are a first time buyer, then you would still need to save a good chunk to copy Nick’s church or Max’s floating home. The key difference is that afterwards, you wouldn’t have a mortgage to pay. Watch out for other recurring costs like mooring though, as these can be as high as rents/mortgage payments in places. They also didn’t talk about the cost of living while working on a project before the home is ready.
Here were the benefits again of building an alternative home:
You can go green
Friends/family can chip in sociable labour
A chance to declutter
Can you think of any other pros and cons? Would you consider any of these? Leave a comment below.
You can also get these benefits if you buy a traditional house that needs renovating, but expect it to cost more. With a new build, you can sometimes have a say on the final layout and finish, but there’s a huge premium for buying new and having this level of control.
New builds should be theoretically more energy efficient than existing property. You might still find yourself doing DIY according to some of the horror stories out there about bodged new builds though…Again, it might be cheaper to turn an old shack into an eco house.
More ideas abound in my recap of episode two of How to Live Mortgage Free. Join the other bears on my mailing list if you want to be in the loop on what’s new on the blog each week.
If you’ve plenty of time on your hands, you can watch How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny on All4 for free. You’ll also find How to Live Mortgage Free on Netflix if entertainment is one of your spending priorities.