'A generation feels locked out of the housing market' - Maggie Molloy finds Ireland's cheapest properties for house-hunters on a budget
When Maggie Molloy went looking for a budget rural home to buy in 2004, she had no idea it would lead to a career tracking down Ireland's cheapest properties. She tells John Meagher about her new RTÉ show and showing people a more affordable way to get on the property ladder
The Celtic Tiger was roaring especially loudly in 2004, the year Maggie Molloy bought her house. One-bedroom apartments in the posh postcodes of Dublin were on the market for €400,000 and if you wanted a car space, you had to pony up an extra €30,000. It was an era of buying off plans and standing in long lines outside show homes.
Banks seemed to be handing out 100pc mortgages to anybody who wanted them - the message was simple: buy now, think later. Many people desperate to get on the property ladder did just that and the decision would come back to haunt them.
Back then, Molloy was 23 and working as a website designer in Cork. Her earnings were low and the opportunity to significantly increase her salary was slim. She could not afford anything close to a Celtic Tiger lifestyle and when she sought a mortgage from the banks, she was offered a little over €100,000.
In the cities, such an amount - then, as now - might yield something between a dog kennel and a run-down garden shed, but Molloy wasn't perturbed. Having grown up in rural Wexford, city life wasn't for her anyway. But when she looked in the estate agents' ads for countryside properties, there was practically nothing to be had within her budget.
"It was pretty dispiriting," she recalls. "I'd been paying rent and the places I was renting in really weren't up to much. Often, there would be no heating. I thought surely there are houses for the price bracket I had to play with."
When she dug deeper she found there were indeed properties to be had. Loads of them. But they weren't the sort of houses to be advertised in the heaving newspaper property supplements of the time. What Molloy was looking at were dilapidated cottages, old farmhouses whose roofs had caved in, lonely forgotten houses festooned with weeds. She chuckles at the memory. "They wouldn't have been for everyone."
And when she shares with Weekend photographs of the house in Tipperary that she bought some 16 years ago, one wonders just who would have had the desire - temerity, even - to take on such a project. The two-storey homestead looked sizeable, but it also looked as though it would cost a great deal of money and sleepless nights in order to make it habitable.
"It took a long time," Molloy says. "To be honest, I'd say it's not fully finished yet, but I think you can't go into these sort of houses and expect them to be perfect really quickly - especially if you don't have a huge amount of money to put into them."
The asking price of the house close to the Limerick border was €100,000, but Molloy offered €80,000 and it was accepted. Her bank was granting a mortgage of €110,000 in total, so she had another €30,000 available in which to carry out necessary repairs. "The chimneys needed work, the roof..." she trails off. "Let's just say there was a lot that had to be done!"
Her carpenter father also helped get the house habitable. She recalls significant work needing to be done on the stairs. "When you'd be on the stairs, there was a certain step that you couldn't walk on in case your foot went through it."
Today, her house looks immaculate - just like the sort of beloved rural hideaway the interiors magazines can't get enough of. It honours its past, but there are several modern touches, too.
The 39-year-old may not be widely known today, but that is about to change: she is fronting a new RTÉ property series, Cheap Irish Homes, that seeks to uncover some of the hidden gems to be found dotted around the countryside. The first episode airs next week.
The no-nonsense title of the show mirrors that of Molloy's Instagram account. She started Cheap Irish Houses in December 2018 in order to shine a light on the inexpensive properties to be found all over Ireland. It's become something of a sensation and has made its creator an unlikely influencer. Right now, it has 57,000 followers.
"I think we're really interested in property in this country," Molloy says, when trying to account for the popularity of her social media feed. "And it's a sort of escape as well. The 'what if?' idea of doing something completely different with your life."
Before RTÉ came calling, she realised there was a business opportunity. For €5 per month, Molloy sends subscribers a newsletter featuring the properties she has located. The recipients tend to be people genuinely interested in buying one of these houses, rather than the merely curious on Instagram.
"There is a generation of people who feel completely shut out of the housing market, but they can see that need not be the case - as long as they are willing to think differently about where they are willing to live."
Molloy says she would have liked to live near her parents in Wexford, but even derelict properties there could come with an asking price above her budget. "I looked initially at a house in Roscommon. I liked it, but it really was a long way from my family. Tipperary isn't next to Wexford, but it's a lot closer."
She says many of the best value properties are to be found in the west of Ireland, particularly in the remote, hilly parts of Connacht. And it is to that province that the first episode of Cheap Irish Home ventures.
Filmed in January and February, it centres on a young Dublin woman, Leanne, who has a budget of around €100,000. With her twin sister Vanessa in tow, Molloy and building engineer Kieran McCarthy take her to several properties in Sligo and Mayo. For those weaned on the idea that there is little to be had below €300,000, for instance, or who feel strangulated with crippling rents, the programme is an eye-opener.
There's a newly renovated cottage in Sligo with a brand new slate roof, large bathroom and significant outdoor space for €85,000. And there's a small house in Mayo that has lots of potential and comes on 0.7 acres and with 'outhouses' to boot - all for €39,000. It needs considerable work, but is structurally sound. As McCarthy points out, if it's got walls, it can be a house.
"The thing is, this sort of project is not for everyone," Molloy says. "You could be looking at years of work to get some houses to the point that you're happy with, especially if you intend to live there and do one room at a time."
It's not the only challenge. In an Ireland that has become increasingly urban, with ever more of us living in towns and cities, the reality of living in a rural place can be difficult to get used to.
"If you're used to the convenience of urban life, with everything on your doorstep, it's definitely a huge change," she says, "especially if you fall in love with a house that can be quite a bit away from the nearest town.
"But that can bring an awful lot of charm, too. You feel so much closer to nature than you would have in a housing estate and you become really conscious of the changing seasons."
With the vast majority of us having to work from home during this coronavirus crisis, we are beginning to ask ourselves big questions about the sort of life we want in the future. Do we want to spend hours each day commuting? Do we want to clock into an office every morning? Can we strike the balance between getting our work done 'remotely' at home and working in a more traditional environment?
"I think there are people having that conversation right now," Molloy says. "And I'm sure there will be some who won't do the office thing again when this is all over."
With the country in effective lockdown, many are having to rediscover what's on their doorstep and to take solace in the wonder of nature.
"The beauty of so many of the cheap houses I've seen up and down the country is that they have a sort of wilderness all around them, so for someone looking for that connection, they're absolutely perfect."
But, ever the realist, Molloy cautions against rash decisions.
"You really have to do your homework," she says. "If your job relies on really good broadband, can you be sure you'll have it where you move? Just because you might be used to a perfect internet connection in Dublin doesn't mean that's going to be the case everywhere. And what are winters like where you're planning to move to? I've had one or two tough winters here and you just can't sugar-coat that."
Now 39 and a resident in west Tipperary for the past 16 years, Molloy feels she is in her "forever house". She got married last year and her husband, Wicklow native Jay, is also well used to life in their revitalised 200-year-old farmhouse.
"We've got great neighbours," she says. "A lot of them are blow-ins like us. But while there's that community spirit that is so special, people are respectful of each other's privacy. It's the best of both worlds."
While terms like 'social distancing' and 'cocooning' have entered the lexicon in recent weeks, Molloy quips that she is no stranger to either. She has long worked from home: she is an illustrator, and a talented one too. It's the sort of job, she points out, that doesn't necessitate being cooped up in an office.
"If anything, as a creative person, this is exactly the sort of working environment that suits me," she says. "It's so peaceful here and that really helps when you're working."
It is clear that Molloy had little interest in the rat race or a need to be working around the clock. While some might have a small mortgage like hers paid off by now, she says she still has years of repayments left. She says she can't remember the loan term, but it hardly matters when one considers that her monthly payment amounts to a few hundred euro.
"I could probably have got a bigger mortgage when I went looking," she says, "but I always wanted to feel that I could afford to pay it back no matter what happened, even if I had to draw the dole." She says there have been periods in the past where work was so lean that she had no alternative than to seek unemployment benefit.
Such days may seem like a distant memory now, especially as a career in broadcasting is about to take off.
"I was on RTÉ talking about Cheap Irish Houses one morning and I got a call straight after from a production company wanting to meet. They thought there was a potential series in it."
Molloy may have struggled initially to see how a hobby and cottage business could translate to television, but as soon as the cameras started rolling, she sensed how it would appeal to an audience weaned on such long-running shows as Room To Improve.
And while nobody - least of all Molloy herself - would argue that Cheap Irish Homes is in the same ballpark as Room To Improve, its simple format will likely connect with younger people who feel that the glossy home and garden makeovers by Dermot Bannon and Diarmuid Gavin are out of their league and budgets.
"I know there are lots of people my age and younger who feel despair that they are never going to own their own place and they're going to have to pay dead money in rent for the rest of their lives," she says. "But the truth is, there is another way. And there might be a dream home for them right now and at a budget they can comfortably afford.
"I know there was for me - and I've never looked back."
Cheap Irish Homes begins on RTÉ One on Tuesday at 8.30pm; @cheapirishhouses
Six property bargains around the country
STROKESTOWN, CO ROSCOMMON
For €45,000, this two-bedroom cottage has a lot going for it. Not only has all its services been installed, it is also a lot more modern on the inside than you would think. Having a house that's immediately habitable is always a huge bonus and when you add to that the fact you get almost an acre of land with it, this one ticks a lot of boxes.
KILMOVEE, CO MAYO
You don't get a lot for less than €30,000 nowadays, so anytime I see a house in this price range that looks stable, it always registers on my radar. Inside this three-bedroom detached cottage is basic, which is to be expected, and it appears to need repair work to one of the chimneys, but other than that, it has great potential. The fact that it has a mains water supply, relatively modern wiring and sits on one acre are all huge bonuses too. And all for just €29,500.
BURTONPORT, CO DONEGAL
The main thing that caught my eye with this property, surprisingly enough, was the condition of the one-bed cottage. I see fully derelict properties in the most stunning locations all the time, but rarely are the houses intact enough that you could fathom moving in once you got the keys. The location is a huge plus too - 3.5 acres leading down to the beach sounds like pure heaven. Sometimes properties come up that really catch people's imaginations and make them think about changing the pace of their lives entirely and this is one of those for sure. A bargain at €55,000.
This €20,000 property may be a huge undertaking, but its sheer size alone makes it a rarity at that price. Set on 2.3 acres bordering a river, it's comprised of three former mill buildings and a derelict house. Not only does it give someone the potential of owning a breathtaking home, but the myriad of commercial possibilities make it a great asset for someone thinking about changing careers when they make their big move.
MULLINAHONE, CO TIPPERARY
I always say if you're going to spend close to €100,000 - €95,000 in this case - on a house, then it needs to be habitable. And this beauty is a great example of what I mean. Surrounded by stone outbuildings and a paddock, this three-bedroom farmhouse is move-in ready. Sure, you can spend whatever you want decorating it to your own tastes, but all the heavy lifting is already done before you get the keys. So any cosmetic alternations can be done in your own time.
KILBAHA, CO CLARE
A five-bedroom, three-bathroom farmhouse in beautiful condition is a whole lot of house for €90,000. Then factor in over 2.5 acres of land and a location on the Loop Head Peninsula in Clare and you've got something worth spending your hard-earned mortgage allowance on.