Whatever happened to the demolition of our housing market?
Prices have held up, but the doomsters haven't gone away
Sunday 16 July 2006
Remember the housing market Jeremiahs?
The prophets of doom who forecast crashes wiping as much as 40 per cent from the value of our homes have been silent for months as UK house prices have chugged along.
Latest figures from major indices, including those from Nationwide building society and the official Land Registry, put annual house price rises at between 5 and 9 per cent (the variation is largely down to different methods of collecting data).
Average estimates show that house prices rose by about 4 per cent last year. By comparison, in 2004 they went up by 12 per cent; in 2003 by 17.5 per cent; and in 2002 by 20 per cent.
It's a long, long way from earlier predictions of imminent disaster. The most recent of these was made as late as last October, after an OECD report suggested UK house prices were "significantly overvalued" by up to 30 per cent.
Before that, a fall of 20 per cent was predicted in October 2004 by the Capital Economics research consultancy. Dire warnings had also been issued by Tony Dye, a fund manager nicknamed Dr Doom, who correctly forecast the bursting of the technology bubble in the late 1990s.
These commentators have largely revised their estimates as the housing market has held up. Even the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, talked last year of the market having "survived a housing bubble".
So why have house prices stayed buoyant for so long?
Explanations differ, depending on whether they are given by analysts, brokers, economists or consultants, but there are some general forces continuing to prop up the market.
Employment, inflation and interest rates are all at historically low levels, meaning there are enough borrowers able to borrow enough cheap money to keep the market motoring.
In essence, the doomsters had believed that house prices - which have soared by 170 per cent since 1997, according to industry estimates - were unsustainably high. It was becoming too expensive, they said, for first-timer buyers to get on the ladder and for existing homeowners to trade up.
But the cost of borrowing remains low, the Bank of England base rate having spent nearly a year at 4.5 per cent. This has allowed the market to carry on growing, albeit at a slower rate than in the past, and meant that many investors have continued to put their money into buy-to-let rather than into shares.
Meanwhile, though, plenty of warning signs are flashing furiously. For example, Britons now spend, on average, 42 per cent of their take-home pay on mortgage repayments, compared with 33 per cent in 2003. Similarly, the ratio of house prices to average earnings - a clear indication of the affordability of housing - has climbed to 6, considerably higher than in the late 1980s when it stood at 5.2.
But the gradual slowdown in house price inflation has calmed the fears of consumers and industry specialists alike. And with lenders dreaming up plenty of new products, such as 125 per cent loans and parent/child mortgages, to get first-timers on to the housing ladder, the cycle looks set to run without serious mishap for some time yet.
Despite all this cautious optimism, there are still some pessimists out there.
Websites such as housepricecrash.co.uk, pricedout.org.uk and globalhousepricecrash.com are sticking to their belief that the housing market is in for a rocky ride. The latter, a US-based site, welcomes visitors with the following portentous message: "The global rise in house prices is the biggest bubble in history. Prepare for the economic pain when the crash occurs." Its aim, and that of housepricecrash.co.uk, is to raise awareness of the risks and to encourage consumers to tighten their belts.
The UK website housepricecrash was set up in 2003 as a non-profit-making forum for consumers. It now receives 7,000 visitors a day and has just been bought by the online media company Fubra.
Three years after its inception, its purpose remains the same: "to act as a counterbalance to the huge amounts of positive spin the housing market receives in the main media".
Spokesman Reinhardt Schu is adamant that it has not overstated the risks.
"I do believe there will be a crash," he says, "but the timing hasn't been right - that's always the danger. That a crash hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it won't happen."
Mr Schu points to homeowners' overstretched salaries and the failure of earnings to keep pace with house price inflation. He believes the downturn will start with lenders no longer being able to offer cheap loans to first-time buyers and those on low incomes, and with the collapse of the buy-to-let market.
The name chosen by pricedout.org.uk reflects its concern with the plight of first-timers. Although the website's authors don't believe a crash is inevitable, their outlook is a bleak one.
Government policymakers should, they say, rethink what they call "unhelpful" initiatives, such as shared equity schemes that encourage those on low incomes to get on the property ladder on a part-buy, part-rent basis. Instead, lenders should focus on more tests of "affordability" for mortgage applicants.
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