Shares or property – what's best?

It's your choice because both bricks and mortar and stocks are on the up, says Julian Knight

These are heady days for UK property prices and the London Stock Exchange. For the first time in a long while, according to property website Rightmove, house prices are rising once again across the whole of the UK.

We are not quite partying like it's 2008, but we may be seeing a little more than just the ubiquitous green shoots in the property market.

As for the stock market, the green shoots have possibly moved into full bloom. Since the nadir of the eurozone late last year, markets – with one or two hiccups along the way – have generally powered upwards; largely off the back of stronger growth in the US.

So which is best right now to deliver returns an investment in property or shares?

Property

Much of the nation's wealth is tied up in housing – around £4trn by the latest estimate – and with huge population pressures, as well as a limited supply of land to develop, there are those who suggest the recent rise in house prices is simply the market settling back on its seemingly inexorable upward path.

What's more, buy-to-let investors are benefiting as fewer people can afford the deposit to climb onto the housing ladder and are forced to carry on renting.

Trevor Greetham, director of asset allocation at Fidelity, said: "In a reversion to pre-bubble form, the UK looks set to enjoy a housing-led recovery. The recent Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors survey was very strong, pointing to a sharp rise in UK house prices and recovery in the economy."

Darius McDermott, managing director of Chelsea Financial Services, is also bullish over UK property prices: "I'm actually more positive on property than I have been for some time. A couple of managers I have spoken to expect mid to high single-digit returns (6-8 per cent) over the remainder of 2013 and for the following couple of years."

Mr McDermott, though, cautions against return-hungry investors diving into direct buy-to-let, which have major fees involved and, of course, can be subject to punishing "void" periods, when the property is vacant and not earning any rental return.

It is also possible to make money from the overall moves in the property market. The Castle Trust fund, for instance, promises to track the Halifax house-price index and peg returns to that.

Property downsides

All property investment must come with a large health warning that prices can go down as well as up, and interest rates, at historic lows for the past four years are bound to increase in the future.

In fact, the Resolution Foundation recently said that the best-case scenario, where interest rates rise by current expectations and family-household income growth is strong, will see 700,000 households spending more than 50 per cent of their income on repayments. As a result, some could end up in arrears or even repossessed.

Share investing

Markets have looked beyond the doom and gloom headlines and enjoyed strong growth, far higher than house prices. In addition, many companies are sitting on large stockpiles of cash which raises the potential for mergers and acquisions, normally good news for investors.

As for dividends, these are on the up too as corporations return to profit after a poor couple of years. All this has led to a bull stockmarket, with, in the main, rising share prices.

To iron out the peaks and troughs of stock market performance Mr McDermott recommends investors consider ploughing in regular, small amounts of cash rather than big lump sums, which could be made just before a dip in market prices. Another way to reduce volatility is to invest in an investment fund rather than a single company share. These will spread their money around a range of companies. However, you are reliant on the quality of the fund manager.

"Finding a manager with a good track record, consistently outperforming the market is key. They have the professionalism to monitor the investments they make on an ongoing basis, much more so than the overwhelming majority of private investors," Ben Yearsley from stockbroker Charles Stanley said.

Alan Smith, chief executive of Capital Asset Management, reckons the track record of shares is better than property: "Over the long term, shares have tended to outperform property (when dividends have been reinvested) but of course that outperformance comes with additional levels of inherent volatility."

Share downsides

All investments can go down in price as well as up but shares can be particularly volatile, an unexpected profits warning or legal case emerging can send individual company share prices plunging. As for stockmarkets more generally, these can move against investors in double-quick time off the back of poor economic news.

Charlie Ellingworth, from Property Vision, sums up the dangers: "The volatility of the shares market has put off a number of investors as they have seen share prices plummet and rocket several times within a short time frame."

Verdict

Most financial experts believe that when it comes to cash or shares, the answer is have a bit of both.

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