Rush to rent as house sales dry up

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The number of people instructing letting agents to rent out their homes rose at a record pace during the second quarter of 2008, as increasing numbers of would-be property sellers struggled to offload their home at a reasonable price.

According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' (Rics) quarterly residential letting survey, published today, the number of new instructions received by letting agents increased at the fastest pace in the survey's 10-year history, providing the evidence that increasing numbers of homeowners are deciding they would rather rent out their property than sell it at a knock-down price.

Some 43 per cent of chartered surveyors reported a rise in instructions over the quarter, up from 30 per cent during the first three months of the year.

"The lettings market is booming, with many vendors opting to rent their property while sales in the housing market continue to dry up," said James Scott-Lee, a spokesman for Rics. "Many are willing to 'hold' and await the return of capital appreciation. Becoming a landlord is now an increasingly profitable option with rising rents and yields offering good returns.

"Established investors have been reaping the benefits of the housing downturn for some time and will continue to do so in the short term. However, ever-increasing supply could have an impact on rental growth as tenant options increase."

Property prices have fallen by almost 10 per cent over the past year, and much faster in some areas of the country, as the number of buyers has fallen sharply. Meanwhile, rents have been slowly increasing in most regions, improving prospects for amateur landlords.

However, the growth in the number of new landlords will put further strain on the buy-to-let mortgage sector, which is already struggling to meet demand. Bradford and Bingley and Paragon, the sector's two largest lenders, have pulled back from writing any significant volume of new business in recent months, creating a glut of supply. According to Moneysupermarket.com, the financial comparison site, the number of buy-to-let mortgage products on offer has fallen from more than 4,300 to just over 300 over the past year, meaning only those with excellent credit records and a significant amount of equity in their homes are being accepted for new loans.

David Hollingworth of London & Country, the fee-free mortgage adviser, said homeowners need to think carefully before deciding to become an amateur landlord. "This is a drastic measure, and will usually result in taking on a much greater level of mortgage debt than originally planned at a time when credit is more expensive and not as freely available."

"Borrowers need to fully understand the costs and risks that come with being a landlord before putting additional stress on their finances. Both properties are likely to be subject to larger mortgages, and payments need to be met whether there are tenants in place or not."

The growing number of new amateur landlords has created a two-speed market, with many amateur buy-to-let investors now trying to exit the market in response to the collapse in prices.

Thousands who bought properties over the past few years are still struggling to generate enough rent to pay their mortgages – and are now facing even higher borrowing costs when they come to refinance. While they had hoped a continued rise in capital values would help them to achieve a profit, the collapse in the market has encouraged many to sell.

Meanwhile, the number of landlords defaulting on their mortgages has risen sharply over the past few months, and Bradford & Bingley has predicted that the market may only get worse during the second half of the year.

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