A tale of two housing markets: The North-South divide

One half of the country is awash with homes no one wants, while the other is swamped with houses few can afford. What’s going on?
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There are plenty of statistics about the North-South divide, but to understand how it affects the housing market just ask the likes of Karen Appleton and Kate Fearnley. Karen, a single mother working as a risk management assessor, has lived in her flat in Bingley, West Yorkshire, for six years. Since summer 2009, she has been trying to sell her home. She has used different estate agents, and has had a small number of viewings but no offers.

"It's a typical first-time buyer's property, but these are the people who cannot easily get mortgages today. The problem is worse here, because unemployment is bad as a result of the Bradford & Bingley job losses," she says. The Yorkshire-based bank, nationalised in 2008 at the height of the credit crunch, has cut a sixth of its staff.

"People used to buy a home in Bingley because it was cheaper than Leeds. But there have been so many flats built in Leeds in recent years, and they've dropped in price so much since 2007, they're now very popular. Bingley's been left behind," she says.

On paper, her home ticks a lot of boxes: it is near a railway station and in good condition, and her estate agent (Dacre Son & Hartley) insists it is keenly priced at just £110,000 (www.dacres.co.uk; 01274 560 421).

But she now feels that the only way of getting what she wants – a home with a garden for her 18-month-old daughter – is by renting.

If she does not sell this month, she will let out her flat and rent elsewhere, resigned to keeping her owned property at least until the local sales market improves.

Contrast her difficult situation with that of Kate Fearnley, a fund manager in London. After a brief and unsuccessful dalliance trying to market her home online, she hired a conventional estate agent and sold her one-bedroom apartment near Angel, Islington for £399,950 – it went to the first person who viewed it.

"The buyer immediately offered the asking price, which was great," says Fearnley, who wants to move to the suburban commuter-haven of Sevenoaks in Kent. She has a budget of £650,000 to £800,000, depending on whether the next property requires work.

Yet such is the competition even in that rarefied sector of the market, with her own property safely sold, Kate has a struggle to find somewhere to buy.

Her first attempt was frustrated when she was gazumped. "The seller accepted my offer, but later said I had to pay £10,000 more and exchange immediately. I wasn't in a position to do that," she says.

Her second attempt is now in the lap of the gods; she is one of at least four people who have put in sealed bids for a house in Sevenoaks. The result will not be known until next week.

"I knew property values had recovered well in London and the South-east, so I anticipated the price I would have to pay. What I didn't expect was that there would be so few homes on sale, therefore so little choice and so much uncertainty over actually being able to clinch a deal," she explains.

Giles Cook of Chesterton Humberts, the estate agency which handled Fearnley's apartment sale, says: "Highly sought-after homes come to the market rarely, but, when they do, we've seen buyers offer well over the asking price. The problem we're seeing is a lack of stock."

Appleton and Fearnley's experiences are in no way unusual, and demonstrate the geographical dichotomy in today's market.

"Over the past year, some towns have recorded considerable increases in the number of sales compared with 2009. Most of these have been in London and the South-East, with good commuter links," says Suren Thiru of HBOS, which produces the Halifax house price index.

Zoopla, a property sales website, has analysed sale prices of homes across the country in the past year, and the results are only too predictable.

"There's a clear North-South divide," says Zoopla director Nicholas Leeming. He says the 10 lowest-priced areas are all in the North, such as Durham and Hartlepool, while the 10 wealthiest are all in southern England, such as Gloucestershire and Surrey.

No one is expecting this trend to be reversed any time soon; if anything, this month's spending cuts are expected to make the housing divide even wider.

"The southern economy is far less reliant on the public sector than the North. In terms of 'value-added' service sector jobs, the South far outperforms the North. These jobs will be created at a more rapid rate than manufacturing or others over the next few years," says Liam Bailey, research head at the top-end estate agent Knight Frank.

He also says demand for homes in the South is greater, thanks to the internal migration of those moving from the North to London. "The South suffers much more from a structural under-supply of housing compared to the North," Bailey says.

Another top-end agency, Savills, has translated this trend into specific predictions for when the housing market will recover in different regions. Yet again, the South wins hands-down.

It says in 2011, prices will be static in London, but will fall elsewhere – more steeply in the North than the South. There will be a partial recovery in 2012, but the North will see only negligible growth. Every region steams ahead in 2013, but (you've guessed it) the South performs far better than the North, and in particular better than Scotland.

Because average house prices are already so much higher in the South, owners have built up more equity. Savills says that, in a market governed by mortgage lending, this gives the South a distinct advantage.

"The owner-occupier market is becoming ring-fenced. It's accessible only to those with equity, or with access to equity. The remaining market is reliant on borrowing, and will either dwindle to very low levels of activity or be reliant on investors with equity," says Savills' head of residential research, Yolande Barnes.

In other words, while the least well-off renters and owners everywhere find it hardest to buy for the first time or to move up the property ladder, that problem hits many more in the North where average equity is at its lowest and reliance on mortgages is at its greatest.

All of this is happening, of course, before we know the effect of the upcoming austerity measures. The coalition may say we are all in this together, but few believe the South will suffer as much as the North.

The housing market, like football, appears to be a game of two halves; the halfway line stretches across the centre of Britain.

...Beyond housing

* A survey for the BBC by data firm Experian shows industrial towns in the North East least resilient to economic shocks, with Middlesbrough and Mansfield particularly struggling. Elmbridge in Surrey is considered the most resilient area, then St Albans in Hertfordshire and Waverley in Surrey.

* Figures from an investigation of 700 British locations by the Local Data Company show that one in eight shops in Britain is currently empty. But again there is a divide – almost a third of retail premises are empty in Blackpool and a quarter in Bradford, but just 11 per cent in London.

* Public spending cuts will impact most heavily on those regions with a heavy reliance on the sector. In south-east England, public spending accounts for 34.1 per cent of the region's gross domestic product; in London it is 37 per cent. But in north east England it is 57.1 per cent, the north west 50.1 per cent, and Wales 57.4 per cent says the Office for National Statistics.

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