Julian Knight: How was the house price crash for you, Darling?

History shows that our property-market problems are far from over

Sunday 04 October 2009 00:00

So you lived through the Great British house-price crash of 2007-09. How did it feel? On Friday, Nationwide proudly announced that house prices had risen for the fifth month in a row and are now back to the same level as before the collapse of Lehman Brothers a year and a bit ago.

So that's that then, crash over, and if you look at the repossession figures it wasn't nearly as bad as the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the publicity machine at HSBC went into overdrive last week announcing another £500m for 90-per-cent mortgage borrowers. One institution – the mighty Mansfield Building Society no less – is reportedly re-entering the 100 per cent loan-to-value fray.

But this optimism reminds me of the final scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth, when the boys are standing in the trench ready to go over the top and the guns suddenly stop firing. For a moment they think the war is over, and Captain Kevin Darling announces, "Thank God, we lived through it, the Great War 1914 to 1917".

The truth is that what we are seeing now is a phoney housing market, a false hope like that experienced by poor old Captain Darling. Government action and lender fears about driving prices lower have led to a surprisingly successful stemming of repossessions. But many homeowners who would normally be looking to move aren't, perhaps because they fear moving up the ladder and taking on more debt, or perhaps they feel that they may not be able to get a decent mortgage rate if they do move. As for buyers, it's still those with big deposits, the second and third-time buyers or investors – we are talking 25 per cent plus – who make up the overwhelming majority. First timers are still desperately thin on the ground. And who can blame them? They don't know if they'll keep their jobs, and lending criteria are still tight. Make no mistake, without first-time buyers there can be no sustainable recovery. And for that to happen, incomes are going to have to catch up even more with property prices.

Overall, transactions are just over half to two-thirds their normal level. If you plotted transaction levels against previous house-price moves you'd swear the prices should still be falling rather than rising, but the anomaly reflects the strangling of supply.

The truth is it's far too early to call an end to this crash. Of course there are macro-economic problems that the country will face – tax rises and public-sector spending cuts to name but two. As for interest rates, although they are likely to remain at this level for a while, they will rise in the future.

What's more, a whole tranche of people who signed below-base-rate trackers before the credit crunch are about to come off their deals, and if they haven't been saving in the good times may face real hardship when rates shoot up. Meanwhile, unemployment is leaping up and that raises the question: how long will the lenders hold the line on repossessions? We're still living through the Great British housing crash 2007 – to who knows when.

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