Richard Brown: London’s housing market strains are multiplying and something has to give

Richard Brown: London’s housing market strains are multiplying and something has to give

Fiscal, political and financial events are coming at us pretty fast right now, so it is easy to feel disorientated. But as the screech of U-turns fades and the smoke of burning policies clears, we already seem to be in a world that has fundamentally shifted from the stability of more than a decade of low interest rates.

Bank of England base rates, which have been below 1% for nearly 15 years, are already above 2% and some forecast they will rise as high as 6% next year (though expectations may be starting to fall, following the Chancellor’s latest statement). Mortgage rates have shot up too, with fixed-rate offers already jumping from 2% to more than 6%.

It is true that interest rate rises were already expected, but the chaos following the previous Chancellor’s “fiscal event” in late September means rises have been faster and sharper than most anticipated. What does this mean for the capital?

There’s not much good news, I’m afraid. Firstly, according to the Resolution Foundation, costs will rise sharply for those households whose fixed rate deals come to an end soon. A total of 5.1 million households nationwide – around 60% of all households with mortgages – have deals that run out before the end of 2024.

Londoners in this group will face the steepest rises, with average annual costs rising by £8,000. The capital has the lowest proportion of households with mortgages in England, but even so, there were around 1,000,000 mortgaged households in London in 2020, so around 600,000 of those could be facing a huge hike in the costs of their mortgages, assuming exit from fixed rate deals mirrors the national pattern. The impact will be selective but brutal.

At the same time, house prices are widely expected to fall – and to fall faster in London than elsewhere – as rising mortgage costs delay purchases or even force some sales. The top of the market is still booming, but there are dark clouds on the horizon. Some analysts have predicted London prices falling by as much as 12% by the end of 2024.

At first sight, this looks like it could be good news – at least for first-time-buyers, who paid an average of £440,000 for London properties last year. If those predictions of a 12% price drop were borne out across the market, this figure would fall to £387,000 by the end of 2024 and imply a (10%) deposit of £39,000 rather than £44,000. Together with the impact of Stamp Duty reductions announced in the ill-fated “mini-budget” – still standing at the time of writing, but anything could happen – this would reduce cash move-in costs by around £10,000.

But the impact of this possible saving would be rapidly wiped out by higher mortgage costs. The monthly cost of a 90% mortgage on a £440,000 property is around £1,777 on the basis of a 2.5% interest rate. If and when rates rise to 5%, even a £387,000 property would cost £2,036 per month – £250 more than now, and around two thirds of take-home pay for someone earning £50,000 a year.

For those buyers lacking the family wealth or savings to afford a deposit, falling prices and stamp duty cuts may help a first tentative foot onto the ladder. But the burden of those higher mortgage costs will soon wipe out those savings. Behind every silver lining, another cloud.

With a sharp fall in property values comes the threat of “negative equity”, a thoroughly unwelcome revival from the tail end of the last century. Negative equity – a term to describe when the value of a home is lower than the mortgage secured against it – was estimated to have hit around 40% of properties in London in the early 1990s.

A recent report by property analyst Neal Hudson suggests that a 20% fall in property prices would put 10% of London mortgages in the red. Again, the figure is higher than for other regions because prices in the capital have grown relatively slowly over the past five years, meaning recent buyers have had less chance to build up a buffer of equity.

Although negative equity is unpleasant and unsettling, it only becomes an acute issue if you are seeking to sell or remortgage a property. However, rising mortgage costs could force some sellers’ hands, particularly London’s newest buyers, who are those most stretched in terms of affordability and least cushioned by historically rising prices.

Private sector renters have it tough as well: rents are surging as landlords seek to pass on rising borrowing costs and as competition for properties intensifies, partly driven by a post-pandemic bounce. Some central London letting agencies already report more than 80 enquiries for each rental property, up from 16 in September 2019. As people delay purchases or – in a worst case scenario – see mortgaged properties repossessed, demand for rentals is likely to increase.

Something, you feel, will have to give. There will come a point when landlords will be unable to pass rising costs on to tenants or tenants will simply be unable to pay. Landlords may be forced to sell, as will some first-time buyers, which could feed a spiral of declining property values. Again, this has its attractions but raises the question of who will be able to buy when interest rates remain high?

London property prices may be overdue a correction (that is, a fall), but while interest rates continue to rise, it will be London’s private renters and first time buyers who will be most at risk of losing their home. Sadiq Khan has already renewed calls for rent controls and more funding for affordable housing as market supply stalls.

After the 2008/09 financial crisis a “mortgage rescue scheme”, administered in London by the previous Mayor, allowed housing associations to take a stake in properties to avoid repossessions. It had limited take-up in London and was closed early. But in a city that already has four times the national rate of homelessness, government action may again be needed to soften the blow.

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Categories: Analysis

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