Why house prices could soon cool off

Merryn Somerset Webb explains why the brakes may be put on the housing market rather sooner than many people think.

Things aren't going well in the housing market. After a few years in which it looked as if prices might soon fall to, and then stabilise at a reasonable level, they are once again on the up.

The International Monetary Fund has already warned the Bank of England to "remain vigilant" in the face of a new boom, says the Financial Times.

House prices are already "disproportionately high compared with levels of rent" and with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors warning of a "chronic imbalance" between supply and demand, that's a trend many assume will continue indefinitely.

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That's why a council-owned garage in Camberwell sold for £500,000 last week and why asking prices in London are now at their highest-ever level.

However, there are a few things that might put the brakes on sooner than most people think. The first is interest rates.

As Roger Bootle of Capital Economics told The Sunday Times, "the housing market is more sensitive to interest rates than people expect if borrowers start to fear bigger rate rises in future, we could see a major correction".

That might seem a while off. But the second the Mortgage Market Review (MMR) isn't. This look at the market by the regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, has resulted in a set of new rules that will come into force on 26 April. The result, says The Guardian, will have your bank going through "your finances with a fine tooth comb".

Getting a mortgage used to be simply a matter of proving your income and negotiating a loan that was a multiple of that income. No more. Now you will have to show that "you are financially healthy and can meet your repayments".

That means your lender will want to see "a squeaky clean credit record", as well as bank accounts that aren't "weighed down with bills and other commitments" and proof that you have a "decent amount" over at the end of every month.

There will be winners from this. If you are single and very frugal you could, in theory at least, end up being able to borrow six to seven times your income. But there will be losers too.

High-spending applicants perhaps with children in costly childcare may find that even after a three-hour meeting to put their case (according to Mortgage Strategy, this will soon be standard stuff), they end up with rather less.

Everyone can increase their odds of getting a good loan by cutting spending fast and acting as if they already have the commitment of a mortgage several months before applying, say the brokers.

However, not everyone will be able to do this and the consequences of that might, if we are lucky, take a bit of heat out of the market even before interest rates rise.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.