Buy farms, not flats

Higher property taxes could put the dampeners on London's rising housing market, says Merryn Somerset Webb

Are property taxes too low or too high? A tweet from The Daily Mail's Becky Barrow reminded me this week to check just how today's taxes fare against those in the pre-council tax days.

Becky notes stamp duty hasn't "always been a rip off". In 1992, it was charged at a mere 1% on all houses sold for more than £30,000. But the thing about taxes in the UK is that there is usually a good amount of give and take.

The UK's tax take is always knocking around between 33% and 36% of GDP. That's rather lower than public spending (which is a shame), but no government has managed to push it any higher, or shown much inclination to allow it to go lower.

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So, one way or another, the rise in stamp duty is likely to have been matched by a fall in another property tax.

Which one? It's pretty much what we used to call rates (the modern equivalent is council tax). Rates, abolished in 1990 after the dismal poll tax experiment, were based on the imputed rent for any given house.

They were both relatively high and much hated: as far back as 1907, British historian George Trevelyan complained that "the rates are one of the highest and the worst taxes under which Englishmen have ever groaned". Was it really that bad?

Let's look at one small London house to see. In 1985, 2 Gaspar Mews in South Kensington sold for £180,000. Its sale particulars show that the annual rates payment at the time was £1,139 0.63% of its market price. Inflation-adjust £1,139 and you get £2,925.64 today.

Now guess what you would pay in council tax on 2 Gaspar Mews today. It is £1,786. A mere 60% of what the absolute level of tax usedto be. Now look at the relative tax rates.The house is worth around £1.6m now.

So, its annual property tax comes in at not 0.63% of its market price, but just over 0.1%. Relative to the value of the house, the annual levy has collapsed (as for that matter has the ability of councils to collect local revenues).

Look at it like that, and suddenly paying5% in stamp duty when you buy aSouth Kensington mews house doesn'tseem so big a deal. The change might also help us make sense of the rise in house prices in the UK since 1990.

We tend to think that the biggest thing affecting house prices is the cost (and availability) of credit. But that's largely because, today, that is the main cost of owning a house.

However, the collapse in annual property taxes must surely have played a part here too over the past 25 years: if the cost of owning an asset falls substantially, then it should be no surprise that the market price of that asset rises.

It works the other way too, of course, something London buyers might like to bear in mind as the rhetoric around mansion taxes steps up. Perhaps those with spare cash should be buying farms instead of flats?

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.