A 'top of the market' tale?

Typical 'top of the housing market' stories are appearing in the press, says John Stepek. But it's too soon to head for the hills.

Is this the end of the road for UK property? The poster couple of British buy-to-let, Fergus and Judith Wilson, the former maths teachers who built a rental empire across three towns in Kent, are selling up.

Breathless headlines have told of how the pair are in line to make £100m profit by offloading their 1,000-strong property portfolio. "We are selling up the whole lot," said Mr Wilson.

"The market has recovered and passed the 2007 level." Apparently, they are hoping to sell the whole package "to a wealthy investor or institution", says The Daily Telegraph.

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It's a classic top-of-the-market story. Coming, as it does, at a time when the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, is under growing pressure to raise UK interest rates (even if only by a little), it's tempting to think that the Wilsons have seen the writing on the wall despite Mr Wilson's protestations that it's all about his desire to retire, rather than the state of the market.

But before you start get too excited about the prospect of another collapse in house prices, it's worth noting this isn't the first time the Wilsons have talked of selling up. In March 2010, they told The Guardian's Patrick Collinson that they were getting out buy-to-let was "absolutely dead and will never return".

They had 700 properties back then, not the 1,000 they now hold. An early attempt to sell to an institutional investor had fallen through, and they were instead selling the properties individually, at a rate of about two a week.

Given that we're talking about unleashing a supply of hundreds of properties across just three towns Ashford, Maidstone, and Folkestone I struggled to understand how they could possibly get out of the market in one piece. It seems they never did.

Four years on from that interview, they're planning to retire again but this time they have another 300 properties to sell.

I can certainly see why they'd want to get out now. They've gone from an incredibly precarious position in 2008, when they were bailed out by the Bank of England slashing interest rates and thus their mortgage payments, to being back in clover now on paper, at least. But I'm wondering if an institutional buyer will be any more willing to buy this time round.

The properties are said to yield an average of 6%. In these times of investors reaching for yield', maybe there is someone out there desperate enough to buy a heavily concentrated portfolio of residential homes for a single-digit yield a portfolio that also happens to be in the English county that's the prime location for any new towns that actually end up being built in the near future.

If that's the case, and this time round the Wilsons actually manage to shift this lot onto an institutional buyer, I'd agree that it's time to head for the hills but in reality, I suspect this isn't the last time we'll hear about the Wilsons retiring'.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.