Lethargic, but there’s life yet in the housing market

Liverpool © iStock
House prices in Liverpool have gained 6% in the past year

The national housing market is running out of puff. But there are still plenty of regional bright spots.

“Lethargy is replacing energy” in the property market. These were the cheery words of a former chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) in reaction to Halifax’s latest house-price index. In the three months to November, house prices were 0.3% higher than in the same three months a year earlier, with the average cost of a home now £224,578. This is down from the 1.5% annual growth recorded in October, and the lowest rate of growth since December 2012.

But while this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the state of the UK housing market, it’s important to look beyond the inevitably gloomy headlines. In the 12 months to September, the parts of the UK that saw the biggest drops in house prices were both in London – in Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster, with annual drops of 9.9% and 6.3% respectively.

The areas with the strongest growth were the Forest of Dean and Burnley. In both places, house prices rose by approximately 10.5%, according to figures from estate agent Savills. They were followed closely by Stirling, with a 10% increase.

London leads the decline

With house-price growth at its lowest rate in six years, the overall market as a whole is certainly sluggish. In cities and major towns across Britain, properties are taking longer to sell, sitting on the market for 102 days, which is six days longer than in 2017, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Moreover, the average number of sales per surveyor has fallen fallen to 14.1 across a three-month period, the lowest it has been since 2009, says Savills, drawing on data from Rics. However, it’s useful to acknowledge the extent to which the wider market can be brought down by price falls in the southeast, which has been overvalued for a long time.

Of the 20 cities monitored by the Hometrack UK Cities House Price index, prices fell year-on-year by 0.4% in London and 1.1% in Cambridge. Yet prices were up 7.7% in Leicester, 7.4% in Edinburgh, and around 6% in Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Liverpool.

Leave Brexit out of this

There’s also been a lot of discussion of the idea that the UK market is struggling because people looking to buy are biding their time on Brexit. Yet there’s actually “little evidence that Brexit uncertainty has led to pent-up demand in the housing market”, says consultancy Capital Economics. If it has dampened transactions, the effect has been “minor”. Since the referendum, housing transactions have averaged 100,000 per month. That’s down only a little, relative to the average of 102,000 seen over 2014 and 2015.

There is obviously a case for suggesting transactions might have gone up if we hadn’t voted to leave the EU, acknowledges Capital Economics. But “a multitude of non-Brexit related factors have been weighing on activity in recent years”.

These include higher stamp duty for second homes, lower mortgage interest tax relief, and rising interest rates driving up the cost of borrowing. “So even if a Brexit deal is struck, we see little prospect of a rise in housing transactions next year.” Now is not the ideal time to sell your London home. And the stagnant number of transactions is hardly encouraging for estate agents and surveyors. But for most of the UK, the housing market is actually holding up reasonably well.