Does it matter if London house prices fall?

Across central London, it has become standard to offer 10-15% below the asking price. First-time buyers certainly won't mind - nor will many other homeowners in the capital.

How vulnerable are London house prices? asked one Sunday paper this week. Very, if any of the talks with sellers I've had recently are anything to go by.

One friend has been trying to sell his house in Notting Hill on and off for a year or so. Several potential sales at the full asking price have fallen through for one reason or another but he has now finally exchanged with a new buyer at 10 % below the asking price. He says his experience is being replicated all over the centre of London from Chelsea to Clapham: it has become standard to offer 15-20% below the asking price and get 10% off.

Numbers out from Rightmove yesterday pointed to a slowdown in London prices but a real fall is only a matter of time: right now, not many people are prepared to accept low-ball offers (my friend wasn't much bothered he's moving to the country and just wanted out before the offers started coming in at 30% down) so they're hanging on hoping things get better.

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But does it matter if prices fall? Depends on who you ask. Estate agents and the PRs for buy-to-let clubs think it matters. But most first-time buyers don't and the truth is that most London home owners don't think so either. In fact a lot of them are thrilled. Why? Because right now they are trapped in their current homes by high prices.

Say you bought a three-bedroomed house in Shepherds Bush in 1999 when you were earning £55,000, for £400,000. Now you earn £85,000 and it's worth £950,000. That sounds good but it isn't always so. Say you also have three children (six years - it happens) and you need another bedroom. To move to another house in the same area you are going to need another £200,000 plus £40-60,000 in moving costs upfront. You haven't got it and your income hasn't gone up enough to borrow it.

So that's that. There you are stuck in the same house indefinitely. So why would you care if prices came down? You might be worth a little less on paper but you might also be able to start dreaming about moving house.

First published in The Evening Standard 19/2/08

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.