Are UK house prices finally heading for a crash?

The latest house price figures show a fall of 0.1% in July. With interest rates rising, inflation hitting double figures and a recession on the cards, are we finally about to see a house price crash?

Couple looking in an estate agent's window
Have house prices peaked?
(Image credit: © Getty Images)

Good morning. As you may be aware if you read Dominic’s article (I didn’t pay him to write that, honestly), I’m leaving MoneyWeek after 17 years. So this’ll be my last Money Morning.

And what better topic to round off those 17 years than the one that has vexed us all more than any other during that period.

The wonderful UK housing market.

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The economic outlook is horrendous, if the Bank of England is even half-right

Yesterday the Bank of England raised interest rates by half a percentage point, to 1.75%. It also issued one of its gloomiest ever forecasts.

The Bank reckons that inflation will hit 13% before the end of the year (and remember that’s CPI, so RPI – the one we used to use – will probably be closer to 15%). It’ll stay at double-digit levels until at least the middle of next year.

That’s not great. But on top of that, the Bank expects the economy to be in recession by the end of the year, and for that to last for the entirety of 2023.

As a result, real (after-inflation) post-tax incomes will fall by more than 5% during that period, which is the worst drop on record.

That’s extremely grim. That’s stagflation and then some.

The obvious question is: why raise rates? We discussed that in more detail yesterday, but the short answer is that it doesn’t really have much choice. This is not a pain that central banks can alleviate with the tools available.

Given the gloomy prognosis, it’s perhaps appropriate timing that after an extraordinarily bullish run, this morning brought news that the housing market might finally be showing some signs of weakness.

According to Halifax, house prices fell by 0.1% between June and July. That doesn’t sound like much – it isn’t much – but it’s the first such drop in a year. Prices are now up 11.8% on the year, down from 12.5% last month. Moreover, Nationwide’s most recent report said something similar (prices fell by 0.3% on the month).

As we’ve always pointed out here at MoneyWeek, the main driver of soaring house prices has been falling interest rates. It’s practically a mechanical relationship. (That doesn’t mean our planning laws are any good, or that we shouldn’t build more houses – it’s just that physical supply is not the main driver of prices.)

Once you understand this, it’s pretty obvious why prices might be starting to wilt. As Neal Hudson of BuiltPlace points out, mortgage rates are shooting up. In July last year, you could get a two-year fixed rate mortgage at 60% loan-to-value (ie, a 40% deposit, or equity in your house) for 1.16%. Now the average rate is 3.44%.

That is going to make a big difference to the amount of money a new borrower can lend, and it’s going to make a big difference to the monthly payments for an existing borrower coming to the end of a fix (for more on all this, read Ruth’s latest monthly mortgage update).

Throw in everyone (rightly) worrying about the extraordinary rise in energy bills which is either already hitting or about to hit extremely hard, and you can see why people might be pulling back somewhat.

Capital Economics is now forecasting a 5% drop in house prices over the next two years. That seems very possible. If things carry on as they are, it might seem overly optimistic.

If we’re getting a year-long recession on top of double-digit inflation and rising mortgage rates, then the final component necessary for a full-blown crash – rising unemployment, which means rising repossessions and forced sellers – might well arrive too.

What’s the case for optimism?

The irony that I might be writing my final MM right at the peak of a housing market about which I have complained bitterly for the best part of two decades is not lost on me. (As Dominic pointed out, “you’ve become your own contrarian indicator”.)

So is there any way to avoid this unpleasant scenario? It would be much, much better for all concerned if house prices deflated in “real” terms via wages rising and prices stalling. That’s still possible, but it’s not easy to see how we get from where we are to there.

The obvious factor that could forestall all of this is government intervention. We’ve seen plenty of intervention in the housing market over the years, but I don’t think this would be the priority of the incoming prime minister.

It’s clear that the biggest factor in the current squeeze on incomes is energy prices. Addressing this is going to turn into a priority as winter comes and households face a succession of price hikes.

However, it’s also worth noting that even if we get a very significant intervention in the energy market (probably at the consumer end), that would make it easier, rather than harder, for the Bank to continue raising interest rates.

So, to cut a long story short – the optimistic case is that the sting is taken out of energy bills, the consumer stays relatively healthy, and unemployment therefore stays low. Meanwhile, higher interest rates mean the housing market cools right down, allowing wage growth to surpass price growth, meaning a genuine improvement in affordability. Savers also finally get a little bit of a break (though maybe not that much of one).

And I think, on a perhaps uncharacteristically hopeful note, I’ll leave it there.

You’ve been a fantastic audience. Thank you for your support over the last 17 years, particularly to those who’ve been there since day one.

It’s a privilege to have your attention and I hope I can keep it – I’ll be back writing about money after the summer, so I’m hoping you’ll continue reading at my new venue. Meanwhile, you can follow me on Twitter at @John_Stepek and I’m also on LinkedIn.

Until we meet again – may all your investments be suitably diversified ten-baggers.

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.