The fallout from the war on landlords

The rental crisis: Investors fleeing the market and the rise in rents are affecting us all.

Estate agent showing a house to a couple interested in renting a home
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Our business is primarily about buying houses and flats – though we do have a busy rental search department in London. 

Why would the majority of our clients be interested in the rental market, in London but also anywhere in the country? To paraphrase Trotsky on the subject of war, you may not be interested in the rental market but the rental market is interested in you. Though you might own your own house, your children may be trying to find somewhere to live after leaving university. You might like the theatre, but where are the actors going to live? And the nurses in the hospital you might need to use? Or anyone without access to some capital, the starting point for any mortgage? As rents go up, disposable income falls – not good if you are a consumer-facing business. You may not need to stand in a queue of 30 people to rent a damp slum but, in one way or another, it affects you.

It is now being called “the rental crisis”. What does this look like? In a nutshell, a massive mismatch between supply and demand. 

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Focusing on London, Rightmove reports that there are an average of 25 requests to view per available property. The number of lets (deals done) is down by 60% from the period between 2017 and 2019. Average rents are now more than 30% higher over the same period, with an 8% increase this year up to August. There are now 41% more tenants looking for 35% fewer properties. Though the rate of increase has slowed slightly in London this year, the trajectory is still upwards. As rent (and mortgage payments) are the main monthly outgoing for most people, certainly those under 40, the effect on the consumer is not pretty. No wonder travel agents, bars and restaurants are reporting tough times. Pay the rent or go on holiday? Not a choice really.

Like the proverbial frog in the pot, this process has been going on for some time and has two main causes. The first has been what amounts to a war by the government on landlords. This started with the withdrawal of the ability to put mortgage interest costs against rental income for tax purposes. This was finally phased out in 2020 and made the returns from residential property distinctly less attractive. This only applied to residential property, not commercial, the logic of which is not immediately apparent. At the same time government regulation, entirely well meant in protecting tenants’ interests, has made life as a landlord more difficult. The latest Renters (Reform) Bill, among other things, outlaws no-fault evictions. In 2016 a 3% surcharge was added to stamp duty for anyone purchasing a buy-to-let.

The other key factor is the rise in interest rates. This has had two effects. For any landlords who were wondering if the returns made up for the hassle, it made up their minds for them, and they have exited the market. For those thinking of going in, the income sums didn’t add up and the prospect of capital gains (which has fuelled the market for the last 30 years) has turned into a prospective capital loss in a falling market. On the other side of the fence, interest rates have dealt a blow to prospective buyers who can no longer afford to buy and are now thrown back on the rental market, adding to the ranks of too many tenants chasing too few properties. A perfect storm on both sides of the rental divide and a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.

The number of lets has fallen by 60% from the period 2017-2019

The irony is that much of the government legislation doesn’t affect the truly egregious landlords who are mainly at the bottom of the market, servicing students and those on social security. This is a market where deposits are often just deferred rent and where the minimum standards for just about anything are often not met. These are properties that can yield north of 10%, compared to barely 2% net in London. Higher interest rates affect the first but are, to some extent, compensated for by higher rents and desperate tenants. But they fundamentally change the equation for the second.

Where does this all end? Not soon, certainly, with a lame-duck government that has had 15 housing ministers in the last 13 years: a prize for anyone that can name the latest? If they’ve been midwives to the mess we are in, it’s unlikely they will be clearing it up, certainly not in a year. So what will Labour do? They are not ideologically on the side of landlords – rentier is a pejorative term in left-wing circles. But it must be obvious that a dysfunctional rental market is bad for everyone and with higher interest rates becoming the new normal, the owner-occupied market isn’t riding to the rescue. It is unrealistic to think that a Labour government is going to row back on legislation that protects tenants, but the tax treatment of interest on buy-to-let mortgages is something that might make potential landlords think again and keep existing ones in the game.

The reality is that being a residential landlord is hard work, and the circumstances that drew investors to this market have changed. Labour doesn’t need to hug a landlord – only to accept that while one side of the market needs protection, the other needs to be made profitable enough to make the sweat worthwhile.

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Charlie Ellingworth

Charlie Ellingworth has a history degree from Oxford. He has over 30 years' experience in the property business. He started his financial career with Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong, and is a co-founder of Property Vision, the market-leading property search company, which was sold to HSBC Private Bank and then bought back by the existing partnership. He is a director and trustee of the Cadogan Estate as well as other property-based entities. He has written two novels, Silent Night and A Bitter Harvest, which were published by Quartet, and has written articles for the Financial Times and various magazines. He is involved with helping refugees, and is a keen sailor and pilot of small planes and paragliders. He lives in Somerset and London and is married with three sons.