With property values still down on their 2007 peak and with a prolonged trough or second dip in the UK market still on the cards, you might imagine that a housing market analyst who sold all her real estate near the top of the market and has moved with her family to a very nice, rented, house in the country would be feeling rather smug.
Not this one. I have never felt so uneasy about being out of the property market. There are two main reasons I do not like being without a house of our own. The first is short term. Having a chunk of cash on deposit may, you might think, be a nice problem to have. But with base rates at half of 1 per cent we don’t have much interest in it, if you’ll excuse the pun. I’m sure these circumstances have encouraged many other equity-rich homeowners and investors back into the housing and property investment markets in the past year, if only to benefit from an income yield north of 4 per cent.
We then have the problem of where to put the money if not in bricks and mortar. Friends who cleverly sold at the top of the market were hours away from transferring their cash to IceSave before it crashed. I have never been so interested in the health of deposit-taking institutions as I am now. The second source of uneasiness is the longer term implications. I worry that we might never be able to buy the property we want in the place we want it at a price we can afford. I have a firm belief that, no matter what might happen in the next few years, a shortage of desirable homes in the right places will ensure upward pressure on prices. While credit conditions remain constrained but cheap, that only seems to serve to make fewer of them available. I don’t want to be priced out before I can get back in.
What I am beginning to realise is that most people, probably rightly, see homeownership as a good, long-term proposition. I do not relish having to continually fork out increasing rent; if I own a house, I know I will have a roof over my head – whatever happens to prices. Friends say this is typical of the British psyche and I hear the words “an Englishman’s home is his castle” rather a lot. But I have no problem with the so-called stigma of renting – I believe that disappeared with the 100 per cent mortgage. Neither am I emotionally attached to the notion of homeownership: by dint of luck or good judgment I foresaw the last property market downturn and happily spent three years out of the market after 1989.
But circumstances are different now. A young singleton might be able to step lightly from one tenure and location to another but housing choices are not the same as investment choices. Houses are made of bricks and mortar, not investment returns, and they involve different lifestyle-driven decisions. We did not exit homeownership this time round because of my reading of the market, economic and investment conditions. We got out because my husband, daughter and I wanted to sail, attend a nice country school and get some fresh air respectively. To my professional shame, we couldn’t secure anywhere to buy where we wanted to be, despite house-hunting for eight months. Little has been coming to the market in our area and we have not been willing to over-bid in the frenzied competition when something has.
I imagine that getting one’s own investment choices and timings right is not only a matter of personal pride for an equity or other investment market analyst. Clients are all the more willing to take advice from those who can demonstrate a track record, putting their own money where their mouth is. As a residential property market analyst, though, this seems more difficult to do.
Given my department’s forecasts for UK prices in the next year (minus 6 per cent), you might expect us all to have disinvested and be hoarding the proceeds but my fellow directors have just invested in home improvements or traded up to a larger property.
All this, I think, amply illustrates the composite nature of housing value. In my 20s I speculated shamelessly with 100 per cent gearing on my first house purchase but my home was not solely a speculative punt – as a bet on, say, house-price futures would have been. It provided shelter and saved me rent. Subsequently, my family’s homes have been a mixture of utility, consumer good, luxury good, even a creative outlet. They have also acted as a kind of giant piggy bank – a savings vehicle containing the vast majority of our household wealth – and of course they’ve been a great investment – but not solely an investment vehicle.
As a property researcher, I forget this variety of human motivations operating in the housing market at my peril. The trick maybe is to understand which of the forces is dominant and why. Now, the market is a piggy bank for those fed up with low returns on deposit and a luxury good where rarity commands demand.
Yolande Barnes is director of research at international estate agency Savills
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