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For those considering whether now is the moment to buy, these are disorienting times. When Kate Faulkner recently looked for a home in the city of Peterborough — a growing location for London commuters — she found comparable properties within one square mile whose prices were going up, down or were completely flat.

“There are as many different markets in one city as there are across the country,” said the founder of Property Checklists, a website and advice provider. 

With price growth slowing in former hotspots, transaction levels stuttering and an uncertain period for Britain’s economy in prospect, the housing market has been drawing in its horns. Buy-to-let investors are hemmed in by new taxes and regulations, while owner-occupiers are reconsidering high-risk property moves as interest rates start to rise and mortgage affordability rules remain tight. 

This week, Bank of England governor Mark Carney delivered a stunning warning that house prices could be 35 per cent lower than would otherwise be the case three years after a disruptive “no-deal Brexit”.

Some, however, believe today’s uncertain market offers precisely the conditions in which canny purchasers can find opportunities to strike a property bargain. After experts tackled the issues on stage at the FT Weekend Festival last weekend, FT Money assesses the outlook for anyone thinking of pushing the boat out on a home purchase. Is property still a good investment? 

City home divisions

Belfast

Average house prices down 28 per cent, 2008-18

Cambridge

Average house prices up 70 per cent, 2008-18

A journey of price discovery

A housing cycle is under way across the UK, said Richard Donnell, director of housing market analyst Hometrack, told a packed marquee of FT Money readers at the festival. But depending on where you are in the UK, it could either be coming to an end or it is just getting going. While growth is powering ahead in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, it is flagging or going into reverse in places like Aberdeen and parts of London, according to Hometrack’s latest prognostications

There are other parts of the UK that are still to see the ripple effects of formerly stratospheric growth in London and the Southeast — a trend that stalled roughly three years ago. “Five cities are 50 per cent higher [in price terms] than they were 10 years ago,” said Mr Donnell, with Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol among them. “But there are four cities such as Glasgow and Newcastle that are still at 2008 levels or even lower.”

The decidedly mixed picture he set out is reflected by lacklustre levels of activity in the housing market. The number of housing transactions has been stuck at the same level for four years — around 1.2m per year — but in London, where the market slowdown has been particularly marked in central or “prime” areas, turnover is down by 20 per cent over four years. Sellers are coming to terms with the fact that there are fewer buyers on the ground, and today’s house hunters are making higher demands of vendors. 

But some of those sellers are not yet willing to acknowledge that a material change in sentiment has taken place. One indicator of this is the gap between asking and selling prices, which stands at 10 per cent in central London, said Mr Donnell. In Manchester and Birmingham it has narrowed to about 2.5 per cent. 

“In London we’re on a journey of price discovery. [Buying a home] is about finding the people who are serious about selling, who are happy to take that haircut on price to get on with their life. It takes a couple of years for sellers to take that on.” 

The human factor

Among asset classes, housing often carries a strong emotional connection for its owner-occupiers — a connection that few would ascribe to the equity funds sitting in their Isa. Ed Mead, founder of property services company Viewber, expounded on the limitations of statistics in informing a decision about how to put a roof over one’s head — something that is essentially “a human endeavour”. 

To ask the question whether property remains a good investment may have been uncontroversial in the FT Money tent, but Mr Mead, an industry veteran, said it marked a long-term and lamentable shift in public attitudes over the function of housing and the development of a national obsession with house prices. 

“In my lifetime, it’s gone from being a home to being an investment,” he said. “The Brits have a macho problem with property prices. I do wish people would stop worrying about their inherent value being associated with their house.”

He was bullish, nonetheless, on the logic of pressing ahead with a purchase today. Pricing may be hard to pinpoint in a sluggish market with low turnover, he said, but the fact that everyone in an area was in the same position meant losses on one side of a transaction can easily become gains on the other. 

“I think it’s the best time there’s ever been to buy in London,” he said. “Most people sell because they want to buy something bigger. Say you’ve got a £1m house that’s now worth £850,000. You’re trying to buy your dream house, which might have cost you £3m three years ago, and you can probably buy it now for £2.25m. Who’s winning there?”

His qualified optimism about the capital’s property market — in spite of falling prices in many boroughs — was shared by Henry Pryor, an independent buying agent speaking a stone’s throw away on the festival’s House & Home stage.

“Uncertainty is bringing with it opportunity because people don’t know how their sale is going to go, or how far their budget will stretch,” said Mr Pryor. “As a result, people are jumping the wrong way. Sometimes people are selling for less than they might have been able to get and in other cases other people are sitting tight.”

The difficulty of finding the right price in this climate of uncertainty, however, has brought interesting developments in the way people are marketing their homes. Terrified of putting their house on the market at the wrong level and either sparking no interest or leaving money on the table with a price pitched too low, vendors are increasingly turning to “ off-market sales”.

These allow them to put the word out among selected potential buyers, without publicly advertising the sale. Mr Mead said there had been “real growth” in the number of off-market websites such as Invisible Homes in Fulham — an area where sellers have had to accept lower prices than expected in the past two years. “They’re designed to try and show whether you’ve made a balls-up on the price before you take it to the market. They’ve become very popular,” he said.

Buy-to-let pressures

For owner-occupiers, investing in property can mean stretching oneself on a mortgage in the belief that a house is undervalued, or will rise in value following a revamp. But market purists might consider mainstream “property investment” to refer to the buy-to-let sector. 

There, the experts agreed, the outlook is not rosy. Landlord investors have been in high dudgeon after a series of tax and regulatory changes that have hit profits and raised the costs of investment. Extra stamp duty in the form of a three percentage point surcharge on buy-to-let purchases introduced two years ago is one drag on the sector. Arguably, the more damaging move for highly leveraged landlords is the loss of higher rate tax relief on their mortgage interest, which is being eradicated in stages, disappearing for good in 2020. Mortgage affordability has also been curtailed by stringent “stress tests” demanded by regulators. 

“All the benefits to owning a buy-to-let property are being taken away,” said Mr Mead.

The hit to higher-rate taxpayers has come together with the prospect of higher interest rates on buy-to-let mortgages after base rate rises, causing landlord owners to question their underlying rationale for investment and squeezing out those who pin their hopes on a short-term return via capital growth. 

Mr Donnell offered a glimmer of hope in urging a different mindset on landlord investors. What buy-to-let still offers is a pension-style income stream that delivers a monthly cash flow from a property, he said. This can allow investors who are no longer working to benefit from earnings growth in the form of higher rents. 

“Yields are low, but if you invest in the right markets this long-term link between rental and earnings growth is to me the underlying attraction of investing,” he said. “Learning to love the cash flow and taking what the housing market gives you on house price inflation is the way to approach investment.”

As London’s rental yields have paled against those achievable in the expanding cities of the north, investors based in the south are fishing further from their home territories in search of better returns. But the arms-length nature of such deals brought sharp warnings from Ms Faulkner about the need for fine-grained research into proposed areas for investment, with good and bad deals aplenty even on the same street. 

“Your best friend if you’re investing outside an area you know is sold property price data. This is what you should focus on. You must find a good surveyor and agent and be very wary about property sourcing companies,” she said. 

Does the loss of easy returns from price growth mean we will see a return of the classic “doer-upper” investor? Mr Pryor said the option of improving the value of a home through refurbishment or development had not gone away. “You can make money with property by repurposing something that isn’t attractive today, turning it through 90 degrees, and adding a second bedroom or a mansard.” 

In the FT Money tent, though, Ms Faulkner was sceptical, arguing that the “Sarah Beeny” effect, named after the TV presenter who sparked a surge in DIY property development, was fully played out in a crowded market, replete with people inclined to “go bonkers” over a derelict property.

“Far more people want to renovate properties than properties are available,” she said. “Some want to buy just to have the experience. The only way you can do it is to buy with cash, and buy something nobody would touch with a barge pole.” 

Safe as houses? Discussing the issues at the FT Weekend Festival are: left to right: Richard Donnell, Hometrack; Kate Faulkner, Property Checklists; Ed Mead, Viewber; and James Pickford, deputy editor FT Money

The Brexit discount

One of the thorniest questions for those mulling a purchase or sale in the next few months is the extent to which the as yet unknown mechanics of Britain’s departure from the EU will affect any move they make in the market. Will a good Brexit deal cause prices to surge, or will they plummet should Britain crash out without agreements in place? 

The “wait and see” approach already adopted by those not facing a forced sale or purchase will be followed more widely towards the end of this year, said Mr Pryor, as the political situation comes to a head before March 2019. In his view, this creeping reticence will tell on prices, leading to a drop of roughly 5 per cent in the second quarter of 2019. 

“If you’re going out to buy what for most people will be their most expensive single asset, how brave have you got to be to commit to that purchase rather than do what I think most people will do and say — let’s just wait until June?”

Sharing the stage with Mr Pryor — as well as his view of the slowing effect of Brexit uncertainty — was Stephanie McMahon, head of research at estate agent Strutt & Parker. But asked when the clouds might lift in the capital, she predicted the beginnings of a recovery “towards the back end of next year”. 

One effect that she pinpointed was a fall in the share of the capital’s homes being bought by overseas purchasers — a trend that is likely to accelerate until the uncertainty over Britain’s future status begins to dissipate. 

“We’re seeing less activity from international buyers. UK domestic buyers are now 80 per cent of London transactions. If you’re staying in the UK you have to make decisions, you have to change home whether you’ve had children or changed jobs.”

Neal Hudson, director of market research company Residential Analysts and another speaker on the House & Home stage, said a hard Brexit was likely to result in further stagnation and, in terms of the likely price drop, “a lot more pain than 5 per cent”. 

He also cast doubt on the idea that sharply falling prices in London would have a silver lining: that hard-pressed first-time buyers might thereby be brought within reach of a purchase. 

“If we had something more severe — a hard Brexit — there would be rising mortgage interest rates and stressed affordability. Prices might come down more, but if you’re a first-time buyer trying to get into the market, the lenders are probably just going to shut up shop.” 

Such sentiments were echoed in Mr Carney’s recent comments to ministers about a disorderly Brexit. A property price crash would be driven by rising unemployment, depressed economic growth, higher inflation and higher interest rates, the governor warned.

Mr Mead advised property buyers preparing to weather the turbulence associated with Brexit to take a long-term view.

“You can spend an awful lot of time getting very confused by this stuff. It doesn’t matter what you think is going to happen in the next year or so. People love Britain because it’s safe and economically stable. It’s not going to lose its lustre. So long as you take a long-term view, if you see something you like and it makes sense to you, buy it.”

Is it really harder to be a first-time buyer now?

Today’s conventional wisdom is that young buyers face unprecedented difficulties in getting a first home. For one audience member in the FT Money tent at last week’s FT Weekend Festival, it was an assumption worth questioning.

“I bought my first house in 1971 . . . I didn’t have a Bank of Mum and Dad. I lived with my mother-in-law for free for a few months. The interest rate was 7 per cent and in the 1990s I was paying double-digit interest. Is it genuinely more expensive to get on the property ladder now than it was 40 years ago?” he asked experts on a panel discussing property investment.

With 40 years in the industry, Ed Mead, founder of property services company Viewber, was sympathetic, pointing out that beyond London and the Southeast, nominal house prices had often remained unmoved over the decade. “If nominal house prices are looking the same as they were 10-12 years ago, that’s got to be cheap.”

But the panel agreed that the nature of the challenge facing first-time buyers had shifted over the decades from paying high interest on home loans to paying high deposits, and satisfying much more stringent mortgage requirements to qualify for the loan in the first place.

With current mortgage interest rates at about 2 per cent, it is cheaper for London renters to buy the property they live in than to rent it, said Richard Donnell, director of housing market analyst Hometrack. But the problem lies in the affordability test required by lenders, for which borrowers must show they can afford much higher rates of interest.

“You’ve got to prove to your bank that at a stress rate of 7 per cent you’ve got another £1,000 of disposable income to pay towards your mortgage so you can afford that property. That’s the real binding effect for first-time buyers particularly in London and it’s a huge affordability hurdle for people to get on the ladder.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.