Is there a housing bubble?

3 June 2013

The spring of 2013 may well be remembered for a boom in stockmarkets.

The FTSE 100 touched a 12-year high and across the pond the Dow Jones closed above 15000 for the first time.

But there was also good news for the housing market, with UK house prices hitting their highest level in almost three years.

In April the average house price in the UK rose 2% year-on-year to £166,094, according to Halifax. This is the highest level since August 2010.

Martin Ellis, housing economist at Halifax, attributes the rise to cheap mortgage rates. He comments: "Mortgage payments for a new borrower remain significantly below the long-term average as a proportion of disposable earnings […] and this provides support for house prices."

Over at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, its survey of estate agents in April revealed that new buyer enquiries increased at their fastest rate in more than three years.

The institution notes: "This reflects in part the success of the Funding for Lending scheme in both bringing down mortgage rates and encouraging banks to lend higher multiples. However, the latest jump in enquiries strongly suggests the Help to Buy proposition [where the government guarantees up to 15% of a mortgage on homes worth up to £600,000] is attracting interest, even if the mortgage guarantee element of the product is not due to come into effect until next year."

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Then in May property website Rightmove (RMV) announced that house prices had been so buoyant in the capital this year that the average London home will now set buyers back half a million pounds. The website said the average of £509,870 in the capital is more than £16,000 higher than a month earlier. It is also more than double the average asking price across England and Wales of £249,841.

However, the rash of positive news prompted some housing market commentators to warn that government schemes may be inflating a housing bubble and that a recovering housing market is "disastrous" for first-time buyers.

Turning up the heat

Property expert Henry Pryor says Funding for Lending and Help to Buy have doubtless "turned up the heat" in the housing market. He does not see this as a long-term situation, however, and expects the market to revert in around three years and for prices to "come off the boil". He adds that the initiatives "don't do anything practical to solve the biggest problem - namely the national housing crisis".

Indeed, even outgoing Bank of England governor Mervyn King has warned that Help to Buy should not be made permanent, as it's too similar to state-backed mortgage schemes in the US that had to be bailed out.

Mark Harris, chief executive of mortgage broker SPF Private Clients, says national average house price indices should be taken with "a large pinch of salt" as they conceal significant regional differences.

However, looking at the national figures, he says a recovering housing market is good news for homeowners, "particularly those second steppers who are trapped in a home that has become too small but [don't have] enough equity to move up the ladder. By moving up, they free homes for first-time buyers".

But, he argues that rising house prices are "disastrous for would-be first-time buyers struggling to pull together a deposit".

Ben Thompson, managing director of Legal & General Mortgage Club, takes a more balanced view. He says the priority is economic growth and adds: "So if house price rises lead to increased consumer confidence and subsequently increased spending, the rise will be judged as having been a good thing".

According to Thompson, the main issue is to ensure more new homes are built "in the right areas to match current and future demand more evenly, thus taking future price bubbles out of the equation".

He adds: "We are a very long way from achieving those build levels in many areas and this needs urgent attention. Having a greater housing supply would to an extent control price rises, in the longer term make home ownership more than just a pipe dream for many and at least bring some balance to a housing market that is already showing signs of recovering at pace."

This article was written for our sister publication Money Observer


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