To outsiders the British can seem slightly obsessed with house prices. Yet it is an asset that matters. Two-thirds of UK households are owner occupiers and 35% of household wealth is tied up in property.
The value of that wealth has risen by almost 50% in the last ten years. Taking account of rising house prices and rental costs the average homeowner has enjoyed a return of roughly 8% a year in the last ten years – slightly less than the return from equities but far faster than earnings which have risen by around 2% a year over this period. Since the recession the average homeowner has made far more from increases in the value of their home than from pay rises.
But in the last three years the housing market party has tailed off. UK prices rose by just 1.4% in the last year. London prices fell 1.9% but this has been offset by modest gains in most other parts of the country.
Brexit uncertainties and consumer worries about the economy have weighed on the market, compounding the problem of stretched affordability in London and the South (elsewhere in the UK housing is significantly more affordable). Higher rates of stamp duty on more expensive properties and weaker demand from foreign buyers have had their greatest effect on the London market. Meanwhile increased rates of stamp duty on additional homes, reduced tax reliefs and new regulations have dented the attractiveness of buy-to-let.
But what about the long term outlook for UK house prices?
Over the last 40 years ever easier access to credit and ever lower financing costs have driven a dizzying rise in house prices. The liberalisation of the mortgage and financial markets from the 1980s increased the amount of mortgage credit available to home buyers. Interest rates have trended down since the early 1980s, with quantitative easing eventually collapsing the base rate to just 0.25% – a fraction of the peak rate of 16% seen 25 years earlier. Strong growth in population, an increasing number of single person households and a collapse in house building after the recession have added to the upward pressure on house prices.
It is hard to see the heady gains in house prices of recent decades being repeated in the future. With mortgage rates close to all-time lows there is little scope for major reductions in financing costs. Whereas the trend in financial policy in the 1980s and 1990s was towards liberalisation, today it is towards regulation. That has made lenders more cautious and mortgages rather harder to come by.
Politicians and policymakers are alive to the distributional effects of rising house prices. Rocketing prices have increased the wealth of older, generally higher income people, widening wealth inequalities and making it harder for young people to get on the housing ladder. The focus of policy today has tilted to helping first time buyers and those renting while increasing levels of housebuilding.
It’s been hard not to make money out of housing in the UK in the last 40 years. It is likely to be harder to do so in future.
BY IAN STEWART