James Coney 

Warning signs of property stagnation

James Coney

James Coney

A huge question mark hangs over the housing market at the moment.

It is always dangerous to look at figures for just one month, but there is a pattern starting to build up here, namely falling sales, startlingly higher borrowing, and estate agents and surveyors reporting worrying falls in business.

Most eye-opening from the UK Finance figures for September was the decline in first-time buyers – slipping 4.5 per cent from the previous year.

Home-mover mortgages dropped by 8.4 per cent. Remortgages kept the overall business levels strong.

It was in August I first started to worry following a series of troubling data.

Prices in London had begun falling at their fastest rate since the financial crisis, with regions such as the north east, Winchester, Oxford and Blackpool also losing value. Overall UK prices slowed to their lowest level since 2013.

The number of properties on sale tumbled by as much as 65 per cent in some areas. This, for me, was the only thing keeping prices up: a lack of supply.

And in the middle, buy-to-let continued to collapse.

Beneath the headline September figures is the most troubling data. In the course of a year, loan-to-values on first-time buyer mortgages have increased to 85 per cent. Average borrowing has risen by £6,000 to £145,000.

Income multiples are up, repayments as a proportion of income are up, borrower income is up.

This all paints the picture of a market that is stretched toits limits.

Now you may say that borrowing costs are cheap and this is something not to be overly concerned about: after all, average multiples are just 3.68 times income.

Is it rates, I wonder, that is causing the current stir in the market? I cannot imagine many first-time buyers or people moving home are studying the detailed economic data, but they must at least be aware that the general direction of interest rates is up.

(I don’t believe for a minute this is Brexit nerves – the man and woman in your non-metropolitan town is not making life decisions based on what may happen next March).

Wage growth is now at a 10-year high of 3.2 per cent, and even measured against inflation it is climbing at its fastest rate in two years. It is about time too, given that the economy is at near full employment, but it does not paint a pretty picture for the base rate if you are a borrower.

If consumers really are nervous about the state of the economy, we could see increasing numbers paying down debt than splashing out this Christmas.

Either way, I am not confident about the housing market at the moment. To me it smells like the incredible bull run may be about to come to a juddering halt.