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Your Micro-Economy vs. the UK's Macro Housing Crash

Mortgage rates fuelled the boom. They're bursting it...

IT MAY NOT look like it, but the UK housing market is cooling off, says John Stepek at MoneyWeek magazine.

Recent house price statistics show UK house prices rising. Yet the market is in fact slowing down.

What does that mean for you?

Nationwide says that prices in May went up by 11.2% year on year.

But that was down a little bit from April's increase.

In any case, there's another bit of data that might be a lot more pertinent. And this piece of housing market data suggests the slowdown is real.

If you're a beleaguered first-time buyer, you may see little to cheer in the latest Nationwide house price data. UK-wide average prices have hit a fresh record high of nearly £270,000.

The average home costs 6.9 time earnings, which is also a record high.

However, what may be more telling is a slightly less prominent housing-related data point:

Mortgage approvals.

Bank of England data show that in April the number of loans approved for new house purchases (as opposed to remortgaging) came in at 66,000.

That was down on March's figure of 69,500. But more importantly, it was also a little bit below the pre-pandemic average.

Now, you could argue that this is just the housing market returning to "normal" levels of activity after the frenzy of the last two years. After all, a combination of lockdown delays, remote-working-driven decisions to abandon the city for the country, and a "petrol on the barbecue" stamp duty holiday have all arguably acted to bring forward house moves and purchases since summer 2020.

But there's more to it than that. Gabriella Dickens over at Pantheon Macroeconomics sees the mild slowdown in the Nationwide data as "further evidence that buyer demand is cooling, as mortgage rates surge and real incomes fall."

As we're always saying, it's that "mortgage rates" point that probably matters the most. Borrowing to buy a house is still cheap. But it's a lot more expensive than it was just a few months ago.

For example, notes Dickens, a two-year fix at a 75% loan-to-value (ie a 25% deposit) "jumped to 2.35% in April, from 2.11% in March and 1.29% six months earlier". That's the sharpest six-month increase since 2003. Pantheon estimates this two year rate will hit about 2.8% by the end of the year.

Obviously that's still cheap in historic terms. But what matters in all these things is the direction of travel.

The simple mathematical truth is this: as mortgage rates rise, the amount that homebuyers can afford to borrow to buy a house goes down. In turn, that means prices have to come down.

Pantheon reckon that as a result of this, the house price year-on-year growth rate will slip to around 5% by the end of 2022. That would represent a significant slowdown and of course, it would also represent a fall in "real" (after-inflation) terms.

Capital Economics has a similar view. Their Andrew Wishart thinks that price growth will slow to 8% this year, but that prices will drop by 5% over the course of 2023 and 2024.

What's interesting is that Wishart thinks this will happen even in the absence of "distressed homeowners being forced to sell their homes...We aren't expecting a large rise in unemployment, so we don't anticipate a jump in possessions either".

Instead, the slowdown will be driven primarily by rising interest rates (which Capital Economics thinks will be a little higher by the end of the year than markets currently expect).

"There have been episodes of house price falls without any increase in financial distress, such as the 5% drop in prices in London between 2017 and 2019."

A cooling housing market is no bad thing. Indeed, it's a good thing, particularly if it goes hand in hand with rising wages. That would improve affordability while avoiding the damaging scenario of a full-on crash.

A house price crash might sound good to some non-homeowners. The problem is what goes with it. If house prices are crashing, there's a pretty high chance that you won't be in a position to take advantage.

Why? Because crashing prices imply two things: one, that banks aren't lending freely, and two, that lots of people are being forced to sell, which implies a very shaky employment situation.

What does this mean for you?

As I always emphasise, if you're looking for a property to live in, then there is no point in trying to time the housing market. I've heard more than a few tales of regret from financially savvy people who thought houses were overvalued 20 years ago and rented in vain.

Like it or not, the UK housing market (in its current manifestation) essentially assumes a norm in which home ownership is the natural end goal for anyone who can afford it. I would prefer a market in which flexibility and affordability for all was the end goal, but that may be idealistic and – as an individual – you have to work with the world as it is.

Moving home is stressful enough without trying to second-guess the macroeconomy. So what really matters is the micro-economy – your micro-economy.

If you buy, can you afford to stay put for a while (housing transaction costs are expensive – you don't want to be moving again in a year)? If you have kids, or you're planning on it, have you checked out the school situation (do not trust estate agents when it comes to navigating the arcane rules of catchment areas)? Do you have a "margin of safety" – enough money to live on for three to six months if something unexpected happens?

Beyond that – better to hope for a cooling-off period accompanied by an inflation-driven improvement in affordability in the short term. And in the longer term, some sort of changes in taxation and planning laws that encouraged less financial jiggery-pokery on the demand side, and more competition and freedom on the supply side, would be nice.

I won't hold my breath though. It's hard to think of two more politically toxic policy areas.

Launched alongside the UK's highly popular The Week digest of global and national news in 2001, MoneyWeek magazine mixes a concise reading of the latest financial events with expert comment and investment ideas.

Please Note: All articles published here are to inform your thinking, not lead it. Only you can decide the best place for your money, and any decision you make will put your money at risk. Information or data included here may have already been overtaken by events – and must be verified elsewhere – should you choose to act on it. Please review our Terms & Conditions for accessing Gold News.

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