As yet more data show that house prices are rising (to record highs) there will be talk of ‘housing market recovery’. But just how fair is it to say that rising house prices are a good thing for most of us and the sign of a healthy market?
Certainly there are advantages for some. The profits and share prices of the major house builders have soared since house prices started rising in the spring. This is because investors know that house builders’ business models rely primarily on high sales prices, not building lots of homes. The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ is certainly a major contributor too, accused by the OBR of pushing up prices and not getting enough homes built.
However I think that there are at least six reasons why rapidly rising house prices are worrying for most of us (including many home owners).
1. More and more young families are priced out…
The first and obvious down-side to rising prices is that young families are locked out. As prices have soared, a whole generation has moved into private rented housing rather than ownership. This means dead money, high rents, poor conditions and high letting agent fees. For most, renting is not what they want but there isn’t a choice.
2. …However parents are feeling the squeeze too
But it’s not just young adults feeling the pinch. The boom in the cost of a first flat means a massive reliance on the Bank of Mum and Dad to get on the ladder. The proportion of young adults (age 25 – 29) who can afford to buy without any help has fallen dramatically since 2005. This erodes older people’s savings for retirement, with 1 in 5 parents who help children with a deposit using retirement savings.
3. If parents can’t afford to help out, their adult children may live at home
While the Bank of Mum and Dad is bursting at the seams for those lucky enough to still have access, there are also many whose parents can’t afford to provide financial help for deposits or rent. For those parents, a very real possibility is that their adult children will not be able to gain independence deep into their 20s or 30s. Three million parents over age 50 have their adult children living at home with them. We know that this has knock on impacts on parents’ finances, with 4 in 10 parents with adult children still at home saying that they still have to do a big family food shop.
4. Rising house prices put the whole economy at risk
The UK has one of the most volatile housing markets in the world, with four boom and bust cycles since the 1970s. For international comparisons, just look at the last boom bust housing cycle in Britain, Spain and Ireland compared to stable Germany.
International House Prices: Britain, Spain, Ireland and Germany (Source: Economist)
Of course, rising prices don’t just risk collapse – they also hurt economic growth and investment. As mortgage consumers, we pump capital and debt into house prices which could be allocated to business growth or spending in the real economy.
5. Rising house prices do not mean more homes get built.
A common misconception is that rising prices mean more homes will be built. This simply isn’t the case with housing. In the jargon, supply of housing is ‘inelastic’ to rising demand. From 1995 to 2007 house prices rose 200% but the number of homes built rose just 12%. There are many reasons for this, but fundamentally we can’t expect house price rises to solve the housing shortage.
6. Rising house prices choke off the mid-market
House prices have become utterly detached from incomes. What this means in practical terms is that the housing market isn’t functioning for families on normal incomes. Increasingly, it’s becoming a millionaire’s market. Data from the land registry shows that in just the last year there has been rapid growth in sales at the top end (£1m plus), moderate growth at the upper end (£300k – £800k) and stagnation and decline in transactions in the mid market (under £300k). As most home buyers would expect to buy and sell between £100k and £300k it is clear that, for most, the market is not healthy.
So, does this mean I think that house prices should crash? No, clearly not. A price crash would be economically disastrous and trap millions in negative equity.
I think we should move towards what I would call the ‘Grant Shapps’ policy on house prices. The Conservative former housing minister argued that we need price stability (a gradual fall in real terms) so that houses are seen as places to live, not speculative investments. He advocates building homes to hold down prices – we agree. The big question we’ll be seeking to answer over the coming months is just how you close that gap between the homes we need and the low number we are currently building.