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Looking at the latest house price statistics from the various indices this month there appears to be something of a slowdown in price rises, particularly after the somewhat frenzied first quarter of the year.
The newest house price index – from the Office for National Statistics with data from the Land Registry – reported that UK average prices had increased by 8.2% in the year to the end of April, so perhaps that slowdown is not as evident as we might have thought.
And yet, look beyond the national picture to the regions, and you’ll see there are big discrepancies across the country – for instance, in the North East the annual increase was just 0.1%, and if we come right up to date there were house price falls in three regions - the North East, Wales and the South West - between March and April this year.
The anticipation has to be, and I’m expecting a significant drop in transactions between the first two quarters of the year, that prices are likely to (at best) stay where they are, with most commentators suggesting we might see further falls in the months ahead. How big those falls might be seems to depend on some rather large questions being answered.
The big question is of course how prices might react should the UK vote to leave the EU on the 23rd June – an outcome which just a few months ago seemed far-fetched but, according to the opinion polls, seems to become ever more certain as each day passes. While the referendum may still be decided by the ‘don’t knows’ who seem to number at least 12% in every poll, those in favour of a ‘Brexit’ appear to have grown in number and one only need look at the value of sterling and the Footsie in recent days to see how the markets are reacting to such a potential result.
This, of course, despite the repeated warnings from the ‘Remain’ camp about what leaving the EU could mean for the UK’s economy and, of great interest to us, what it might mean for the UK’s housing and mortgage market. House prices, we have been told, could fall by as much as 10-18%, which should be worrying not just for those who own their own home, but also all of us who are employed in one way, shape or form within this market.
Some have suggested this outcome would be good for first-time buyers – and for a select few it might well be – but we must also consider the sector ‘in the round’ not just in terms of one purchaser group. There is some debate, for instance, within the lending community about what a ‘Brexit’ might mean for lenders’ appetite – amid some substantial market uncertainty the suggestion is that lenders could well retreat into themselves in order to see how the new environment plays out.
Why risk significant sums of lending on potentially riskier mortgage borrowers and sectors? What about the fear of sustained house price falls over a much longer period of time than we would normally anticipate? Wouldn’t this curb appetite to lend to customers, especially at higher LTV levels, who could quickly find themselves in negative equity? And what about employment levels – it has been suggested that unemployment could rise, inflation could rise, standard of living costs will rise. All this will have an impact on borrowers’ ability to pay and could well make lenders think again about lending into an environment where arrears could also increase significantly.
For agents, this might well impact further on transaction levels. I say ‘impact further’ because anecdotally many agents I speak to are already talking about the ‘EU Referendum’ impact in the lead-up to the vote as many purchasers decide to wait for the result. What might happen post-23rd June if we are leaving the EU? The negotiations to extricate the UK could well take a number of years – a period of uncertainty lasting this long might well have a serious impact on transactions, which would obviously leave agents on something of a sticky wicket.