Someone at the Building Societies Association is feeling cheerful. Their latest press release is headed “Barriers to home ownership fall as housing market sentiment improves”. According to the BSA’s property tracker, “raising a deposit – the single biggest barrier since 2010 – is now at its lowest level for six years”. What is more, from September to December 2015, access to mortgage finance as a barrier to home ownership dropped from 41% to 38%, the affordability of monthly mortgage repayments fell from 35% to 33% and lack of job security is now at 26%, down from 28%.
However before we all get too excited, we all ought to just stop and ask ourselves what these figures represent – and the answer is, not very much. Essentially the BSA’s property tracker is a quarterly opinion poll of how 2,000 adults are feeling about their prospects of buying a house and we all know how well opinion polls, especially online ones have been at reflecting the public mood over the last few years.
Despite its desperate attempt to be cheerful, even this report admits that raising a deposit presents a barrier to 52% of house buyers. This may be down from 59% in September 2015 and the high of 69% in September 2011, but it is hardly a cue to hang out the bunting. In answer to the question Is now a good time to buy a property, there was no change in the number of those agreeing and even after factoring in the reduction in those who disagreed, we seem only to be talking about a 1% shift, equating to a mere 20 of the people asked.
By comparison, the Resolution Foundation think tank has put this increased optimism into perspective by using the Bank of England’s latest survey of household finances to show that with house prices rising sharply, it would now take almost a quarter of a century for low- and middle-income households to accumulate a deposit, if they set aside 5% of their disposable income each year. In Oxford this translates into the average house price being nearly 15 times the local average salary causing it to overtake London as the UK’s least affordable city. In London the multiple is 13.6 times the average wage while Cambridge is third on the list with an average house price 11.7 times what residents take home.
The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ annual housing market forecast also gives a more realistic picture which indicates that house prices in the UK will see an average increase of 6% over the course of 2016 with the shortfall in supply continuing to push prices higher. The RICS also identifies how the government’s obsession with promoting home ownership is adversely affecting alternatives to the holy grail of home ownership. Buy to let landlords may not be the political flavour of the month but the RICS thinks that over the next five years, the cost of renting in the UK could rise faster than house prices with tenants having to pay at least 25% more than they do now.
Government responses to this seem to be still linked around making it easier for buyers to buy without the related increase in supply that will cause prices to stabilise. Nor does the government seem to grasp that old-fashioned competition between different types of occupation might also have its part to play. Put bluntly, if home ownership is something to aspire to, it’s something that most people will not attain immediately and until they do so, they need to rent, whether it be from local authorities, housing associations, property investment companies or even private individuals. If all four of these groups, as well as those seeking to buy for their own occupation, were active in the market and encouraged to invest as much as possible, we might well find that all these problems would disappear and we would genuinely have a reason to be cheerful.