Housing market can't shake stagnation

property for sale signsHouse sales have reached near record lows, but is there a silver bullet for the UK property market?

The number of house sales last year dropped 11,000 to just 869,000, almost hitting the lowest annual total since records began, according to figures from HM Revenue & Customs.To put the figures in perspective, the total number of house sales last year was almost half the figure recorded in 2006 (1,669,000), before the credit crunch.

The only worse-performing year was 2009, in the depth of the recession, when just 848,000 homes were sold.
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And there is little hope that 2012 is going to be any better for the housing market. In fact, property portal Rightmove reported this week that the number of new homes for sale has plummeted to a 10-year low.

Just 34,433 properties have come onto the market since the New Year – around half of the levels seen before the credit crunch.

Can't buy, won't sell

Figures released today from HSBC highlight consumers' lack of motivation to move in the current climate. It reckons that only 12% of Brits intend to buy or sell property in the first half of this year (which of course means that far fewer will).

The bank's study suggests that buyers and sellers have reached an impasse that is proving difficult to breach, pointing to a 'generational divide' causing the housing market to stagnate.

Put simply, young people are unable to buy and older people are unwilling to sell.

The problems faced by wannabe first-time buyers are well known. In the wake of the credit crunch lenders have become far more particular about lending mortgages. They require bigger deposits and squeaky clean credit records, making it hard for many first-timers to reach that all-important first rung of the ladder.

The HSBC survey shows that the main deterrents to buying property for the under-34s are having an insufficient deposit (29%), concern about not getting a mortgage (15%) and fears about employment prospects (14%).

At the same time many older householders are not willing to move, limiting the amount of available housing stock, with six in 10 of those staying put citing contentment with their current property.

Of course, there are also those potential sellers who are unwilling or unable (because of their mortgage size) to reduce their house price to a level that buyers are actually willing to pay.
Little wonder that housing transactions are in the doldrums and look like they will stay there for some time.

Clouds on the horizon

The Council of Mortgage Lenders has predicted that lending will fall this year compared to 2011, forecasting gross mortgage lending of just £133bn. This sounds like a lot of money but in 2007 gross lending toppled £363bn.

In fact, the last week has seen a glut of gloomy stats and stories for the property market, from the EU directive that could send repossessions through the roof (Will new EU law threaten your home?), to the news that first-time buyers have to wait an average of 22 years to get onto the first foothold of the housing ladder (22-year wait to buy first home).

With consumer confidence at a low and bleak economic prospects it is hard for even the most optimistic to see how the market can be kick-started.

Is there a silver bullet?

More homebuilding, more mortgages and more jobs would be a good start but it's unrealistic to expect much to change here.

The latest figures for new home starts were pretty desperate, with affordable housing starts down a whopping 97% year on year – there were only 454 affordable new home starts nationally in the six months from April to September 2011, compared to over 13,000 the previous year!

There are some positives in the mortgage market, with the 0.5% Base Rate allowing lenders to launch some of the lowest rates on record, and criteria being marginally relaxed.

But let's not get carried away. It is existing owner-occupiers who are mainly benefitting from record low rates, and tweaks at the edges of lending criteria will not offset the fact that lenders will lend less in 2012 than they did in 2011.

Finally, the latest unemployment figures make for worrying reading, with the number of unemployed topping 2.68m – a 17-year high. And it is expected to get higher.

Not exactly the perfect conditions for a housing market upturn.

The truth is, there is no silver bullet. We've likely got stagnation ahead or worse, a further fall in sales and in house prices – at least according to the experts. But what do you think? Share your views on the future of the housing market in the comment box below.
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