House prices fall for second month in row, index says

Annual house price growth fell to a seven-month low in March amid subdued consumer confidence, according to an index.

Across the UK, average values increased by 2.1% year-on-year in March, marking the weakest annual growth seen since August 2017.

On a monthly basis, prices dipped for the second month in a row.

A 0.2% month-on-month decrease in March came after a 0.4% fall in February.

The average house price in March stood at £211,625.

Robert Gardner, Nationwide's chief economist, said: "On the surface, the relatively subdued pace of house price growth appears at odds with recent healthy rates of employment growth, a modest pick-up in wage growth and historically low borrowing costs.

"However, consumer confidence has remained subdued, due to the ongoing squeeze on household finances as wage growth continues to lag behind increases in the cost of living.

"Looking ahead, much will depend on how broader economic conditions evolve, especially in the labour market, but also with respect to interest rates."

He added: "Overall, we expect house prices to be broadly flat, with a marginal gain of around 1% over the course of 2018."

Looking across the UK, Northern Ireland recorded the strongest annual house price growth in the first quarter of 2018, with a 7.9% increase taking the average price there to £137,965.

Average house prices in Northern Ireland are still 38% below 2007 levels, compared with the UK generally where house prices are 16% above pre-crisis levels on average.

Wales had the second strongest annual growth, with a 6.1% increase there pushing average prices to £151,971. The 6.1% annual increase was the strongest seen in Wales since 2014.

The West Midlands had the strongest price growth among the English regions, with prices up 4.9% year-on-year to reach £184,727 on average.

In London, average house prices were down 1% annually, standing at £473,776, making it the weakest-performing part of the UK for annual house price growth.

The next weakest growth was in Scotland, where prices were 0.2% higher than a year earlier, standing at £144,250 on average in the first quarter of 2018.

Mr Gardner said: "Over the past two years the Southern English regions have seen a steady deceleration in price growth, which is now running at its slowest pace since 2012.

"By contrast, the Northern English regions have recorded a gradual acceleration and recorded their strongest growth rate since 2014 in the first three months of this year."

But he said these trends had so far narrowed the North-South divide only slightly.

He continued: "A typical house in the North of England now costs £163,138, compared to £331,047 in the South."

Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said Nationwide's figures provide "more evidence that even the relatively modest increase in mortgage rates seen over the last six months has hit the market hard".

Mr Tombs said: "Record high loan-to-income ratios mean that home buyers will have to put a much larger share of their incomes towards loan payments merely to take out mortgages of the same size as those who have just bought a home.

"As a result, the scope for further increases in house prices driven by rising leverage is extremely limited.

"We continue to think that house prices will flatline in 2018, hitting consumers' confidence and strengthening the case for the MPC (Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee) to raise interest rates just once this year."

Howard Archer, chief economic adviser at EY ITEM Club, said: "The downside for house prices should be limited markedly by the shortage of houses for sale."

Jeremy Leaf, a north London estate agent and a former residential chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics), said: "Fewer forced sellers and less dependency on mortgages means that the level of price falls is staying low."

Mark Harris, chief executive of mortgage broker SPF Private Clients, said: "Thankfully, mortgage rates are still relatively cheaply priced as lenders compete for business but if a rate rise is on the cards, they are unlikely to stay this low forever."