Housing Market Recovery: What Recovery?

There has been a range of conflicting statistics published over the last few weeks. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say a range of interpretations of the statistics. We have Grant Shapps quoting the CLG figures as showing a 16% rise and NHBC showing a 16% fall – so who is right?

Personally, I’m with the NHBC. Their figures, running from February to April show 26,000 housing starts – 16% lower than the same period in 2010. The CLG figures include January which, in 2010, was a disastrous month.

The rolling 12 month statistics show that there were 103,200 starts in the UK (compared to 99,100 for the preceding 12 month period). This is better news, but hardly signs of a dramatic or reliable recovery in housebuilding. I would describe the market as “bumping along the bottom” at the moment. This situation is not going to change unless action is taken to support the first time buyers.

Without those critical buyers, the market simply grinds to a halt. The problem for this group is the 20% deposits now being demanded by mortgage lenders. There has been speculation that buyers are being put off by the possibility of increased interest rates, but I don’t actually see this as a big issue for the first timers. People in their 20s and 30s are most likely living in rented accommodation, where the monthly mortgage payments would not be a problem – it’s that lump sum deposit.

Clearly mortgage lenders have good reason to be cautious and, in the long run, that is a good thing. However, if we are not to develop a “lost generation” of young people who can never get on the housing ladder, we really need to think of some creative solutions. This issue is thrown into sharp relief by the results of a recent survey carried out by lender Halifax, revealing that two thirds of people aged between 25 and 45 who do not own a house do not believe that they will ever be able to do so.

One simple step the government could introduce is mortgage guarantee insurance. Under this system, homewoners who cannot make the 20% down payment would be required to insure their mortgages against default. The government, in turn, guarantees against a default on that insurance. In Canada, where this precise system has been operating for decades, it is widely recognised as providing a solid foundation for the housing market.

Clearly the government is not in a hurry to embark on any new financial commitments, but without some significant intervention, I can’t see the first time buyers coming back into the market for another two to three years. Not only does that leave our industry with a big problem in the short term, it is also storing up trouble – lack of building now simply exacerbates the housing shortage. Eventually a shortage of supply will lead to another price hike and house prices that are too high do no favours to UK PLC.