Pace of decline is slowing

Unlike the global recovery, Northern Ireland is still struggling with mortgage arrears and falling house prices, writes Peta Tomlinson

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 July, 2013, 3:10am

Poor Northern Ireland. Even as the world's worst-hit housing markets begin to recover, the best news from the Emerald Isle is that the pace of decline has, at least, slowed a little.

According to the latest data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, residential property prices fell by 6 per cent in the first quarter of this year. "This is in contrast to the year to March 2012, when prices fell by 14 per cent," it notes. Small consolation for those suffering mortgage distress, acknowledged by the Irish government as "one of the most serious social and economic issues facing the country".

Central Bank indicates that at December last year, almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of owner-occupier mortgages were in arrears. Data showing consumption had declined in 13 of the previous 20 quarters (to 8 per cent below its peak) is evidence of households tightening their belts.

The government says it has prioritised this issue by putting in place new legislation, structures and processes to resolve the mortgage arrears issue. It has called on banks to "step up their engagement with borrowers in difficulties so as to allow these people to see a better future".

Its target - questioned by some - is that by end of this year, banks should have proposed sustainable mortgage solutions for 50 per cent of distressed borrowers.

Alasdair Pritchard, head of Knight Frank's Irish residential desk, concedes that the market has been "a bit of a horror show in recent years".

"While house prices in Northern Ireland have fallen nearly 60 per cent from their peak in 2007, it is fair to say that they rose by an equally dramatic amount doubling in two years leading up to the crash. In reality, the nosedive during the recession should really be viewed as a necessary, if painful, price correction," he says.

This goes against the global grain. Recent research shows that after "a torrid five years", most of the world's worst-hit housing markets have begun to recover, suggesting that "we are now through the very worst". London has rebounded "very successfully", buoyed by a strong prime residential market and an emerging tech sector. The United States housing market has been described as "no longer a basket case", with many regions having turned the corner after "a long and painful downturn".

Knight Frank concurs, noting that "the search for safe haven investments has continued to propel house prices higher in key global cities; some of the markets worst hit by the global financial crisis appear at long last to be recovering".

The latest Global Property Guide House Price Survey also reveals "a dramatic picture of house prices rising around the world". Its data for the first quarter shows that prices rose in 28 of 42 housing markets that have so far published housing statistics this year.

This is the most significant global acceleration in house prices since the boom years of 2006/7, according to the report.

Despite the continuing gloom in Northern Ireland, Pritchard sees a ray of light in recent market data. "The start of 2013 saw house prices plateau for the first time since the summer of 2007. This is mostly due to the increase in first-time buyers at the rung of the property ladder - a level that has reached a five-year high. While the story may not be quite as romantic as everyone would ideally like, the fact that these first-timers are increasing in numbers should give the market reason to cheer," Pritchard says.

Other research suggests that buyers are back in the global property investment market overall, after a "modest 6 per cent rise in activity during 2012". Cushman & Wakefield takes this as a sign of momentum-building, and says global investment volumes could increase by 14 per cent to exceed the US$1 trillion mark for the first time since 2007.

Even though Northern Ireland remains one of the few markets where bargain-basement prices are thick on the ground, foreign investors are still not interested. Chinese investors, in particular, have "never really bought" in Northern Ireland, Pritchard says. "London has always been the pull within the UK for such investors."

He adds: "There were a few Hong Kong/Chinese investors buying and selling within a two-year period back in 2005, but, like every other buyer, they were merely taking advantage of the boom. Historically, those who buy in Northern Ireland usually do so because of either a family or business link." Other agents also report "zero interest" from Chinese investors.

David Wright, director of CBRE Northern Ireland, says: "We are not aware of any Asian buyers of residential property in the Northern Ireland market. The market has been depressed for some time and it is only in the last couple of months that residential agents are reporting an increase in transactions, but this is being led by local buyers. There have not been any large scale disposals of residential property to non-Northern Ireland institutions. The only buyers of large-scale residential at the present time in Northern Ireland are the housing associations."

There is some stirring in the commercial sector, however. Wright says: "The main buyers of individual assets have been local occupiers and property companies. We are due to market Windsor House in Belfast city centre this year and we have had some premarketing interest in the property from a Hong Kong-based company. The other main activity in the market is in the loan book sales which have a heavy bias on southern Irish property with the main purchasers being the likes of Kennedy Wilson [American]."