London buyers scarce as prices hit new peak

Lending restrictions and sluggish wages curb demand, with average London home costing 9.1 times the median income of full-time worker

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:36am

Ruth Marchand said her six-bedroom house in the leafy south London village of Dulwich would have sold within six weeks if she had offered it earlier this year. Instead, she is still waiting for the first bid two months after the property went on the market.

"Nothing is selling now," said Marchand, who said she did not expect a deal before Christmas. "Any comparable houses in the area are still on the market."

London's soaring home prices, which peaked this year, have pushed buyers to the sidelines. Lending restrictions and sluggish wage growth have also curbed demand, now at a more than six-year low, as buyers wait for values to decline further. It costs about 25 per cent more a month to pay a 95 per cent loan-to-value mortgage on a London property than to rent the equivalent home, according to broker Cushman & Wakefield.

"We may be at a point where it's just not affordable for people to buy any more, so you get a ceiling effect," said Philip Lachowycz, a British economist at consulting firm Fathom Financial in London. "People have changed their view on the housing market," he said.

The average home in London costs about 9.1 times the median income of a full-time worker last year compared with 6.7 times for all of England, according to a February report by the Greater London Authority.

London home prices will climb 15 per cent this year, property brokerage Savills estimates. British wages are rising at a rate of about 1 per cent a year, according to the Bank of England.

Mortgage approvals fell to the lowest since July 2013 in September after British financial officials took steps to damp demand. The new rules impose stricter affordability checks and restrict the number of high loan-to-income mortgages that banks can offer.

Marchand's home has had about 20 viewings since it was offered for sale for £1.65 million (HK$20 million) in September. "Both interested parties have their own houses to sell and can't bid until their home is under offer," she said.

The number of new buyers registering an interest in London homes fell for the sixth consecutive month in October and is now at the lowest since April 2008, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Owners who offered properties for sale in the most expensive districts earlier this year are having to cut prices as more homes come onto the market at lower values, Countrywide, Britain's largest real estate agency, said last month.

Asking prices for London homes barely rose this month and values across Britain declined as the property market paused for breath, according to Rightmove.

Prices sought in the capital increased 0.8 per cent from October, when they surged 7 per cent, to a record £601,180, the property website said on Monday. Across England and Wales, they fell 1.7 per cent ahead of the seasonal winter slowdown, Rightmove said.

The report adds to evidence of a loss of momentum as record prices and speculation about a so-called mansion tax curb demand, particularly in London where values are more than double the national average. Supply shortages in some parts of the country could push prices up again in 2015, Rightmove said.

Prices in the city will fall by 2.6 per cent next year, the Centre for Economic and Business Research said last month. Savills and Knight Frank both predict zero value growth in 2015. London will see the smallest increases of any region in Britain over the next five years, with annual gains of 2 per cent to 3 per cent from 2016 through 2019, Savills predicts.

"Earnings growth remains subdued and you have a trend towards more uncertain work, so a lot of people aren't on fixed incomes," said Scott Corfe, head of macroeconomics at the CEBR. "Getting that upfront payment in the first place may be hard."

Mortgage payments for London's first-time buyers were the least affordable relative to wages in six years, even though borrowing costs have been kept down by a record-low interest rates.

The CEBR doesn't expect the Bank of England's benchmark rate to increase from the current 0.5 per cent until November 2015, Corfe said. "When interest rates do start to rise, that will spook some households," he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron promoted home buying through programmes like Help-to-Buy, which enables purchasers to take out a loan with a down payment of as little as 5 per cent. The surge in prices that followed prompted the lending restrictions. "The bottleneck is now demand, not supply," said property appraiser Richard Sexton.