Impact of coronavirus on UK house prices in West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire property markets. So, how will coronavirus affect UK house prices and what’s the future of the West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire buying and rental markets? James Sawyer of Whatley Lane Estate Agents assesses some of the implications in a post-pandemic Covid-19 world…
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Once news broke of the coronavirus pandemic taking a hold on the UK, the effect on the economy was soon felt. Money markets reacted first; falls in the value of Sterling against the Dollar and Euro and the FTSE were inevitable. The pound in relation to both currencies remains at its weakest level in over ten years but may be supported by continuous inflows of foreign capital while the FTSE 100 having posted its sharpest fall from above 7,400 points to bottom at 4,993 on 23 March has recovered to around 6,000 with a net of £2.6bn invested in UK equity funds in April, the highest monthly figure on record and six times more than a typical month, as small investors poured back in to pick opportunities.
CORONAVIRUS: UK HOUSE PRICES INDICES
The short and long-term forecast view of average UK house prices impacted by coronavirus range widely among economists and housing experts, resulting in confused speculation. There is nationwide consensus that price corrections could see a small temporary 4pc contraction in the near term with a majority outlook for growth in prices to strengthen within nine months, according to RICS survey report (April 2020). The majority of homeowners, as with investors, take a long-term view beyond the ebbs and flows of market shocks and will welcome such news. Of course, underpinning forecasts is data, of which there is a distinct lack of due to suppressed transaction levels as a result of the ‘lockdown’, lag in data sets and consequently conventional house price indices are being deemed virtually “meaningless”. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has even temporarily suspended its UK house price index. Lack of sufficient and quality transaction activity data is one thing, but taking into account supply and demand is a whole other matter when evaluating the house price ‘crystal ball’. The uncertainty caused by Brexit over the course of 2019 saw a reduced amount of property come to the market, as sellers erred on the side of caution while in the background demand burgeoned. Following clarity around a Brexit deal and General Election in Dec 2019, the market bounced back in Jan and Feb until coronavirus put an immediate stop on early signs of potential for a ‘bull run’ and again fuelling a further build-up in demand, with some anxious sellers withdrawing property listings entirely. There has been an ‘endemic’ transaction crisis in the UK long before coronavirus surfaced and as of Mar 2020, transactions remain 37pc below their 2007 peak. The housing market supply-demand imbalance, heightened by the possibility of a reduction in the stock of new builds coming to market and following years of developers not keeping apace of demand, will likely stoke house price growth, and against a backdrop of high demand would mean market fundamentals remain unchanged going in to 2021. This would dash hopes among buyers who eagerly await opportunities from post-‘lockdown’ fallout.
On the first day the market re-opened (13 May) we saw new buyer registrations in West Suffolk quadruple driven by both opportunistic buyers and sustained pent-up demand. There was fractional renegotiation off asking prices on stalled transactions due to a ‘Mexican standoff’ between buyers and sellers.
Also important to note is forecasts bandied about by the media are based on UK averages. The national picture will vary significantly with price corrections more brutal in certain parts of the country. Values are likely to hold up better in desirable pockets of West Suffolk for several reasons. The area has a largely resilient jobs market with relocated homeowners employed in the defensive (now more than ever) bio-tech and pharmaceutical industry of neighbouring internationally renowned Cambridge. While Bury St. Edmunds is a destination increasingly favoured by Smarties (senior market town retirees) who have a sustainable wealth base to weather storms. Price corrections, if at all, in West Suffolk are likely to be limited and short-lived. There will still be market needs and sadly the three drivers – death, divorce and destitution – will likely rise over the coming years joined by “depression and dispute” as Simon Pott, West Suffolk based registered valuer and Past President of RICS points out. Similarly, demand drivers such as welcoming a newborn or the trend in multi-generational family living will continue irrespective of market fluctuations caused by covid-19. With the market no longer now in the grip of the pandemic, transactions can start to rebuild and the profile of house buyers will change. One Bury St. Edmunds listing has received three viewings from Cambridge based buyers.
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Since the outbreak of coronavirus there has been a worldwide urban exodus from cities. 200,000 Parisians, almost 10pc of the city’s population, have fled to second homes in the countryside. Similarly, New Yorkers took flight to the suburbs with 5pc (or 420,000) of residents making the move from the city, according to analysis of multiple sources of smartphone location data.
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When the coronavirus outbreak began in New York City, parts of the city emptied out, mostly from the wealthiest neighborhoods, according to an analysis of smartphone location data. But where to? We looked at mail-forwarding requests to find out. Now, mail that used to go to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan is going to Maine and Connecticut. Letters to the Lower East Side neighborhood are being rerouted to Florida and Pennsylvania. Packages meant for Park Slope in Brooklyn are going to Texas and Rhode Island. In all, roughly 5 percent of residents — or about 420,000 people — left the city between March 1 and May 1. In the city’s very wealthiest blocks, in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, the West Village, SoHo and Brooklyn Heights, residential population decreased by 40 percent or more, while the rest of the city saw comparably modest changes. Some of these areas are typically home to lots of students, many of whom left as colleges and universities closed; other residents might have left to care for friends or family members across the country. But, on average, income is a strong, simple predictor of a neighborhood’s change: The higher-earning a neighborhood is, the more likely it is to have emptied out. Tap the link in our bio for the top 20 destinations where New Yorkers forwarded their mail.
While closer to home, data in April shows 51pc of enquiries from London buyers were for properties outside of the capital, which marked an increase of 9pc from April 2019, according to property website Rightmove. The ‘Zoom economy’ has levelled the notion of the need to be located within commuting distances of cities and house prices driven up in sought after commuter areas will likely be most affected. Even when ‘lockdown’ restrictions cease and society starts to normalise, those businesses and employees previously slow to adopt remote working technologies compared with industry peers, will now be fully integrated and no doubt re-evaluate the relevance of nine to five, five days a week, office bound regimes, let alone the safety implications. Rush hour will become less congested, if there is to be such an hour. Jes Staley, CEO of Canary Wharf based Barclays, stated: “putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. Cost savings on centrally located premises in big cities – once attracted by their networks of people – will impact on values of office space and a new zoom work culture in the countryside may emerge as permanent products of the Covid-19 crisis. It prompts a surge in the number of would-be homebuyers planning to move to rural areas, or smaller towns, in what is being dubbed a ‘rural renaissance’. The pandemic in many ways will have fast-tracked the decision for homebuyers, especially those with young families, who were previously sitting on the fence, flirting with the notion of swapping a crowded lifestyle for a slice of the ‘Good Life’.
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By removing the need for physical proximity to workplaces, concerns over job security will be less of a determining factor compared with that of individual and family safety. The risk of a second outbreak combined with the prospect of more space (amplified most in those households having to endure the confines of urban ‘lockdown’) are likely to dampen house prices in the capital and surrounding commuter towns and cities, but conversely support prices in regional property markets that offer a better lifestyle value proposition. West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire are likely beneficiaries from the new wave of demand with their lure of homes in attractive market town hotspots like Bury St. Edmunds with plenty of amenity space and in the many surrounding desirable villages located within acres of pastoral paradise. Data compiled from Land Registry show the average gap in house prices in West Suffolk and East Cambridgeshire to be 47pc and 41pc respectively versus that of London: catalyst enough to make the big move to the country, which in turn supports house prices in these areas least affected by the impact of Coronavirus compared with wider UK house prices. Whether a permanent primary residence, a second home or a place to rent, the shift in location preferences among home movers is likely to forever change, as families, the elderly and singletons move away from areas most at risk with high numbers of Covid-19 cases and attracted by improved affordability, more space and specific property features.
ODE TO THE BALCONY & FIBRE BROADBAND
We will see a shift in the types of property favoured by home buyers and tenants. The new pandemic preference will be for plots marketed with outdoor spaces as unique selling points. Gardens experienced a fall in popularity among buyers over the last decade due to their time/cost in upkeep – a trend that looks set to go in hyper reverse, as the garden oasis reasserts itself higher up wish lists. The economics of certain features will become less of a want and more of a need, as will changes in the values of certain property subtypes as demand is satisfied. In particular, and for those unable to make the move to rural environs, demand for apartments that offer roof terraces, courtyards and balconies will outstrip those that do not. Housebuilders and private developers will be forced to re-think designs of schemes in a bid to accommodate these new needs when maximising commercially viable land-use. Paul Scarlett, a West-Suffolk based architect, predicts:
“if not a resurgence of mews-style terraced properties in tight urban settings, where there is a need to build vertically we have factored in to the design the provision of individual external spaces. Such is the sudden rise in appetite for balconies and outside spaces”.
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It remains to be seen whether schemes currently in the pipeline / underway will see architecture reconfigured to include a multiplicity of space (communal and private). Properties with parking historically hold a premium, however less reliance on the car, should homeworking become commonplace, could mean narrow spread in value compared with non-parking provisioned dwellings. Interior spaces will become more flexible as places for schooling, working, exercising and entertaining, with some families literally having lived on top of one another, especially when schools closed – re-purposing homes as hubs of the ‘isolation economy’. Property with annexes, studios, basements and usable space will be increasingly desirable. Superfast fibre broadband? A question posed by some buyers will now be asked by all.
NERVOUS SELLERS LEAD TO SHORT SUPPLY
Understandably there will be a lack of confidence among would-be sellers as they grapple to understand how coronavirus is likely to affect UK house prices in their area. As previous recessions show the housing market is slower to catch up with the wider economy. In times of economic uncertainty, unless it is an absolute necessity to sell, sellers are more likely to hold onto their most valuable asset, than forfeit a drop in value. With so few listings, sellers confident enough to re-engage the housing market will reap the rewards.
It is important to stress that we were in a market freeze and not a market crash. It is a cashflow, not an asset price issue as was experienced post-2007 when the real estate market underwent an overhaul of re-valuations. The risk of coronavirus putting downward pressure on UK house prices ought to be limited.
Supply and demand imbalance remains the same, if not more acutely so, which drives price. Sellers can take comfort in the fact that, almost immediately as the market re-opened, buyer demand rebounded to pre-coronavirus levels. Rightmove reported 5.2m visits to its listings, a 4pc increase compared with the same day a year ago while sales enquiries returned to 90pc normal levels.
It mirrors a sharp 71pc search traffic uptick from Google Trends data in recent weeks, as potential home buyers window shop for property by browsing online listings. Typically the spring market is the most buoyant time of the year and so with lower than expected sales listings anticipated for the remainder of 2020, coupled with seasonal pent-up demand, on top of last year’s pent-up demand from a depressed Brexit market, compounded by a new trend in ‘out of county’ buyer demand over the next few years, West Suffolk house prices look to be well supported. Across selected West Suffolk postcodes over the period 20 Apr to 20 May, there was an acute 78pc fall in new instructions compared with the same period a year ago and will likely be symptomatic of reluctant sellers going to market. With stock at such artificially low levels, sellers would do well to take full advantage of less competing listings, as would be the seasonal norm, and benefit from heightened whole market exposure. Indeed, rebuilding the new sales stock base will be critical to resume full market functionality. However, these are not normal times and sellers will need convincing by estate agents that the right safety procedures are in place in order to proceed to listings and ultimately viewings.
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Estate agents will need to ensure that all possible pre-cautionary measures are taken, whether by government directive or through their own robust business operating protocols. The American import of ‘open house’ style viewings has stopped, instead replaced by viewings spread over days. PPE gear (masks and gloves) will be worn, if not provided by estate agents, and for non-vacant properties, sellers are advised to be absent during viewings. Regardless of coronavirus, buyers are more likely to give honest feedback without the presence of sellers. Innovative agents making good use of virtual tours and videography will also conduct more rigorous qualification of applicants, which will benefit sellers and landlords with progressing of quality ‘proceedable’ transactions and in a safe manner. High Street offices will be reconfigured with desk shields and high grade hand sanitisers. Adoption of such methods will help restore confidence and put the minds of many at ease. Wholesale change in next generation estate agency is already fast happening across the country as we all learn to live and work with coronavirus; essentially co-exist. For detailed guidance when booking valuations and viewings please follow our advice here.
USAF LETTINGS RESILIENT & AIRBnB TANKS
While sales resuscitate, our lettings inquiries have mushroomed with a new wave of interest, in particular for country homes on top of consistent all-year round high demand from visiting USAF personnel; unique to the area. In the week before ‘lockdown’ we secured two rental properties for tenants with their primary homes located in the capital. We expect the trend to escape cities ultimately to filter into sales, as a permanent taste for country living is acquired. Overall lettings values remain excellent and yields unchanged. Of the 12 lettings instructions agreed in our Bury St. Edmunds office, over the seven week ‘lockdown’ period, 80pc were to USAF tenants with a mix of town and country properties and the average rent achieving a healthy £1,450 PCM. All are on a full management basis. Culturally we find Americans prefer dealing with managing agents throughout the rental period, as it shields them from landlord disputes and vice versa. It offers a reliable minimum three year term, government backed source of income without the wear and tear caused by shorter lets. With an increase in projected US defence budget spending along with escalating tensions in the East, exposure to this micro market is unlikely to risk a reverse of fortune. Less so is the case for the more than seven million AirBnB listings worldwide. Some hosts are heavily invested in the ‘get rich quick’ approach to operating homes as hotels and leveraged by either multiple mortgages or subletting long-term rentals. With income frozen and mortgage or landlord payments still needed to be met some hosts may seek to sell up or attract short-term lets, albeit at lower premiums. Conversely those landlords who already have in place with tenants contractual agreements for extended periods will continue to enjoy good stable income. These may not record rocketing returns like the halcyon days of AirBnB, but are importantly recession resilient and on tenancy agreements with rent reviews.
BANK LENDING & GOVERNMENT STIMULUS
The key to financial stability will be to restore consumer confidence and encourage spending. The Bank of England (BoE) moved quickly to calm markets and hold down the cost of borrowing by reducing the official borrowing rate to 0.1pc – its lowest in history – and, like many central banks worldwide, radically increasing its quantitative easing (QE) programme; emergency responses designed to stimulate high street and commercial bank lending. The latter tool creates digital money used to buy assets such as government bonds from financial institutions. By increasing demand for government bonds, yields consequently fall. Financial institutions awash with funds sometimes divert into other investments such as stocks and property, as was the case following the BoE’s first experiment with QE in 2009 to squash the effects of the Global Financial Crisis. David Blanchflower, a former monetary policy committee member at the time, commented: “it was the equivalent of 10,000 Warren Buffets showing up”. Over the ensuing decade the FTSE 100 doubled in value and house prices grew by 47%. The bulking up in prices of the value of shares or property, considerably more than would have been the case without injection of funds, has benefitted investors at the top of the tree – those holding shares in pension funds and individuals with property. The same outcome is likely to recur supporting further inflation of asset prices over the coming years. Conversely, as property prices outpaced earnings growth over the last 10 years it has become prohibitively more expensive for first-time buyers or even those wishing to move up the ladder leading to a widening gap in housing inequality. However the ability to borrow at lower rates, the continuation of the government’s Help-To-Buy scheme for first-time buyers and for those fortunate enough to draw on deposits from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ provide some silver lining. Banks are well-capitalised to weather sustained period of weakness and better prepared to lend. The Treasury, Financial Conduct Authority and BoE are closely monitoring banks to ensure ample trickle-down lending to businesses and households and not interest profiteering and capital buffering. Early reports in the press of High Street lenders pulling products and reducing Loan-to-Value (LTV) ratios to 60% gave cause for concern. Such tightening of credit conditions would make it harder for borrowers with lower equity or deposits to strike new deals. Andrew Lock, of West Suffolk based Larkbridge, who handles a high volume of mortgage funding for Cambridge based clients, confirms the opposite:
“from a broker’s viewpoint, information coming out of the media lags reality. Contrary to widespread news stories of LTVs retrenching, we are seeing more mortgages of up to 85% LTV coming online. Things have really picked up. First-time buyers still have access to incentives. Though Buy-To-Let funding availability proves to be challenging and understandably banks are exercising increased caution when assessing valuations and household affordability in the light of furlough. All eyes are on the effects of coronavirus on UK house prices”.
Prior to the pandemic, banks were literally falling over each other to lend and like with any crisis there will be an element of nervous adjustment as the market rebuilds. Opportunities to borrow at all-time cheap interest rates on increased maximum LTVs coupled with the mortgage payment holiday to give interim relief (subject to lenders not penalising households having to defer interest payments at a later date) are big positives for both house purchasers and homeowners re-mortgaging. Tracker mortgages have become even cheaper while, as the name implies, fixed mortgages have seen no change, but can be renegotiated at lower rates. At least bank surveyors can now recommence physical valuations to get lending back on track, unclog the backlog, shore up housing chains and service future demand. Limited access to funding from a risk scenario of high unemployment would squeeze the housing market, however the government was swift to enact the Job Retention Scheme (furlough), which has since been extended to the end of October. A move that simultaneously shares the financial burden of businesses and supports job security in households while the first wave of businesses and sectors of the economy (manufacturing and construction) re-open and buy crucial time to re-adjust and implement adequate safety practises. Such state lifelines from government intervention, effectively underwritten by the BoE, are expected to help employment recover faster than after a “normal” recession, as BoE Governor Andew Bailey puts it. In the first quarter of 2020, UK gross domestic product (GDP) – a measure of economic success – fell 2pc compared with the previous quarter and making it the largest drop since the Global Financial Crisis. However, while it might reflect the later start of the British ‘lockdown’, the UK economy fared better than that of the Eurozone and the US, which contracted 3.8pc and 4.8pc respectively in the first quarter. But output in the services sector – the most dominant sector that accounts for 81pc of the UK economy – fell by 1.9pc in the first quarter; the largest drop since ONS records began in 1990. Fully and safely re-opening the services sector (retail, financial, public, leisure and cultural) in the near term will be of paramount importance to the UK government. Research by London Business School examined anonymised bank accounts of 30,000 people to show household spending had dropped more than 40pc over April compared with the same month in 2019. Spending on services fell 44pc, while at restaurants it was down 30pc on the year. Naturally some households will be saving, but affordability and indebtedness in others is of concern. The same study found those whose incomes had dropped were on average 30pc worse off and over 15pc of people suffered income drops of more than 50pc. Estate agents and industry bodies across the country are calling for a tax break in the form of a stamp duty holiday. Reducing the cost of moving and the cost of funding would help stimulate sales activity. A stamp duty holiday doubled the number of house sales during the 1992 downturn. However, it is unclear if the government will remove such a lucrative tax, netting £8.4 billion in revenue for residential sales in 2018/19. But more than half that amount in stamp duty receipts could be lost as a result of Covid-19. A 65pc majority of RICS survey respondents felt such a potent stimulus package necessary to kick-start sales while leaving prices unchanged. In addition to financial incentives for downsizers and home movers, lobbying for extended Help-to-Buy scheme to assist first-time buyers.
UK EXIT STRATEGY: MASTERS OF DESTINY
Attention will be focused on any changes in government guidance over the coming weeks and months as the roadmap to re-opening the UK economy unfolds with stagnated easing of ‘lockdown’ restrictions. All is conditional upon no resurgence of the virus should signs of the outbreak flare up again and the infection rate is kept under 1 (R0 < 1). Government experts admit it is a trade-off between the safety of a full ‘lockdown’ and the benefits of easing it. The UK was the last major European country to contract the virus and disappointingly the last to enter ‘lockdown’ and as a result it could be several months before restrictions are fully lifted. Though while we are behind the rest of Europe in this crisis, opportunity exists to monitor the progress of our neighbours as they take tentative steps to resurface and increasing slabs of the global economy begin to return to some semblance of normality. In the meantime, Boris Johnson has urged the public to use “good, solid British common sense” to navigate the ‘new normal’, in effect placing the country’s health status and smooth transitioning in the custody of the public and employers.
Between now, through gradual lifting of government restrictions to bring back business as usual and until hopes that a vaccine is rolled out in second half of 2021 at the earliest (caveat if at all), we are masters of our own destiny, working together – agents, clients, all employed in the real estate industry – more than ever to make things happen and to get the market moving while minimising the toll of coronavirus on UK house prices.
About the author:
James established and heads up the Bury St. Edmunds office and is a Director at Whatley Lane Estate Agents. Notable achievements include the sale and acquisition of The Northgate, developing a robust lettings portfolio of high-end buy-to-let properties, and concluding various country house sales in the West Suffolk Area.
Prior to joining Whatley Lane, James worked for several luxury brands in the UK and Europe. He also worked as a commercial property analyst for an Islamic investment bank in the City and was a sales and lettings manager at an independent agency in the fast-paced London Docklands residential and corporate relocation markets.
Following his BA History of Art at the University of East Anglia, focused in architecture and the evolution of the English Country House, James achieved a RICS accredited MSc in International Real Estate at the Royal Agricultural College Cirencester which included an exchange programme at the National University of Singapore, working in asset management at Colliers International.
Outside of work and away from producing a facts and stats study on coronavirus in relation to UK house prices, James has a passion for country pursuits, wine harvesting, marathon running, art and architecture. Also a foodie and cooks a wicked steak; receiving the prize in Bury St. Edmunds 2017 episode of the acclaimed TV series Come Dine With Me.