The first warning sign is that the gap between the asking price and the agreed price has all but vanished. Normally, estate agents like to deliberately overvalue properties, which means that the final deal ends up being at a discount to the recommended price.
However, the gap between the two has shrunk to 2%, suggesting that, “prices are rising so fast that even estate agents are unable to keep up”. Indeed, “the last time sellers were getting offers this close to their asking price was in the summer of 2007, a few months before the market turned”.
Next, London properties are being snapped up almost as soon as they go on the market. While there’s usually a lag between property going on the market and an offer being accepted, the gap is now “as little as 2.7 weeks”. As with the previous indicator, “we haven’t seen this sort of enthusiasm in the market since the first part of 2007”. This suggests that buyers “are jumping at the first thing available in a desire not to be left behind”. Of course, this is typical of what happens when bubbles reach their peak.
Finally, “prices are now well above the peaks set before the last crisis”. The Nationwide and Land Registry put prices 13.5% and 15.2% higher. Of course, “you would expect prices to reach their peaks eventually”. However, “given that wages have barely shifted since the financial crisis, the sort of rebound we’ve seen in London is about far more than just keeping up with inflation”. Indeed, “ the ratio of first-time buyer house prices to mean gross earnings in London is the highest it has been since the survey started in 1983”.
All three indicators “are classic signs of a bubble about to burst”. They are also “a wake-up call for me”. Of course, you can argue that “if you’d bought at the end of 2005, two years before the peak, and sold at the trough in late 2008, you would still have made money”. However, in reality, “if you had bought in 1987, and held through the 1989-92 crash, you would have had to wait until 1996 to see your purchase regain its original value”.
London property is in a bubble.
Prices are now well above their pre-crisis peaks. They are also at their highest level, compared to the earnings of first-time buyers, since records began.
Yet people are not just willing, but queuing up, to pay these inflated values.
There are some good reasons for that. Low interest rates have driven down the price of mortgages. Taxpayer guarantees through the Help to Buy scheme encourage more lending. Overseas investors see London as a safe haven. And there is a genuine shortage of property – though developments are now springing up thick and fast.
In 2009 Britain’s financial watchdog (now the Financial Conduct Authority) concluded in a discussion paper that the mortgage market needed reform. It eventually published new rules – the Mortgage Market Review (MMR) - in 2012. These rules come into effect from tomorrow.
The big change is that lenders will have to make absolutely sure that a borrower can afford the loan. Details of what exactly counts as ‘affordability’ are deliberately vague. But the regulator has given guidance, which involves looking at spending patterns and sources of income.
There is also an obligation to ‘stress test’ the loan. In other words, the borrower will need to be able to afford payments even if interest rates rise. The upshot is that most people will find getting a mortgage trickier.
When the crash comes, it will be brutal
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a handful of banks have already started applying the rules. The latest figures from the Bank of England suggest that the MMR could already be starting to have an effect.
After rising for 11 straight months, the amount of mortgage lending (for house purchases) fell by over 8% to £70.3bn in February. This is the lowest figure since October. Meanwhile, remortgaging activity fell by 14% in March, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders.
At some point this bubble has to end. More houses are being built, reducing any physical shortage that actually exists. The Bank of England may or may not raise interest rates soon, but already fixed-term mortgage rates are rising.
There have been hints that the most toxic part of the Help-to-Buy scheme could be wound up after the election, whoever wins. Above all, old-fashioned reversion to the mean (prices returning to more normal levels) will also play a part.
My guess is that the government would be happy to keep the bubble going until election day.
The average asking price for homes that came on the market last month was 2.9% lower than in July, a record fall for the month of August, according to the property website Rightmove.
Asking prices usually fall in summer but last month's figure was exacerbated by a steep drop in expectations in London, where new sellers have come in at lower prices for three months in a row as an influx of homes on the market has forced them to price more competitively.
Across England and Wales, the average asking price fell by £7,750 compared with the previous month, the biggest dip since Rightmove began collecting the data in 2001. In London, the price drop was 5.9%, far bigger than the falls in June and July.
There were price drops in every London borough, with the biggest fall in Wandsworth, which includes areas such as Battersea and Clapham that had been roaring ahead. Prices of homes that came on sale in August in the south London borough were £72,000 lower than in July, at an average of £786,000 – although that remained 12% higher than the August 2013 average price of £702,000.
Rightmove's data shows that, across England and Wales, asking prices have fallen nearly £10,000 since June, cooling the annual rate of growth from 6.5% to 5.3%. Prices fell in all regions except the north of England, where they rose by 0.5% month on month and remained unchanged from last August.