Can Britain cope with a fall in house prices?

Uhoh: a man browses in an estate agent window. Image: Getty.

Britain is locked in a seemingly constant battle with the burden of its overheated housing market. Theresa May has announced measures at the Conservative Party conference designed, at the very least, to dampen criticism over a lack of housing and ever-increasing prices.

It is unclear for now just what impact May’s announcement for land releases and an extra £2bnn for affordable housing may have. After all, the UK’s housing stock is valued at close to £7trn. But her announcement comes after London real estate prices registered their biggest fall in a decade, stoking expectations for further drops in real estate prices.

So what would falling house prices mean for Britain? How might it affect employment, household consumption, investment, the government deficit and, critically, the UK current account – the net measure of cash flows in and out of the economy.

The greater fool

Brexit and associated uncertainty about the future of the UK financial sector are making real estate investors, home buyers and households more cautious. One of the things that has fuelled London real-estate prices over the years is the “greater fool” mechanism. Buyers knew that a property was expensive, and perhaps ridiculously expensive, but they counted on the fact that they could sell it later to a “greater fool” at an even higher price, for a handsome profit.

That phenomenon was perhaps best displayed in the first recorded crisis in free markets. Tulip mania in 17th century Holland built to a crescendo which saw single, rare tulip bulbs change hands for extraordinary sums. Historian Mike Dash has described it as enough to “purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80 foot garden”.

As tulip mania went on to show, however, if prices show indications of a fall, the upward trend reverses violently. If property investors become skittish, they will try to sell before prices fall further, and all of them at the same time. Property values built over decades could collapse within months: the expectation of falling prices causes the falling prices.

This mechanism is a real danger in London which relies heavily on local and international investors who view properties not as a home but as a commodity, readily sold to maximise profit. In 2013 alone, international investors accounted for 82 per cent of London property activity.

Falling for it

However, most properties in the UK still belong to households. Families, by and large, don’t need to sell. So what would falling property prices mean for them?

First, many pension funds and investment bonds rely on UK property to generate income for their beneficiaries. Second, we have what economists call the Wealth Effect.

Economists have long associated consumers’ perceived real estate wealth with spending behaviour: if you believe your house is worth a lot, you feel financially secure. And then you allow yourself to save less and spend more. Just consider the rising number of people who plan to subsidise their retirement with wealth generated by their homes.

If their assumed valuations start to look shaky, these people will spend less to build up their savings. The pain would be felt by many: about 64 per cent of households in England are owner-occupiers.

The Wealth Effect is important in most developed economies but even more so in the UK which relies on ever-rising levels of consumer spending for its growth. A 10 per cent fall in the value of dwellings in the UK would correspond to a loss of wealth equivalent to more than the value of all the cars exported from the UK in a decade.


Ripple effects

The climate of economic uncertainty, reduced consumption and falling real estate values brings an additional problem for the UK. Britain has long had a trade deficit, but it has also benefited from positive foreign direct investment.

The Current Account itself has been in the red for nearly 20 years now but the hundreds of billions of inward foreign investment channelled to UK property over the same period meant that this deficit remained manageable – just about.

According to the Bank of England, overseas companies have accounted for roughly half of all UK commercial real estate transactions since 2013. If international investors expect prices to fall in any sustained way, the inflow of money would stop and many would sell up. Why buy or hold an asset just at the start of what might be a long decline?

This would not only put pressure on real estate prices but would affect UK GDP, reduce government revenues and worsen the UK Current Account position. The credit rating of the UK would come under more pressure, and trillions of UK government debt would cost more to refinance. Then the UK government deficit would deteriorate further, taxes might rise to cover for this and the domino effect would be in full cry, spreading to all sectors of the economy, similar to events in Greece.

Policy plays

Real estate values are critical to the UK’s prosperity. Households, pension funds and businesses have invested heavily; most of the country has, in one way or another, skin in this game. Britain may need to wean itself of its property addiction, but it also needs to sustain confidence in the single asset class that counts for almost two thirds of its wealth.

It is deeply difficult politically to sell that story, however, when the understandable clamour is to make housing more affordable. In a move designed to win over younger voters, May has imposed punitive taxation on landlords, cutting one of the life-lines of UK real estate and driving many out of the market. The new measures announced at the Conservative party conference apply further pressure.

May is desperate for a positive message but the implications of targetting the real estate market right now are huge. Britain’s Brexit fumbling is already failing to inspire confidence. The fear has always been that Brexit would spark a period of stagnation, but the danger of deeper, more accelerated damage now seems real, and the potential effect on property values and the economy stark.

The ConversationThe UK government should act decisively. This would require the continuation of loose monetary policy, a reinstatement of tax incentives for real estate investment and, of course, a real plan for Brexit and the future of London’s financial services industry.

Alexander Tziamalis is a senior lecturer and associate professor in economics at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.