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No, house prices are not falling

It's just a summer blip.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Time to don youy hard hats, cancel this winters ski trip and think twice about the kids school fees, house prices have dropped by 1.8 per cent compared to July. The time for panic though may be a little premature however: what the newly released figures from Rightmove, a property website, have shown is no more than the annual summer blip. In fact since January house prices have continued to rise by 5.5 per cent, the fastest rate since 2006 and that’s £20,000 on January’s average house price of £230,000.

But is a rise in house prices really something to be happy about? Even if we dismiss the much publicised concerns over first time buyers (hard to do I know) the rise in prices may have greater worries for us all. One of the areas for concern is the ability to deal with inflation, as almost any rise in house price will mean higher levels of debt among households.

Even at just 2.8 per cent inflation is outstripping wage rises by 1.1 per cent month on month according to the office of national statistics. That’s a real terms wage cut of 1.1 per cent per month for everyone compared to the price of things like food. Conventional logic dictates that the Bank of England (BoE) cuts inflation back by raising interest rates when that happens, poverty not being a popular condition in a democracy.

But the Bank of England is doing the opposite. They hope that by keeping the lending rate at 0.5 per cent banks will lend more, and in turn we will spend more, boosting the economy. But after four years the BoE has not changed its policy despite banks stubbornly refusing to lend ro all but the safest bets. So maybe there’s another reason to keep rates low?

Maybe the answer lies in the fears of a collapsing housing bubble, a housing bubble so huge it can’t be inflated away.

Mortgage default levels have remained low despite rising unemployment and lower wages. This has been because the main affect of the crisis was that the BoE cut rates to record lows of just 0.5 per cent.  This helped the overleveraged homeowner from defaulting when living costs rose but their wages didn’t. The new rates gave them a cushion on which to land softly.

Any rise in the BoE rate though will pull away that cushion and the bump will be a hard one. Politically a hard bump is unacceptable. Voters could suddenly be homeless or struggling to pay debts. Any government in power when this happens can effectively say goodbye to any chance of a return to power, no matter how independent the BoE is supposed to be.

Therefore the pressure on the BoE to keep rates low and let house prices climb must be huge, if unspoken. The problem is that it’s a short sighted policy. Even if the average homeowner is not likely to default today or tomorrow because they can afford the low repayments, those repayments will inevitably be squeezed by other rapidly rising costs of living. Sooner or later there may not be enough money in the house-holders pockets to pay for all their outgoings including their mortgage. And by holding rates low, the BoE has no room for manoeuvre. Raise rates and be seen to cause a property crash, or keep rates low, increase our daily costs and cause a crash anyway.

They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

So maybe it is time to don our hard hats and cancel that holiday. Not because house prices are falling, but because they’re not.