Blow for UK property market as asking prices remain static

The UK’s residential property market is stagnant with average asking prices remaining unchanged in April, according to the latest data from Rightmove published today (Monday 21 May). New sellers have failed to raise their asking prices for the first time since Rightmove began measuring housing market statistics 11 years ago. The average asking price of property coming to the market was virtually unchanged at £243,759, up just £22 or 0% on last month.

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It also indicates a change in the market with sellers wanting to downsize almost dominating the market. Some 40% of sellers are looking to trade down, but only 25% hope to trade up. Rightmove says that this downsizing trend is putting a cap on house price rises. London is the only exception due to the high concentration of equity rich buyers, many of them foreigners seeking a safe haven investment. Its April reports says that this indicates that the market is losing its traditional spring momentum earlier than usual, with the expiry of the first time buyer stamp duty exemption in March a significant driver.

It also says that overall market volumes look set to remain subdued in 2012 as the motivation of new sellers to come to market has stalled too, with new listing numbers down by nearly 10% in May compared to April. ‘It is a cause for concern that the market appears to have lost its spring momentum, as there is likely to be a longer than normal summer slowdown too thanks to the extra distractions of the Jubilee and two major sporting events,’ said Miles Shipside, director of Rightmove. He points out that those wanting to trade up are outnumbered by those looking to trade down. This market mismatch has its roots in age demographics and the baby boomer generation’s changing housing needs.

‘New sellers asking more in May had become the norm, so it comes as quite a shock to see prices flat at this time of year. Perhaps the first time buyer stamp duty holiday, and the knock on activity it helped to create, has concertinaed the market’s stronger than expected early spring momentum into the first four months of the year rather than the usual six,’ explained Shipside. ‘The high rainfall in May will have been a further factor in dampening prospective buyers’ enthusiasm to get out and view property, and even if the forecast picks up we have a summer of sport and celebration ahead that will provide further distractions,’ he added. There seems little doubt that the end of the first time buyer stamp duty exemption appears to have been a factor in the market losing its price momentum, having contributed to a brisker than expected start to the year.

‘The post stamp duty holiday lull in first time buyers, and the upward chains they help to build, appears to have made the market pause for breath, taking the wind out of spring market sales a little earlier than usual. It’s hard enough for those looking to get onto the property ladder to save the chunky deposit, and now some face the prospect of another savings spurt to pay stamp duty. This will put some first time buyers on the sidelines for a few months, and rule some out of the game for much longer, before they can field themselves again as ready, willing and able to proceed,’ said Shipside. The number of new sellers appears to be stalling too, with the weekly run-rate of 26,595 properties coming to market in May nearly 10% fewer than the 29,333 in April. All 10 regions saw fewer fresh property listings compared to the previous month, at a time of year when enthusiasm to try and sell should be higher. ‘This will help underpin prices in areas with a shortage of supply and keep market conditions more buoyant in various micro market hotspots around the country. In less active areas, however, seller numbers are restricted as many have insufficient equity to either afford the jump up to the next rung on the property ladder, or obtain the best mortgage rates. Agents report that some of the recent upward creep in lenders’ interest rates has had a detrimental effect on activity. Some sellers may also have concerns about realising what they perceive as fair value for their current property from those buyers who are able to proceed. The shortage of property for sale to tempt them in their target market can also cause them to rethink their moving plans,’ Shipside pointed out.

‘The ability to trade up is a vital component of a healthy housing market, though there is concerning evidence that the numbers who want or are able to trade up are worryingly fewer than those who intend to trade down. This imbalance is exacerbated by baby boomer downsizers perhaps looking to release some of the considerable equity that their generation have benefitted from. With trader uppers restricted by insufficient equity and a lack of mortgage funding there are currently too few buyers to fill the gaps at the lower end of market, stoking the growing imbalance between down traders and up traders,’ he added. Research by Rightmove reveals that two in five of those who intend to sell over the next 12 months are motivated by a desire to trade down. This group includes the traditional three Ds, death, debt and divorce, but also features retirement, equity release and smaller property needs. This compares to only one in four who are looking to trade up with growing family, space and school requirements. Trading down was the main motivation for moving in nine of the ten regions of the UK. Only in London does trading up come top of sellers’ requirements, providing further evidence of the two speed housing market in the UK. London is generally more affluent and has a higher concentration of equity-rich homeowners with the means to move.

Across the rest of the UK there is a greater level of activity from those looking to trade down. As well as being a reflection of the current mortgage squeeze preventing more people from trading up, age demographics are also a major and growing factor, which will exacerbate the mismatch and lead to further market deadlock. The baby boomer generation, who have been considerable beneficiaries of housing equity growth, are now of an age where they are contemplating trading down. The number and financial ability of trader uppers to balance the numbers of those who now wish and are able to trade down appears to be out of kilter.