Home Economics: Buy-to-let breathes again

By David Smith

In the darkest days of the credit crunch, one claim was made so regularly, you might have believed it.  This was that buy-to-let was dead, a victim of a housing boom that had turned to bust.  “Bye-bye, buy-to-let” was an irresistible headline.  We now know reports of its death were exaggerated.  Cluttons estate agency reports a 40% increase in demand for property – concentrated around the £500,000 mark – from professionals such as solicitors, accountants and doctors investing for the first time.

This will displease the moaners, but a functioning private rental sector is necessary for a healthy housing market.  Private landlords took a battering and faced funding difficulties as severe as anybody.  They appear to have weathered the storm.

Figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) showed gross buy-to-let lending grew in the third quarter, its first rise for two years, with a rise from 21,600 to 23,700 in the number of loans and an increase to just over 1.2m in the number of outstanding mortgages.

Admittedly, the rise was from a low base, but this was a clear sign of life.  “The figures show buy-to-let is here to stay,” says Michael Coogan, director-general of the CML.  “Future demand for housing in all tenures supported by lenders will remain strong, despite mortgage funding constraints and low construction rates.  With funding for social housing under pressure, the private rented sector has a strong future.”

The other buy-to-let story – the expectation of a flood of arrears and repossessions as landlords faced grim reality – is not going according to plan either.  The number of buy-to-let mortgages with arrears of more than 1.5% of the balance has fallen for the third quarter in a row and stands at just 20,500.

As with other parts of the housing market, this is a slow climb back after the huge shock of an abrupt withdrawal of mortgage availability.  Moneyfacts.co.uk says the number of buy-to-let mortgage products has risen by more than a third from its September low, which sounds impressive – except that this is still 93% lower than its August 2007 peak.  Sensibly, deposits of at least 20% are required, which was not the case in the past.  Like it or not, buy-to-let is still alive.

Housing markets in the world’s leading economies are continuing to recover, although the majority are still lower than this time last year, says the Global Property Guide (globalpropertyguide.com).  Israel has been the strongest performer, with prices up by 13.7% in the year to the end of September.  The sharpest fall was in Latvia, down 59.1%. (David Smith, The Sunday Times).

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