Phil Spencer – Understanding Market Comment in the Media
The housing market has never received so much economic analysis and press coverage as now. We are all constantly bombarded with statistics and headlines that claim to accurately describe what is happening to the value of our homes.
As with any fluctuating market place, providing an accurate forecast is tricky but the range of conclusions sometimes reported can be misleading and must be used circumspectly, particularly by those buying and selling at the top end of the property market.
It is important to consider how some of the market statistics quoted in the media are calculated and how to draw out which are specifically relevant to you. Commentators on the residential market can generally be split into two groups those in the property business selling mortgages or property and those who are general market or economic commentators.
There are three main residential property indices those produced by the Halifax Bank, the Nationwide Building Society and the Governments own Land Registry. These are supplemented by new database systems like Hometrack and a number of other regular surveys by leading estate agents and some more anecdotal ones by organisations such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
Indices are very much general indicators of what goes on in the market. They provide evidence of market trends but do not directly reflect what is happening to your own property. That would be a bit like looking at the Retail Price Index to work out the future price of a pint of milk.
The majority of reports are based around the movement of the average house price which currently stands at around a little under 200,000. So if you do not live in an average house, you immediately have to question how relevant statistics referring to average houses are to your own personal situation. The housing market is incredibly polarised; different postcodes and different price brackets can behave entirely independently from one another, even within the same city.
The monthly reports by the Halifax and Nationwide are promoted fiercely and are based on a selection of mortgage offers made by each company that month, rather than actual sales prices or completions for the month. They are useful for an overall view of what is happening in the mainstream UK market and trace the movement of a basket of typical properties. This probably makes them more useful to the Bank of England when setting interest rates than actually for prospective house hunters. The Halifax index although taken from a larger sample is reported to be increasingly lagging behind the market. So really neither is valuable for a specific guide to property price behaviour, particularly in London. One key factor behind this conclusion is that they do not include property which is deemed to be outside the conventional market, namely any property worth over 1 million, flats over 2,000 sq ft or houses over 3,000 sq ft.
In the salubrious town of Hale in Cheshire one in every twenty homes sells for 1 million or more. This is an incredible proportion of the marketplace to ignore.
Both the Halifax and Nationwide indices miss out on any property bought without a mortgage (estimated to be around 20-25% of all sales).
As their sample can be based on every sale in the market, the Governments own Land Registry provides an accurate picture of price movements across the UK as a whole but as they are released quarterly and the analysis is taken from completion dates (likely to be two months after a sale price is agreed) they may not reflect actual market conditions at the time.
These indices continue to generate massive interest in the media and hugely influence the publics confidence, but they can be very misleading, particularly if you are trying to reach a pricing decision on an expensive property. Without a clear understanding of how each of the statistics is collated, the relevance of the sample to your circumstances, and from which stage in the transaction process they are collated, the information is of very limited use to buyers in the market today.
Market trends can be often cloudy and Chinese whispers are legendary. Moving house for many is a large financial commitment. Common sense as opposed to economic indicators suggests that best advice often comes directly from the coal face.
When buying or selling, media reports and market analysis are interesting, but a more accurate perspective will come from an experienced agent who specialises in your part of the market, in your area, and who has your best interests at heart. It is the property people, both estate agents and home finders, operating in the relevant market on a daily basis, who will often provide best advice, as they are the ones who actually see the market fluctuations.
It is not possible to understand a property market just by looking at the numbers. Housing is a place to live a roof over our heads. Where we live has a bigger impact on our quality of life than any other expenditure. How can the behaviour of someone buying their family a home lend itself to statistical analysis? Of course everybody concentrates on finding value, but we will always pay as much as we can, to live in the nicest house we can afford.
Whilst our financial position affects how much we can pay for a house, the decision to buy a particular property is far from rational. And certainly not predictable.
The strength in the housing market this year has taken most commentators by surprise. The 1 Million+ price bracket in both London and the Country has been the most robust this year. Supply is tighter in this sector and the market supported by a larger proportion of cash buyers and international super-rich purchasers neither of whom are particularly susceptible to levels of interest rates. So if demand at the very top is least constrained by affordability and supply most limited then that’s where I anticipate seeing the strongest growth. Rather like antiques it’ll be the expensive, but rare commodity of large family houses that is likely to be the property type, which offers the best long-term growth prospects.