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Surveying an uncertain market

Douglas Fraser | 14:25 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Nationwide has confirmed that Britain's average house prices have fallen by nearly 14.7% over the past year. But the bank's survey has picked up something strange in Scotland - that it is the only part of Britain that saw house prices rise, albeit very slightly, at the back end of last year.

As these figures followed a quarter when Scotland's price decline was faster than other parts of the UK, Nationwide was right to conclude that its figures "suggest conditions in Scotland are still somewhat uncertain".

The method of measuring house prices is to take a range of typical homes and to watch what price they're fetching. This avoids going for averages, which can be distorted by Nationwide's mortgage book, dominated by south east England.

But what this fails to register is the impact of the fall in transactions. Nationwide puts it thus: "As house price expectations turned negative, the incentive to enter the market evaporated and buyer demand fell accordingly. As a result, housing market activity plunged to the lowest levels ever recorded".

With far fewer homes changing hands - the sellers reluctant to lower their price expectations and buyers fearful of what their purchase might be worth by next year - the figures could be distorted.

That said, the outcome of all this is that the average (privately-owned) Scottish home was worth £138,941 by last month, down 8.1% on the year, while the UK average was at £156,828, down by 14.7% on the final quarter of 2007.

According to Nationwide, Edinburgh's fall in prices, at 6%, was the second lowest fall for any town or city, beaten only by Durham on 4%.

One region worth watching is Northern Ireland, which has seen the peace dividend, allied to soaring prices across its international border, sending house prices up by record rates. They're now coming down by record rates, with Nationwide finding they fell 34% on the year.

Also this morning, Nationwide has published its regular measure of consumer confidence, and if you drill down into it a bit, there are some more interesting findings, some of them perhaps even hinting at good news for the economy.

The most bizarre figure, from a Britain-wide survey of 1,000 people questioned from mid-November to mid-December, is that 9% of people think the current state of the UK economy is good.

More significant is that people seem to think the worst may be over. Asked how people feel the economy will be after six months, people were more optimistic at the end of the year than they were last summer.

Running counter to that, the survey found expectation of future job availability has worsened over that period. By December, 63% of people thought there would be few jobs available by the middle of this year, and 21% thought there would be a strong labour market.

Two-thirds of people reckoned their household income will be about the same by the middle of this year, with 15% expecting higher earnings and 19% fearing they'll be lower, so that's fairly evenly balanced.

The potentially good news is in spending confidence. Asked if this would be a good time for a major purpose, such as a house or car, those in the survey registered a clear upswing in confidence.

Between January and October, those saying it's a good time to buy ranged from 11 to 18%. But by November that was up to 26% and last month it was 27%. There has been a drop, though slightly less marked, in the numbers saying it's a bad time to buy, most recently at 51%.

And although the numbers in the survey from Scotland were a small portion of the total, reducing their reliability, it did look as if Scottish confidence about future house prices is stronger than the rest of the UK.

Between April and November and across Britain, those thinking it's a good time to buy household goods, such as kitchen appliances, ranged between 25 and 28% for most of last year, until December, that rose to 41%.

The other potential for an upswing is from Nationwide economists reckoning there could be pent-up demand from those ready to get into the market once there is more confidence that prices are bottoming out.

Since 2003, first-time buyers have made up only 33% of transactions, compared to an average 46% since 1979.

If you assume the same proportion of first-time buyers wanted into the market, you could conclude that 750,000 people have been "locked out" of the market during the bubble, and these could start chasing starter homes when an equilibrium between earnings, prices and credit availability have come back into line.

That assumption, of course, is that Britain will return to its long-standing property-owning obsession.

It could, instead, take to a model closer to our European neighbours, with fewer people owning their homes and a much bigger private rental sector.


  • Comment number 1.


    You rightly say "But what this fails to register is the impact of the fall in transactions".

    But you then go on to conclude that the figures are valid. You dont quote what the transaction level is now, and what is was was before.

    I am in Edinburgh and I would imagine it is difficult to say what the price of a house is as none have sold!

    You might also comment on the fact that the ESPC started a monthly series of Market Reviews recently and have not published one for November, perhaps thats because they didnt sell any properties!

    Source here:


  • Comment number 2.

    As one of those locked out of the "bubble market", indeed I've been looking at properties. Taking my time, looking at what there is and what we can afford.
    Obviously the madness could not continue and those of us who saved, rather than spend what we did not have, can now come out and choose wisely if and what to buy.
    I do think that the "equilibrium between earnings, prices and credit availability" is still quite a long way off.... Those who went in over their heads are in trouble and those of us who were cautious, remain so. So any movement in this uncertain market would be rather restrained?


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