When will the long slump in house sales end?

Man erecting "for sale" signs
Image caption Most homes for sale now spend months on the market before a likely buyer appears

There is no doubt about it, house sales in the UK have been in their worst slump since contemporary records began in the late 1970s.

With just 869,000 homes sold in the UK last year, the figures for 2011 are bang in line with those for both 2009 and 2010.

That means sales have been halved from the levels seen in the run up to the banking crisis, which started in 2007.

Some estate agents have closed and shed staff, but many have converted themselves into lettings agencies instead, as demand for rented homes has boomed.

However, other professions and trades have not been able to adapt so well, and business has shrunk dramatically for the nation's house removers, conveyancing solicitors, house builders and building tradesmen.

Reg Hackworthy is President of the British Association of Removers (BAR) and says firms like his, in Plymouth, are having to fight to get work.

"Most of them [BAR members] are talking of a very considerable downturn in work," he says.

"We may have dropped our prices by about 10-15%, compared to three or four years ago - most of us are cutting costs in any way we can.

"For the past few years we have just been hoping we get through the year," he adds.

Steve Turner of the Home Builders Federation (HBF) says the downturn in sales has severely depressed demand for new home building, with house builders cutting back their activities considerably.

"The number of people employed has probably dropped about 40% and a lot of smaller companies have disappeared, so you have seen a widescale reduction in the capacity of the house building industry," he says.

Who cares?

Does it matter if people cannot buy and sell homes as frequently as before?

Certainly it does for some of the existing owners whose house moves have been thwarted by a lack of buyers for their own properties.

Or for the first-time buyers locked out by the stringent deposit requirements of lenders.

A look at the transaction figures, published by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), suggests that in 2009, 2010 and 2011, there were 1.6 million fewer home sales in the UK than in the preceding three years.

And figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) indicate that the number of first-time buyers locked out of the market in that time has been just over 371,000.

According to Simon Kirby, of the National Institute of Economics and Social Research (NIESR), this makes rising unemployment even worse, as some people find they cannot sell up and move to a new job elsewhere in the country.

"This is one of the major concerns, it has quite serious implications for the functioning of the labour market," he says.

"If job mobility is impaired, would people losing their jobs move to where jobs are?"

Renting revival

Hand-in-hand with the slump in sales has gone a boom in the number of people renting their homes from private landlords.

Image caption Will converting former cupboards into flats become more common?

It has been driven by a well-reported combination of factors.

There has been a big rise in the population, continued strong lending to buy-to-let landlords, frustrated sellers deciding to become "accidental landlords" before they sell their homes, and would-be buyers being forced to rent a home because they cannot afford to buy.

By 2009-10, according to the English Housing Survey, the popularity of private renting had continued its steady rise, which has now lasted for more than a decade.

The number of renters reached 3.4 million that year, which was 15.6% of all English households.

While they have gone up, the number of council and housing association tenants has fallen steadily, to 3.7 million.

They now amount to just 17% of English households, compared with 20% back in 1999.

Matt Hutchinson, a director of the booming flat-share website, believes the revival of landlords and renting is a permanent change to the housing scene.

"It is not just young graduates and students and twentysomethings - people are continuing to rent and share well into their 30s and often into their 40s," he says.

"We cling on to the idea that we should own property and I think that is going to be hard for people to let go of, because it is such a cultural part of who we are," he adds.

The mortgage drought

A stand-out feature of the housing market is just how hard it is now to obtain a mortgage.

Just a few years ago, lenders of all sorts seemed to be throwing money at almost anyone who cared to ask for a home loan.

Loans with no deposit, or for more than the value of a property, were commonplace.

Now a squeaky clean credit history for borrowers, and a very big downpayment, are necessities as lenders continue to ration their lending.

Meanwhile the banking crisis is still rumbling on, with fears it could even intensify because of the problems of the eurozone.

So it is still hard for lenders to borrow wholesale funds from other financial institutions to lend to ordinary borrowers.

New banking regulations have also hindered the ability of banks and building societies to make loans without a sizeable deposit from the borrower.

And the fall in house prices, in most parts of the UK outside London, means lenders are wary of seeing the security for their loans eroded by further falls.

Simon Tyler, a mortgage broker who has been in the business for many years, says sales will eventually start to recover, though probably not until the end of 2013.

"People are still very worried about their jobs, and increasingly with the government cuts beginning to take effect in 2012," he says.

"As and when they resolve the liquidity situation with the banks, that will release more funding which in turn will mean more houses are built.

"Underlying all this there is still a massive pent up demand for people to have their own properties," he points out.

Knock-on effects

The drop in home sales has had a big ripple effect in the economy.

Image caption House builders are desperate for more finance to become available to buyers

Along with the general fall in house prices, fewer sales have inhibited people from borrowing against the rising value of their homes - in effect using them as credit cards or cash machines.

Known to economists as housing equity withdrawal, this process reached a peak in 2003 when it was providing UK households with an enormous 8% boost to their average after-tax income.

That ground to a halt in the middle of 2008 and shows no sign of reviving.

Tony Key, a professor of real estate economics at the Cass Business School in London, warns we should not be taking steps to bring back the housing market of just a few years ago.

"I think the idea we should be doing something to re-prime the housing market is probably misconceived," he argues.

"It was priming markets with over-generous credit that got us into trouble in the first place.

"Deleveraging [paying off debt] takes five to 10 years to work its way through the system," he warns.

What next?

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the newly established scrutineer of government spending and taxation, is assuming that house sales revive this year and for the next few years as well.

The government recently launched a mortgage indemnity scheme to stimulate the sales of newly built homes.

But generally things do not look too good, even if interest rates stay at their current remarkably low levels.

Unemployment is rising briskly and many economists think the country is likely to be back in formal recession sometime this year.

Incomes will probably continue being undermined by a combination of inflation and wage freezes or wage cuts.

Meanwhile mortgage lenders are facing even stiffer regulation of their lending practices by the Financial Services Authority (FSA).

And who knows how the eurozone crisis will develop?

Adrian Coles, director general of the Building Societies Association (BSA), denies the housing market has gone straight back to the 1950s, when "queuing" for a home loan from a building society was the norm and many more people rented than owned their homes.

But he is in no doubt that the house buying business has changed permanently.

"I do not think we will go back to what was regarded as normal five or 10 years ago, looking back now, I think that was abnormal, " he says.

"This is not just a cyclical downturn where we will see a recovery in a year or two - there are some fundamental changes that have occurred.

"We are going back to the days of responsible borrowing and responsible lending," he adds.

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