Falling Netherlands house prices leave owners stuck

Nigel Cassidy
Rotterdam, BBC News

Media caption, Nigel Cassidy reports on falling house prices in the Netherlands

Maureen Wachtels is trying to relax by making a Victoria sponge in her small but pristine central Rotterdam flat.

For a few moments, the whole process of sifting, mixing and baking helps take her mind off her personal plight.

Not only has she lost a well-paid and enjoyable job because of a life-threatening illness, she is also one of about a million Dutch people who suddenly find themselves in negative equity.

Maureen needs to move to sheltered accommodation as soon as possible. Yet she has only had one offer for her flat, way short of the 200,000 euros that she paid just two years ago.

But this is not just a story of over-optimistic lenders who tempted the Dutch to pile into property in the mistaken assumption that it would continue to rise in value.

The housing dam has broken. Holland is sitting on some 650bn euros in mortgage loans, with many properties worth 25% less than they were before the financial crisis.

No other EU consumers are as deeply in debt. The bursting of the Netherlands real estate bubble is now on a scale only previously seen in the United States and Spain.

'We can't sell'

Worst of all, it is endangering banks and jobs - stalling the longed-for recovery that is starting to emerge in neighbouring north European countries.

And all this in a country that until recently was seen as an exemplary economy - one that was quick to criticise others in Europe for not living within their means. The irony is not lost on Dutch citizens.

Image caption, Maureen says her flat is now worth much less than she paid for it

What remains one of the most open and competitive countries in the eurozone finds itself busting EU deficit limits and having to rapidly impose painful state austerity measures on its people against the clock.

For Maureen Wachtels, it is a surprising turn of events because she thought she was being frugal.

When she was in the market to buy, she borrowed some 200,000 euros, but was told she could borrow almost 500,000 euros - and many did just that.

"We were all forced to buy because at the time there didn't seem to be any property to rent. Now we are stuck with houses we can't sell," she says.

"I never expected that in just two years my asking price would come down from over 200,000 euros to 179,000.

"All I have is an offer for 153,000 euros which I have sent to the bank - but they have not responded."

She has advised her children to decline their inheritance on her death - because otherwise they could be stuck with her unexpected debts which will total some 35,000 euros.

Tax breaks

The estate agent handling the sale, Dennis Stello, principal of Match Makelaars in Rotterdam, says the price falls are a good thing - not least because a return to affordability has revived the previously moribund rental market.

Despite this, he feels desperately sorry for clients like Maureen Wachtels who have been caught up in financial events. Mr Stello believes the origins of the crisis lie in botched economic policy of the previous government.

For instance, until recently tax breaks for mortgage borrowers in the Netherlands were so generous that they inflated the market to the point where most people could no longer afford to buy.

He suggests the fault lies with politicians looking for votes who failed to act on warnings and correct the state's unsustainable generosity; the mortgage tax breaks were costing taxpayers an estimated 14bn euros a year.

Finally, the system was changed but by then the market was falling.

"The price drop began in 2008 and it won't stop. In my opinion prices will keep coming down 2 or 3% a year until they end up around half of what they were," says Mr Stello.

"They could fall even more as and when the European Central Bank raises interest rates."

'You can't move'

For some, the Dutch experience provides an economic lesson of the risks for a prosperous economy caught up in a post-bubble crunch when it has ceded control of its monetary policy, interest rates and currency.

One man who has closely followed the Dutch housing market is Maarten van Wijk, an economic specialist for the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.

"If you have a house worth 150,000 euros, but it has a mortgage of 200,000 this has a large psychological effect. You can't move, you just have to struggle to pay down the mortgage as fast as possible.

"That is money you can't spend in the economy. It has also come as a surprise to most people.

"If you went to a dinner party before the crisis and told people you were renting a house, people would probably consider you financially backward.

"It was received wisdom that house prices would always go up."

Escape route

So far forced sales are relatively low - estimated at only 3,000 or so since the crisis began.

Image caption, Over-generous tax breaks distorted the market, says estate agent Dennis Stello

Banks are offering various relief measures to try and keep people in their homes - not least because the lenders themselves want to avoid writing down their home loans.

One possible future escape route for some stressed homebuyers might be tapping into their accrued personal pension funds - if they have any.

It is an idea under active consideration in a country now exploring any possible avenue to escape a debt crisis of its own making.

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