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Sky-high deposits drive young towards rental sector

House sales are soaring, driven by the government's Help to Buy scheme. Jones Lang LaSalle's Birmingham-based residential services director, Michael Brough, sees what's happening locally.

JLL Birmingham Michael BroughBirmingham, 6th February, 2014 -  There's certainly a significant upturn in both land values and house sales across Birmingham. If you look at such long-term hotspots as Solihull, Harborne and Sutton Coldfield, residential values are typically back to roughly 70-80% of the level we saw back in 2007.

If you look at Harborne, for example, the city council sold a site at the Martineau Centre, and the market suggests that has reached around £1.5m an acre.

At the height of the boom, that site would probably have reached £2m to £2.5m, so it's a pretty solid recovery. However I don't think anyone would want to see the land prices we saw before the crash, because they clearly were not sustainable.

If housebuilders identify the right location, build the right product and price their properties correctly, then they will still sell.

For example, Crest Nicholson recently sold a majority of units on its Dorridge Gate development in Solihull, and have seen sales prices lift by £20-£30 per square foot since they started construction. On the release date, some families were even camping overnight to be the first in the queue to reserve units.

However, there are areas in the West Midlands which are still flat-lining and it's difficult to find much residential land activity in the poorer locations within the Black Country.
A residential development site in Darlaston was recently released by Jones Lang LaSalle and struggled to reach £100,000 per acre. At that level, the land-owners declined to sell on the basis that they would wait for growth to return.

Other areas in the Black Country are suffering, such as Tipton, where at the height of the market in 2007 land values were reaching towards £1m an acre. However, that was way over the market price even then, and now Tipton and Darlaston are back down in the basement.

Effectively, these locations are sub-prime residential zones. It's going to be several years before their values start to pick up, which will only happen when we see strong and sustained economic growth, and real wages finally start to rise.

In terms of house sales, Birmingham reflects the national picture because the residential market is being driven by the Help To Buy (HTB) initiative. If you talk to the major house-builders, they'll say that between 25% and 40% of their current sales right across the Midlands are from HTB.

It's good to see them doing better, because they create employment and wealth, and to see more people getting on to the housing ladder, but I think everyone really needs to see the bigger picture.

What happens in 2017, when HTB has run its course? Unless the banks have really changed their mindset, and started to make significant chunks of mortgage finance available, the property market will tumble again.

Equally, it has to be recognised that HTB is only stimulating the middle of the market. The frothy end of residential rarely changes much, and the lower end is still on its knees, so although the headline figures look good for house sales, they do not tell the full story.

If you're coming out of university, and have accumulated £25,000 or £30,000 of debt in student loans, even if you only look to buy a £100,000 flat, you simply won't be able to find the deposit, unless you rely on the Bank of Mum & Dad.

Anecdotally, and from talking to the rental agencies, I think many young people are now seriously starting to question whether they need to buy properties, and are seeing the merit of renting.

If you're young, and growing up in an era of austerity, then committing to a large long-term mortgage debt represents a major challenge, when you're trying to balance your spending, and especially at a time when finding employment is proving so tough for many of the under-25s.

I can see young people moving away from the traditional British approach of thinking that houses must be bought, and adopting the mindset we've seen in Continental Europe and North America for many years, where renting is the norm.

However, if that shift happens on a significant scale, and the demand for new homes starts to fall away, how do the house-builders react? There are niche players, of course, but in general their business models were - and still are - based on volume sales.

They're all benefitting from the stimulus of HTB, of course, but many of the homes being sold now are old stock, because new-build levels have been well down for several years. Going forward, it will be a major challenge for house-builders to adjust to the new balance between buying and renting.

In London, which obviously has different pressures in terms of tenant demand, not least the heavy influx of migrants who want to work in the capital, the scale of the public rented sector (PRS) was always larger than the regions, but in the last few years, it's grown at record rates.

In Birmingham, although there is definitely a significant upturn in the PRS market, almost all the units being shifted, in such rental hotspots as the city centre and the Jewellery Quarter, were built when values were much higher, and builders are typically taking a hit of between 25% and 30%.

There are several deals being considered at the moment, which might alter the picture a little, but in general terms, probably half the properties are also going to investors, rather than home-buyers, so again, it's not the same picture as you might see from the crude headline stats.

I'm not yet convinced that the PRS model is going to work in Birmingham, or other regional centres, once the old stock has pretty much gone.

As in all sectors, London is so far the exception that it might as well be considered to be another country, but if Birmingham's residential property community is relying on HTB and the private rented sector for future growth, it's really going to hit trouble in a few years if the mortgage market doesn’t return to offering loans where buyers need only a 5% deposit.