So now we are only a matter of a couple of weeks into lockdown, yet can you believe it I am still speaking with agents from all over the UK, and I do not jest, properties are still being sold and let even in these unprecedented times. Yet I would like to address the question I have been asked many times recently “What will be the effect of Covid-19 on the Bristol property market in the short, medium and long term?”
These are obviously unchartered times, yet we can look back in history to give us clues and more recently, the bounce back that is happening in China (and their property market). The Covid-19 situation will touch all parts of the Bristol and UK property market, and so in this article, I will be considering its impact on Bristol property prices, transaction numbers (i.e. the number of people that move home), Bristol buy-to-let landlords and finally tenants and the rents they pay.
The Three Issues with the Virus and the Property Market
The first issue has to be the lockdown itself. Limitations on society’s capability to go about their normal working life will hinder the house buying/selling process. The practical difficulties of moving home and expediting the property sale; from the viewing itself, the Energy Performance Certificate being carried out, the surveyor checking the property for the lender etc., are all issues. Yet the estate agency and legal industries are coming up with some innovative solutions, from virtual viewings to legally watertight delayed completions, where the old owners stay in the house under licence during the lockdown, and the move will take place after the lockdown period.
Secondly, the UK housing market has never liked ambiguity or uncertainty and this virus will play a part on people’s feelings and sentiment towards moving home (or not).
Thirdly and finally, there is the issue with the money people have, be that wages, whether they have a job (or not) and their overall affluence, on the back of the of 29.4% stock market decrease in the last two months (correct at the time of writing this article).
The Background Economics
The economy drives everything including the housing market – and the overall measure of the economy is the Gross Domestic Product figure or the GDP (the GDP is basically the total value of all the goods and services created by the whole UK economy in one year and it currently stands at £2.15 trillion).
Looking at what has happened in China, most economists believe the UK will experience a short, yet sharp economic shrinkage in Q2 2020 with GDP set drop by 4% to 7% in the one quarter depending on the extent of the lockdown. Then GDP is expected to level out in Q3 2020, and then a significant ricochet (how significant depends who you listen to) in Q4 2020/Q1 2021.
Now putting politics aside, I have been impressed with Boris Johnson’s response with wide-ranging support for the UK economy and businesses, and whilst it’s far from perfect, help has been in the guise of the Bank of England reactivating its Contingent Term Repo Facility increasing liquidity and keeping the money markets going (important as that was what the issue was with the Credit Crunch), business grants and Government backed loans, together with telling lenders to take a compassionate line to those unable to make mortgage holidays and finally the furloughing of staff, thus allowing a quicker recovery in the economy.
What Will Happen to Bristol Property Values?
There are a few doom-monger economists predicting Armageddon, yet I feel a lot of that is to get column inches in the newspapers. The Bristol property market is less exposed than it was in the previous four historical property crashes in 1972, 1979, 1988 and 2008. This is because of the following reasons…
- Before each of the four crashes, there had been a significant upward spike in property values prior to the crash. We have not experienced that over the last 12 months.
- Mortgage interest as a percentage of household income (nationally) was a massive 32% in 1988, 18% in 2008 – yet now it stands at just under 8% (because interest rates are so low).
This is all assuming we don’t have high unemployment. Yet historically, it has been proved house price falls are not caused by high unemployment. It is in fact, that it happens the other way around, that a housing downturn can (not always) create unemployment – yet with the Government furloughing people – this shouldn’t be such so much of an issue.
The value of an average Bristol home currently stands at £346,200
As I will explain in the next section, the biggest effect will be on transaction numbers, not on property values. I suspect in the summer there will be some Bristol homeowners who will want to sell at all costs, and not care what price they achieve. Savvy property buyers will swoop on those properties and drive a hard bargain, meaning there will be some short-term localised reductions in what properties sell in the summer for those that want to sell at any cost.
Yet, these reductions will artificially amplify the property value indexes in a downward direction in the autumn (the ones the newspapers mention when they talk about property value changes) because they will be based on the very low levels of property transactions that will take place in the summer (because there is always a lag). Interestingly we have seen this many times over the years because just about every spring for the last 20 years, we have often seen negative or very subdued figures in the House Price Indexes in the months of January/February. This is because of the lack of property sales on the run up to Christmas a few months before. To give this all some context, property values in Bristol are 44.6% higher than 10 years ago – and nobody was complaining about those. To give you an idea what that is in pound notes…
The average Bristol home has risen in value by £106,900 in the last 10 years
The swiftness of recovery in the autumn/winter from that point will depend on the state of the wider economy. With the measures (mentioned above) implemented by the Government, household incomes should continue to remain steady, and whilst holidays and luxuries may be shelved for a year, those Bristol people who have been locked up in their Bristol homes for weeks on end, might just consider making that move later in 2020, taking advantage of the ultra-low interest rates. This in turn ought to encourage a return to sturdier levels of house-price growth in the medium term (2021/2 onwards).
The Number of People Moving Home in Bristol Will Significantly Drop in 2020
I foresee the number of people moving home (i.e. the number of household transactions) in Bristol will significantly drop in 2020. This will only really affect the pockets of Estate Agents (as they charge their fee when people move – so if less people are moving, they will earn less) and the people associated with house moving.
Even with virtual viewings and creative legal work, the number of property transactions will be considerably obstructed over the next couple of months. Interestingly, in the Chinese cities that removed the lockdown first (in the middle of March) I have read in the press the number of property transactions has already bounced back to around the half of the medium-term average after only three weeks!
This was caused by people delaying their move because of the ‘B’ word (Brexit) over the last 12/18 months, which interestingly saw a massive upsurge with the Boris Bounce in December/January and February.
Worse case scenarios suggested by economists state transactions will drop to 20% of the normal 10 year average number of transactions until the end of Q3 2020, return to 65% by Q1 2021, increase to 100% by the end of Q2 2021 and then 120% in 2022, yet most sensible economists (and often those that stay out of the limelight and don’t go chasing headlines), believe transactions will reduce to 45% to 50% of the 10 year average until the end of Q3 2020, improve to 80% in Q4 2020 and 100% by Q2 2021 with potential for higher transactions numbers in the order of 110% to 130% in 2022.
It all sounds rather grim doesn’t it, until you dig deeper…
Remarkably, it must be stated the number of property transactions over the last 12 months in Bristol are only at 64.4% of the 10-year Bristol average … and this was before Covid-19
In the last 12 months, there have been 7,990 property transactions in Bristol, compared to a 10-year average of 12,400 per year
Yet, let’s not forget, these predictions are from the 10-year long term average, and as it can quite clearly be seen, transaction levels are already at a low, even without Covid-19 and nobody was complaining about that apart from estate agents and removal vans!
With the number of Bristol people moving being held back, I would anticipate seeing a build-up of supressed demand for Bristol property from Covid-19, on top of the pent-up demand from Brexit, especially with many Bristol families realising their Bristol homes aren’t large enough to contain them as the lockdown experience will push many Bristol households to move in late 2020 or possibly 2021 … and as every economics student knows, when demand outstrips supply (because we can’t all of a sudden build more houses), prices go up.
How Will This Affect Bristol First Time Buyers, Those Trading up, Downsizers and Landlords & Tenants?
FIRST TIME BUYERS – I believe the banks will be a little more wary when lending money to first buyers with their need for large percentage mortgages. The demand for the Help-to-Buy Scheme has been increasing year-on-year, yet its pace of growth has been declining in the last couple years – I foresee demand accelerating in the later parts of 2020. There could be some good deals to be had from new homes builders looking to release cash in Q3 and Q4 later in the year? Maybe the Bank of Mum and Dad might be able to help, yet they too will be stretched, although they might be able to release equity down the generations to their children and grandchildren (see the downsizers section).
TRADING UP – Many Bristol homeowners in their starter homes will be going stir-crazy in their smaller homes, and with interest rates at ultralow levels, some Bristol homeowners might forgo holidays and entertaining, and consider putting their weight and finances into moving up market in Bristol. That might also be easier, if the Bristol downsizers start to move as well.
DOWNSIZERS – There are many Bristol retired people, rattling around their large Bristol home, with their children having flown the nest and possibly moved away years ago. These Bristol people don’t need to move, and so are considered ‘optional home-movers’ – yet the Covid-19 crisis could be the catalyst to make them finally move to be nearer their family around the UK – releasing good sized Bristol family homes onto the property market for the ‘Trading Uppers’ to buy.
LANDLORDS & TENANTS – I suspect there won’t be many Bristol tenants moving in the next three to four months. Tenants have the peace of mind with a cessation on evictions until the summer and buy-to-let mortgage payment holidays for buy-to-let landlords whose tenants are in financial difficulty (note the tenants have to give proof to their landlord that they are unable to pay with their applications to Universal Credit etc., etc.,). There might be small reductions in average rents, as some Bristol landlords undertake to help their tenants in these chastened financial times, yet for most people, rents will continue to be paid, making no major impression on rental prices in 2020.
Let’s not forget, the level of average rents is directly related to tenants wages and I can’t see why this relationship between rents and tenants wages should break after Covid-19, so as wages are held back in the latter parts of 2020 the growth rents over the next year will be subdued. Finally, those Bristol buy-to-let landlords sitting on cash might be able to bag a bargain in the summer from a desperate seller, before normality returns in Q3 and Q4 2020.
We are in unchartered territory, yet for the reasons explained in this article and, assuming there are no other seismic shocks in the coming weeks and months – in a few years’ time – this will be seen as a bump (albeit a rather big bump) – another part of the roller coaster ride of the UK and Bristol property market.