After two years of falling prices, there is some evidence that prices have started to stabilise in Prime Central London and that the number of transactions is picking up.
For example, agency JLL reports that activity in PCL sales “ticked up” in the three months to end June, rising 7% between the first and second quarters of this year. It finds that “sentiment and pricing … has firmed” in the sub-£2m market, “with buyers and sellers eager and willing to trade”.
However JLL finds the upper end of the market “stifled”, with “a lack of committed demand and insecurity about pricing”.
Conversely, rival Knight Frank says that, “in a reversal of the trend seen in recent years, higher-value properties are now outperforming in terms of price change as the market adapts to higher rates of stamp duty.” It reported transaction volumes in the first seven months of 2017 up 5% year-on-year. “There are also indications that activity could continue to rise, with an 8% rise in the number of new prospective buyers registering between January and August 2017,” it adds.
At the higher end of the market, investment advisory firm London Central Portfolio confirms that sales of £5-10 million homes rose 23% in the second quarter, and were triple the same period last year. It said sales in this bracket are up 4.1% and prices up 4.9%.
But the picture is unclear. Rightmove painted a grim picture of the market in September, with national prices down 1.2% month-on-month, dragged down by a 2.9% fall in London prices.
So what message should buyers take from the various data points? We would suggest one of optimism, tempered by caution.
“It’s logical that the higher end of the market should show the first signs of recovery, given how far it’s fallen,” says Black Brick Managing Partner Camilla Dell. “Certainly, the sub-£1 million market hasn’t fallen at all.”
“However, we are not yet seeing the beginnings of a stampede back in PCL, and continuing political uncertainty – around Brexit to an extent, and that associated with the likely longevity of the current minority Conservative government – is casting something of a cloud,” she adds.
Attempting to time the bottom of any market is notoriously difficult, observes Casper Harvard-Walls, Black Brick Partner, who notes that transaction data is by definition backward looking and, given the lead-time of property trades, may relate to conditions four to six months in the past.
In conclusion, there are undoubtedly buying opportunities in part of the market, as discussed below, but it is likely to be too early to call the beginning of a broad-based recovery in PCL.
We would certainly agree that activity levels are picking up in PCL, with our consultants busy on behalf of both overseas and domestic clients buying homes and investment properties across the capital.
As we have noted before, the sub-£2 million sector of the London market has remained supported by domestic buyers during the dip in the wider market. This segment benefited from changes to Stamp Duty and, outside traditional PCL markets, has seen continued activity from families looking to upsize, for example.
But while this part of the market is competitive, there are bargains to be had in the new-build resale market, where buyers have bought off-plan but are facing completion and are seeking to avoid making final payment. Some of these sellers are prepared to sell at considerable discounts. For example, we have been offered one outstanding property in Nine Elms for £1.6 million compared with an original price of £1.9 million. Black Brick Managing Partner Camilla Dell comments “Whilst there continues to be some uncertainty around future price growth and rental yields due to the volume of units being constructed in the Nine Elms and surrounding area, there comes a point when the discount to the original paid price becomes so big that it’s worth taking a view on. I have no doubt that in several years’ time when the area is fully developed savvy buyers that picked up deals today will be pleased that they did.”
We are also seeing opportunities in the buy-to-let market, which has come under pressure in recent months from Stamp Duty changes – buy-to-let properties face a 3 percentage point Stamp Duty surcharge – as well as the gradual removal of mortgage interest tax relief. These changes mean that a growing number of landlords are planning to sell up, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
This shrinkage of the private rental market will start to push up rents, presenting opportunities for buyers to step in – especially those who are able to pay cash, and are therefore insulated from the changes to the tax treatment of mortgage interest payments. RICS estimates that rents are set to rise at 3%/year for the next five years, outpacing an annual 2% rise in house prices.
There is, however, a newly added note of uncertainty over the rental sector, following Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the party conference in late September. He pledged that a Labour government would introduce rent controls and, although he gave no details, the party is reportedly studying existing models in Ontario, New York and Berlin.
Nonetheless, we are seeing particular interest in buy-to-let investors purchasing blocks of apartments, which are considered commercial investments and therefore benefit from lower Stamp Duty. Such purchases also give buyers more options in how they manage the properties involved.
But whether buyers are acquiring individual apartments or entire blocks, the existing market uncertainty means that we are advising a number of strategies to ‘future proof’ purchases. As well as focusing, as always, on quality, location is particularly important. We also anticipate rental demand for certain segments of the market to be particularly resilient should, for example, a Brexit-related downturn affect London property.
More broadly, we’re finding that in the current market, fortune favours the patient. In a number of cases in recent months, vendors who rejected earlier offers we have made on behalf of clients, offers we declined to increase, have come back to us to accept the original offer. We are advising our clients to hold their nerve and not overpay. Since April this year we have saved our clients an average of £540,000 from asking prices, or 7% – demonstrating the value of using a buying agent such as Black Brick which can advise on where to properly price bids.
How Brexit impacts London’s financial sector remains one of the big uncertainties confounding forecasts around the direction of PCL prices. But there are grounds for cautious optimism. First, at the political level, the UK government is moving towards a softer exit from the EU, with Prime Minister Theresa May calling for a two-year transition period.
Second, a survey of financial firms employing some 350,000 staff suggests that the transfer of jobs to the EU could be at the lower end of forecasts. According to Reuters, around 10,000 finance jobs would be moved out of London or created overseas over the next few years if the UK is denied access to the EU Single Market. The 123 firms polled represent the bulk of those working in international finance.
Even if the majority of these staff are transferred (and noting that many of these could be new jobs created abroad), that is likely to have a marginal affect on PCL prices.
Meanwhile, the latest assessment of global financial centres finds that London retains its top spot. The 22nd edition of the Global Financial Centres Index, which ranks 92 cities, London fell by only two points this year, despite ongoing concerns around Brexit. New York, in number two position and expected to be the biggest beneficiary of any fall in London’s status, fell 24 points, largely as a result of concerns about President Donald Trump’s views on free trade.
Early this year, we predicted that the isolationist leanings of Trump – notably his attempts to ban travel from a number of Middle Eastern and African countries – could make London a more attractive destination for property investment.
Writing in City A.M last month, David Adams, the director of estate agent Humberts in Mayfair, confirmed our prediction, describing how Trump was helping to drive Middle Eastern buyers back to the capital.
“The president’s temporary ban on a number of Muslim-majority countries entering the US has made London look far more investor-friendly again and a number of Middle Eastern clients have returned,” he writes.
It’s certainly a trend we’ve seen: we’re recorded an increase of around 10% in the number of Middle Eastern clients on our books. Furthermore, we’ve also seen a more dramatic increase in our US client base, of around 33% (albeit from a lower base).
This reinforces the message from the Global Financial Centres Index: for all the current political uncertainty, London remains a truly global city, economically vital, culturally vibrant and perennially open.
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