April 2021

A Spring in our step

With the UK lockdown starting to ease and Britons now allowed to meet up with a small group for picnics in the park, the outlook for the economy and the property market is brightening. We take the opportunity in this month’s newsletter to look back at a year of lockdown and what it meant for the Prime Central London market; we consider the updated outlook for PCL prices, the lack of available stock and the mixed messages being sent by UK house price indices. We look ahead to an ‘American Summer’ and outline the emergent trend of what we have dubbed the ‘Coffee Commute’.

Included also are some thoughts from Camilla Dell’s appearance at the FT Weekend Spring Festival and we’re delighted to reported Black Brick featured in the Spears’ 2021 Property Advisers Index as a Top 10 Buying Agent.

 

A year since the world changed

In March, we passed the sobering milestone of a year since the UK lockdowns started, the beginning of what proved to be an unusual and eventful year for the UK property market. While many people’s initial instincts were that 2020 would be a tough year for property, stellar returns were delivered in areas favoured by buyers adjusting to the Covid ‘new normal’. The prime detached housing market was the clear winner in London, with areas such as St John’s Wood, Richmond and Dulwich seeing strong demand. Further afield, the market for country houses surged into life. The London laggards were 1- and 2-bedroom flats without outside space, both for purchase and for rental, with sharp declines in rental values in traditionally competitive markets such as the City and Canary Wharf.

Data from Savills for the ‘£1m plus’ market shows that agreed sales soared in South Oxfordshire (+186%), Cornwall (+168%) and Guildford (+146%) in the second half of 2020 compared to 2019. Meanwhile, sales volumes were almost stagnant in Westminster (+5%) and grew only modestly in Kensington & Chelsea (+12%) and Hammersmith & Fulham (+21%).

Reflecting on the year at the FTWeekend Spring Festival, Black Brick Managing Partner Camilla Dell noted: “We saw a lot of demand over the last 12 months from domestic clients who’ve been looking to upsize to family houses with gardens, but still in London. The areas where we’ve seen a lot of activity have been Hampstead, St John’s Wood, Dulwich, Richmond, Wimbledon – not your traditional core PCL areas – and it’s all been houses…it’s been a good time to sell in those ‘prime domestic house markets’. When you look at more PCL areas like Mayfair, Belgravia, Knightsbridge, and certainly when you look at the new build market and the flat market – flats without outside space – it’s sort of been a little bit like tumbleweed.”

PCL postcodes (including W1, NW1, NW3, NW8, SW1, SW10, SW3 and SW7) have seen price increases of 1% over the last twelve months, with transaction volumes down by 2%, contrasting with Richmond prices up by 2.8% and transactions surging by 31.8%. In popular NW8 specifically, prices also fell marginally (-0.6%) while transactions rose by 14.8%. The discount-to-asking across postcodes is relatively consistent, at 5-6%. Price trends mask the divergence in performance between flats and houses, with transaction volumes casting better light on the areas which saw strong demand for family residences.

As for the much-hyped return of overseas buyers ahead of the introduction of a 2% surcharge on 1st April, repeated lockdowns stymied the ability to travel freely and limited buyers’ ability to ‘pull forward’ their purchases to beat the tax hike.

Contemplating the effects of the tax, Black Brick Managing Partner Camilla Dell notes: “Did we see overseas buyers making purchases ahead of the 2% surcharge coming into force? The proof will be in the data…we have had a couple of very motivated clients that we signed up at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, from the US. They’ve actually made the decision to travel and come to London to see the property that they want to buy, and we’ve got those deals underway, hoping to exchange and complete before the 31st March deadline. I just wonder whether they’re in the minority and we’ll just have to see what the data shows when once we get through this quarter.”

 

An American Summer

Looking ahead, the outlook for foreign travel remains unclear as Europe lags behind the UK and US in rolling out its vaccination programme, leading to tightening lockdown restrictions on the Continent just as the UK eases. Recent press reports suggest the UK is considering piloting a UK-US travel corridor in June, which could allow easier access to the London market for US buyers.

The return of US, but not EU, buyers in the short-term could favour some areas of London over others, suggests Camilla Dell: “US buyers have been strong for us as a client base, driven by a weak pound and weaker sales market. They like to buy in “village” type areas – Marylebone is extremely popular, however we have also done deals for US clients very recently in Sloane Square and Mayfair. It really depends – US clients buying pied a terres tend to buy apartments, close to a park and a good high street whereas US clients relocating permanently to London tend to prefer houses in prime areas such as Kensington and Notting Hill.” The price discount for US investors relative to the 2014 Central London peak remains substantial, at a hefty 35% – much larger than for domestic or euro-based buyers, and swamping the new 2% surcharge.

The staged return of foreign buyers and delays to the Great British Summer Getaway may also simply add fuel to the domestic housing market. The longer Brits spend time in their home, the greater their interest in trading up and expanding, and the stickier workers’ lifestyle changes will prove to be.

 

Refining the outlook

Savills recently updated their Prime Central London forecasts, pointing to a ‘renewed sense of optimism’. Savills expect Prime Central London capital values to increase by 3% in 2021 and 7% in 2022, with 21.6% growth expected over the next five years. Notes Frances Clacy, Associate Director of Residential Research at Savills: “History tells us that this market rebounds quickly and there remains pent-up demand from those who have been unable to travel and view properties in person. The rollout of vaccines around the world gives us confidence that travel corridors will reopen and prices are likely to start increasing throughout the second half of this year before a more sustained recovery takes hold in 2022.” Knight Frank are a little more cautious on PCL in 2021, trimming their forecast from 3% to 2%, but are increasingly upbeat on Greater London, boosting their outlook from 1% to 4% capital growth.

The market volatility of the last 12 months and sharply changing buyer preferences have served to highlight what an inexact science measuring and forecasting property prices actually is. The FT produced a handy article this month on the differences between the UK house price indices and why they often diverge – measuring asking prices (Rightmove), agreed prices at the mortgage approvals stage (Nationwide and Halifax) or completed sale prices (the ONS). Shifts in the geographical mix of transactions, and the type and value of properties, can skew these indices, too. Registration delays during Covid have made the process of tracking sold prices even more complex. Writes FT Economics Reporter Valentina Romei, “Delays in registrations and different methodologies mean that some indices are showing UK house price growth accelerating rapidly. Others show it tailing off.”

At Black Brick, we would suggest that house price indices are a good barometer of confidence, even through they are not very specific and miss local trends, along with differentiation by property type. As we have seen with Covid, London is not a homogenous market and local knowledge is key to making a sound purchase.

 

Can supply keep up with demand?

A key consideration for the next twelve months is whether PCL supply can actually keep up with resurgent demand. Despite improving economic confidence, the UK’s vaccine rollout proceeding apace, and a clear roadmap out of lockdown, sellers are still worried about Covid and the supply of prime residential properties remains a constraint on the London market.

According to Liam Bailey, Global Head of Research at Knight Frank: “One stat says a lot about what’s likely to take place during the months ahead: there are now almost 13 new prospective buyers for every new sale instruction. This ratio, which shows the strength of demand versus supply, stands at the second highest it has been in the last five years and demonstrates why there has been upwards pressure on prices in the early months of this year.”

Data from Savills for the ‘£1m plus’ market shows London new instructions rising by 37% in the second half of 2020 compared to 2017-19 averages, but falling by 7% in January and by 6% in the last two weeks of February. Intriguingly, data from LonRes suggests the number of flats being withdrawn from the market has risen by 90% versus last year, perhaps in anticipation of better marketing conditions later in the year.

 

‘The Coffee Commute’

One clear trend has jumped out of the data to us at Black Brick – what Caspar Harvard-Walls dubs, ‘The Coffee Commute’. Black Brick Partner Caspar notes: “Over the last 12 months, we have observed a clear trend in outer prime areas where home workers want to be able to get from their desks to a good coffee and back in 15 minutes. Clients don’t just want more space and a garden, they want to stay connected. With office workers likely to remain working from home part-time for the foreseeable future, the winners are homes close to amenities – in fact, buyers want to be closer to an artisanal coffee than to their Tube station.”

Adds Camilla Dell: “This trend helps to explain why previously very desirable areas such as Hampstead Garden Suburb have not appreciated as much in the price as the likes of St John’s Wood over the last year. There is no ’15-minute City’ feel to that area and local amenities are a drive away in Highgate or Hampstead Village.”

Our managed sale of a lovely semi-detached family home with a garden in Goldhurst Terrace during the height of the pandemic last year encapsulates the idea of the ‘Coffee Commute’. The house ticks all the boxes that have become so popular with buyers since the pandemic started. The nearest coffee shop is just at the top of Goldhurst Terrace – Spice Deli – where customers literally queue around the block! It’s closer to the house than the nearest tube (Finchley Rd) and customers love the fact it’s a small independent family-owned shop selling top quality coffees and home-made cakes and salads.

Expanding on the theme, we’ve bought recently in Sheen, close to ‘Artisan’ on Sheen Lane; in Parsons Green, where District Coffee draws in the locals along with Bridge Baker. Gail’s in St John’s Wood and The Nook in Hampstead have also helped our buyers to feel that sense of local community and amenity in the new world of home working.

 

FT Weekend Spring Festival – What next for the UK property market?

Camilla Dell was delighted to participate in the FT Weekend’s Spring Festival panel discussion this month, ‘What next for the UK property market?’ A recording of the Festival can be viewed here and a transcript of Camilla’s comments can be found here.

One of the last questions to Camilla from the audience was whether she would advise buying a property in Cornwall. Intriguingly, and in keeping with the lockdown trends noted above, Cornwall has now in fact replaced London as the most search-for place to live on Rightmove!

 

Acquisition of the month 1: Clifton Hill, St John’s Wood, NW8 – £6,725,000

Our family client had owned property in London for many years and now wanted to buy a house for their son in North London with a maximum budget of £7.5m. They had started the search themselves and had identified a property they liked and made an offer but had been outbid by another party. Feeling frustrated, they decided they needed professional representation and engaged Black Brick to assist with their search.

The family wanted to buy a detached house, preferably in good condition, in Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital where their son was going to be working for two years. We know the Hampstead market exceptionally well and the supply of detached houses in the Village is very low, so initially we focused on Hampstead Garden Suburb. We identified two houses that the family liked and were considering offering on.

Ultimately, the family decided they wanted to live closer to Central London and so we began to spread the net wider than just Hampstead. We found a beautiful, detached, Arts and Crafts house on Clifton Hill in St. John’s Wood which was listed at £6,950,000 or £1737 per square foot. We were able to negotiate and agreed a purchase price of £6,725,000 or £1681 per square foot. Contracts were exchanged 9 working days later.

Here’s what our client had to say, “I have been looking for a house for more than a year. But over the last few months I came in contact with Black Brick. They are extremely professional and have resources and knowledge at their disposal which helps them to find the solutions you require. Thanks to them we have just got a wonderful new house and they have helped with every step along the way”.

 

Acquisition of the month 2: Bradbourne Street, Fulham. SW6 – £3,300,000

Before engaging Black Brick, our clients had considered undertaking the search themselves, but were concerned that they did not understand the pricing of the different areas within Fulham and nor were they confident about overseeing the legal process. With the demand for houses with gardens in this price range far outstripping supply, stock levels were also an issue.

The search started in June 2020, which coincided with the easing of government restrictions brought in to control the Covid-19 pandemic. The market for houses with outside space in good quality residential areas in London was incredibly busy and so stock levels were low. Our first step was to guide and advise our clients as to the pros and cons of the micro locations within Fulham – for example, how do the Alphabet Streets compare to The Peterborough Estate? Or how is the Moore Park Estate affected by its proximity to Stanford Bridge? It became clear that our client’s preference was for a house in good condition on the Peterborough Estate.

Through our network we identified a house on Bradbourne Street which was available ‘off market’. The vendor wanted £3,500,000, which equated to £1191 per square foot. On our analysis of the market, the price seemed fair given the fact the house was in good condition and properties on less well-regarded streets within the Peterborough Estate were trading at above £1200 per square foot. We were able to negotiate successfully and contracts were exchanged at £3,300,000, or £1123 per square foot, without the house ever coming to the open market or any other buyers being able to view it.

Here’s what our client had to say, “We reached out to Black Brick to help us find a home in Fulham. We didn’t know what was available or what our expectations should be. Caspar took the time to walk us through our options and how they would meet our requirements. Even after we decided on a property, Caspar helped us through a very stressful process with lots of unknowns in the midst of a global pandemic. We had many setbacks but his expertise and guidance was available to us every step of the way and was greatly appreciated”.

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