April 2022

London Steps up to Spring as Global Storm Clouds Gather

At the start of 2022 most of us would have been hard pressed to name the president of Ukraine.

Today Volodymyr Zelensky is a global icon, and Government ministers are calling for the appropriation of the London mansions of Russian oligarchs to house the ever-rising number of refugees from the war in Ukraine.

The cost of living continues to escalate, interest rates are rising, and COVID-19 infections keep on rising, but all the latest data suggests London’s property market is continuing to recover despite the huge financial and political uncertainties facing the world.


A War of Words

Much has been written about the potential impact the war in Ukraine, and sanctions against Russian oligarchs, could have on London’s super-prime market.

It is a difficult subject to tackle, not least because so many of the trophy mansions sold in the British capital in the past two decades have exchanged hands in the strictest of secrecy, with agents signing non-disclosure agreements and companies set up to channel funds in order to avoid inclusion on the Land Registry. Exactly who owns what in London is almost impossible to establish.

The prospect of a fire sale of ultra-high end homes is an unlikely one, according to Camilla Dell, managing partner of Black Brick. Right now, she points out, oligarch assets have been frozen not seized, and any attempt to confiscate them would doubtless lead to lengthy and complex legal machinations.

A more pressing issue is the cost of living crisis, triggered by spiralling fuel prices and exacerbated by the Bank of England’s attempt to control inflation by hiking the base rate to 0.75 per cent in March. Further increases are expected over the course of the year.

The short answer is that it is simply too early to say exactly how buyers will respond.

“What I am hearing from some of my clients is that they are worried about what is happening in the equity markets,” said Dell. “Everyone’s investment portfolios are down, and that is not very helpful for the market.”

On the other hand, she said, if confidence in stocks and shares is shaken it could be that more investors decide that bricks and mortar is the safest investment option. Property also acts as a very good hedge in a high inflationary environment.

In either scenario, the huge imbalance between supply (limited) and demand (frenzied) should also act to prop up prices.


London is Coming up on the Rails

The capital is usually the UK region which leads house price growth, but during the pandemic it lost its customary position at the front of the pack.

As buyers moved out of cities, overseas buyers evaporated, and flats went out of fashion, so price growth across Greater London started to trail the regions. As recently as last summer, the North West was seeing annual price growth of close to 20 per cent. London, meanwhile, recorded a 6.3 per cent rise according to the Office of National Statistics.

Eight months on and London has gained significant ground. New research by chartered surveyors ‘e.surv’ found that the South East now has the UK’s fastest growing property market, with prices up 11.7 per cent in a year. London is tucked in second place with annual growth of eight per cent.

This growth, said Caspar Harvard-Walls, partner at Black Brick, is being driven by huge demand for suburban family homes in leafy enclaves from Wimbledon to Belsize Park. “There is absolutely no sign of it quieting down,” he said. “And the lack of stock is just ridiculous.”

In a competitive market there is always the fear that buyers might end up wildly overpaying but Harvard-Walls believes their feet are being kept on the ground by their mortgage lenders. “The whole market at sub-£5m is people taking debt,” he pointed out. “That means that they have to get a bank valuation, which keeps them sensible. People will pay a full price, but they won’t lose all sense of reality.”

Indeed, new research into prime central London by property market analyst LonRes, found that anybody wishing to sell a house within a reasonable time frame needs to price it very sensibly. It takes, it found, an average of eight months to sell a property, but that figure masks a more complex reality.

Homes which sold within three months sold for within one per cent of their asking price – indicating they were either very special, or sensibly priced (or both). Homes which took more than a year to sell traded with an average discount of 14 per cent, indicating that their original price had been out of step with the reality of the market.

The Rite of Spring

One impact the Ukrainian crisis does appear to have had on London’s property market is that the usual influx of new instructions in early spring has simply not materialised this year.

“The market seems to be on hold as vendors work out what the war in Ukraine means for London house prices. There’s hesitancy,” said Dell.

With the amount of stock on the market at an unprecedented low, serious buyers are having to tear up their wish lists and compromise if they really want a new home.

“An agent said to me that they have been used to people compromising – maybe a house has one less bedroom than they would like, or doesn’t have parking,” said Harvard-Walls. “But now you have got people completely changing their area just to get something broadly near where they want. Perhaps they originally wanted to live in Wimbledon, but they have ended up in Chiswick.”

As well as widening their search areas, buyers who had set out in search of an immaculate turn key property are settling for dooer-uppers – on the basis that rather than waiting and waiting for the perfect house to come onto the market, they might as well go ahead and create it themselves.


International Rescue

Last year pundits were convinced that overseas buyers, held at bay by Covid-19, were poised to storm back into London in 2022, sparking a second “roaring twenties” for the property market.

Despite the relaxation of travel restrictions, the subsequent emergence of Omicron and the volatile international situation means that – as yet – buyers from abroad are more of a trickle than a torrent.

In the year to January 2021, almost one in four deals struck by Black Brick were on behalf of British buyers. Their average spend was just under £3.3m and the vast majority bought family homes. American buyers accounted for more than one in ten clients, spending an average of £8.4m, and evenly split between those after a main home and those in need of a London base.

Other buyers came from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

In the year to January 2022, British buyers were still Black Brick’s main clients, again accounting for around one in four sales. They spent a little less than the year before – an average of £2.9m.

American buyers remained active, but Black Brick also acted for a diverse range of international buyers including a family from Ukraine, another from the Maldives, as well as buyers from Croatia and Belgium.  Saudi Arabian buyers, while small in number, had the biggest budgets spelling an average of £16.3m per property.

Yet even without the arrival of an international crew of eager buyers, Prime Central London’s performance is improving. Prices rose 1.9 per cent in the year to February, according to data from Knight Frank – the strongest rate of growth seen since July 2015 (or before the Brexit referendum).

Where the prime London market really differs from the outer London market is in demand levels. In the suburbs buyers are having to take what they can get, but with fewer buyers able to pay prime prices Harvard-Walls said picky buyers can afford to wait for the perfect house with garden to come up.

They are also increasingly interested in flats – but only if they have outside space and a prestigious address like Eaton Square or Cadogan Gardens.  “What remains really difficult is not such a good flat, on not such a good floor, in not such a good location,” he said.


A Piece of the Pie

Fractional ownership has become common practice across Europe, North America, and beyond.

But the concept of asking buyers to purchase shares in a property has not taken hold in London. Until now.

Black Brick is working with start-up firm Flyway to build up a portfolio of more than a dozen luxury properties in prime central London this year. It will then sell shares in the apartments, on a fractional basis. It is, says the firm, a smart new way to own a second home at a fraction of the cost.

The first deals have already been struck and include a luxury new build overlooking Hyde Park and a flat just off Hanover Square – a fabulous location in the heart of Mayfair.

The business model for fractional ownership varies from firm to firm, but the basic idea is that each property is owned by around eight to ten shareholders, often frequent travellers tired of endless hotel stays.

They are able to make use of the property for several weeks each year.

Where fractional ownership differs from timeshare is that the shareholders own, and can sell, their shares in the property when they wish. If the capital value of the property has increased in the interim, they will make a profit.

“We have been retained by Flyway to help them build a portfolio,” said Dell. “They would like to buy 15 properties this year, at the £2m to £5m mark.”

Flyway is led by serial entrepreneur Nikos Drandakis whose previous successes include ride share firm Taxibeat. The firm operates across south America, with $200m in annual revenues, and was sold to Daimler in 2017.

CEO of Flyway Nikos commented, “We live in times where democratizing home ownership when prices of homes constantly go up, can become the main way to own amazing second homes. At Flyway, we believe that technology can once again disrupt the way an industry evolves and we are on our way to doing that, starting from London! We are delighted to be working alongside Black Brick who have been instrumental in helping us to navigate the market and identify key properties in some of London’s best locations”.

Flyway is not the only company interested in the London market for fractional ownership. Several other firms, including an operator already active in the European and US markets, are thought to be considering an expansion into London.

“These companies are here, they are very active,” said Dell. “They seem to be springing up everywhere. It will be interesting to see if it succeeds in attracting people who see it as making second home ownership affordable, or who don’t want the hassle of managing and maintaining a second home in London.”


Acquisition of the Month 1: Old Church Street, Chelsea, SW3 – £3,370,000

Our US-based clients wanted a London pied-a-terre. They needed help choosing an area suitable for them and their three children, and they wanted to find something to buy during a week-long whistlestop visit.

Before they arrived in the UK, we were able to select a series of properties for them to view, including a modern lateral apartment in Old Chelsea, close to the shops, cafes, and restaurants of the King’s Road.

The property was on sale off market, but we were able to persuade the owner to allow a one-off viewing. Our clients were the only prospective buyers to see the apartment and their competitive offer – £158,000 less than the original £3.495m asking price – was accepted.


Acquisition of the Month 2: Parkside Avenue, Wimbledon SW3 – £5,300,000

Our South African clients already had an apartment in Hammersmith but with a new baby they wanted a family house with a garden.

Their search area was broad. Neighbourhoods they liked included St John’s Wood, Putney, Barnes and Wimbledon and they had a budget of up to £10m. They were also not afraid to roll up their sleeves and take on a renovation project, since they have plenty of experience developing properties in the past.

Despite their willingness to do work, their healthy budget, and their open-mindedness on location, finding a family home in London right now is tough – demand is massive, supply is at an all-time low and great contacts are essential.

We were able to gain access to a home being sold off market, on a sought-after street and within an easy walk of Wimbledon Common and village.

The property had plenty of potential to be upgraded and expanded to create a superb family home.

The asking price was £5.75m but we were able to negotiate a 7.8 per cent discount. It took just over a month to exchange contracts, at £5.3m.

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