May 2021

London coming into its Prime

Economic optimism is building as the UK reopening proceeds, spurring an increasing sense of positivity in the Prime Central London property market. In this month’s newsletter, we examine the strong foundations for a sustained market bounce; highlight the benefits of using a buying agent in rising and competitive markets; note the prospect of easing financing conditions; and wonder whether the return to work will bring with it a recovery in demand for smaller centrally located properties, to buy or to rent.

This month, we were delighted to be placed in Tier 1 of the ePrivate Client Top Residential Property Buyers rankings. We are the only buying agent in the Top 11 to also sell properties for our clients as well as purchase them.

 

PCL: the foundations for a market bounce

As we approach the early summer months and the economy gradually reopens, all the ingredients seem to be in place for a healthy market bounce in Prime Central London. As economic optimism returns, there is scope for prices to catch up some of their underperformance of recent years. A healthy single-digit bounce would still leave Central London property purchase as a compelling proposition, whether as a primary residence or investment.

Black Brick Partner Caspar Harvard-Walls is optimistic about what the rest of 2021 will bring: “There is a positive feeling on the ground. Prime Central London is already getting busier and is about to get busier. The market is hotting up. Outer Prime had already performed well over the last twelve months but a busy six months is now in prospect for Central London.”

Highlighting the value on offer in PCL, Caspar further notes: “Prime Central London capital values are still 20% below their level of 2014. The market can rise and still be cheap. The pendulum has still swung far towards the buyer but the market could go up a few per cent quite quickly, and a lot of good quality property has been held back from the market during lockdown. The likes of Savills and Knight Frank are forecasting market growth of 2-3% this year but gains could be a lot more in areas that have been left behind in the pandemic.”

The latest market update from Savills certainly seems to concur with the idea that the scene is set for a period of healthy price gains. Frances Clacy, Savills’ Associate Director for Residential Research writes: “Prime central London recorded its first quarterly price growth since the short-lived ‘Boris bounce’ early in 2020. This suggests the market has bottomed out. It is also a marker of the resilience of central London, as this has happened despite the market being largely reliant on domestic wealth over the past year.” With foreign travel largely on hold, the 2% surcharge for overseas buyers did not seem to be the main driver of healthy activity.

For Knight Frank, March was a record-breaking month: “March saw the highest number of exchanges, offers made, offers accepted and new prospective buyers registering with Knight Frank, in 10 years in London…the number of transactions in prime central London (PCL) was the highest it has been since March 2016, combined LonRes and Knight Frank data shows”. Indeed, government statistics show that residential property transactions for the UK as a whole hit a record high of 108,690 in March, double the transaction volumes of March 2020 and 50% higher than February 2021.

But we are a long way from worrying about the UK market overheating. UK-wide house prices rose by 8% over the last twelve months but we are far from the outperformers in Europe. According to data from Eurostat, property prices in Denmark have risen by 10% over the last year, Luxembourg by 17% and Turkey by 30% (albeit alongside a significant depreciation of the Turkish lira).

On currently buoyant market activity, Black Brick Managing Partner Camilla Dell comments: “These are extraordinary figures for March. Transactions have been low over the last 12 months for obvious reasons. But now we are seeing a gradual return to normality and an economic rebound. As well as spurring demand, seller hesitancy is waning as we exit lockdown and home-schooling is no longer required. The UK is the envy of the world with its successful vaccination programme. Clients feel safe to come here, even if they are quarantining.”

Overall, at Black Brick we think there are compelling reasons to expect a buoyant outlook for the rest of the year, exceeding the conservative industry estimates of 2-3% price gains. These reasons include: the economic recovery; the c20% price discount versus 2014; the build-up of lockdown savings among those where jobs have been little affected by the pandemic; cheap financing; and positive sentiment on pricing. The easing of travel restrictions would be another bonus, but the strength of the domestic market alone seems sufficient to support gains at the moment.

 

Black Brick: a buyer’s secret weapon

With the market warming up and property demand strengthening, now is the perfect time to consider the use of a buying agent. At Black Brick, we can help our clients to gain that extra competitive edge in a rising market and purchase the best properties.

“The key to securing that perfect property in a busy market is gaining early access, putting in a decent bid quickly, and preventing the property from ever reaching the open market,” says Camilla Dell. “In England, a property purchase can fall through at any time before exchange. While using a buying agent cannot guarantee this won’t happen, it rarely happens to our clients. We can help to avoid a failed transaction by accessing off-market properties. And we can leverage our network of excellent relationships with local estate agents, who will keep us informed if anything threatens the progress of a transaction, giving us time to act in our client’s interests.”

 

The property Super League

The £100mn-plus end of the central London property market has been attracting attention this month with the high-profile listing of Nick Candy’s One Hyde Park apartment for £175mn – with bitcoin reportedly an acceptable payment method!

We have been asked about our thoughts on this rarefied end of the London property scene. In Camilla Dell’s view, “This is a very niche market and puts London in a new realm, with a broadening range of properties valued at more than £100mn for global billionaire buyers. These individuals are often less interested in a deal and more in the prestige, history and uniqueness of certain properties. They want the right asset in the right location, whatever the cost.”

For the rest of us, the fact that such a super high-end market exists in London shows that the capital has not lost its appeal for buyers who can literally buy anything, anywhere.

 

Cheap financing – about to get cheaper

Ample liquidity conditions, with central banks doubling the size of their balance sheets last year and interest rates falling close to zero, have been a supporting factor for property markets worldwide for the last year. But banks were understandably cautious during the depths of the crisis, preventing all the benefits of lower rates from flowing through to the consumer.

In the UK now, it appears that building economic recovery momentum and robust house price growth are encouraging banks to loosen their underwriting criteria a little, providing further wind in the sails to the market. The Bank of England’s Q1 2021 Credit Conditions Survey reported lenders increasing the availability of secured credit to households in the three months to the end of February. Lenders expected a further loosening in the three months to the end of May. Crucially, lending spreads are narrowing and expecting to continue doing so.

Borrowers are starting to see the benefits of this, with the reappearance of sub-1% mortgages on the UK market for borrowers with healthy deposits. From the Daily Mail’s Miles Dilworth (21st April): “A mortgage price war could be in the offing as banks flood the market with fresh deals…Hinckley & Rugby Building Society will launch a two-year discounted variable mortgage at 0.99 per cent on Friday, the first sub-1 per cent rate in a year…The best fixed rate is being offered by Platform – at 1.06 per cent for borrowers with at least a 40 per cent deposit.”

Notes Black Brick’s Camilla Dell: “Around 90% of Black Brick’s clients do take mortgage financing, given such cheap costs and because this is a favourable choice from an Inheritance Tax Planning perspective (given higher property tax reliefs in the UK).”

While cheap financing is supporting the higher end of the property market for borrowers with large deposits, the property market is also being supported from the bottom by the launch of new government-guaranteed 95% LTV mortgages for secondary market properties worth up to £600,000.

 

The renewed pull of the pied a terre?

What will these buoyant London market prospects mean for the types of properties that change hands, and will we see any reversal of the trends seen over the last year? The exodus from London to the countryside during lockdown buoyed out-of-town prices after a decade of underperformance, but it is likely will we see some reversal of activity with flows back into the City as the pandemic fades and a ‘new normal’ is established for homeworking.

Early indications are that there will be a wide spread of choices made by business about the return to the office as social distancing restrictions are eased. Some companies clearly see homeworking as an aberration while others are happy to embrace a much smaller office-based workforce with employees able to work from home as much as they prefer. Giving a bird’s eye view, the Bank of England’s March Decision Makers’ Panel survey suggested that, in Q1 2021, 49% of full-time employees were working from home for at least one day a week, up from 14% in 2019. In 2022 and beyond, “34% of workers were expected to work at home for at least one day a week with two or three days a week expected to be the most common working pattern”.

Buyers’ priorities have shifted to reflect this ‘new normal’ for working life. According to Savills: “A year ago, only 31% of London respondents to our recent buyer and seller survey ranked proximity to a park as one of their top two priorities. That figure is now 57%. In comparison, proximity to a tube station or place of work have become less important. Only 39% of respondents ranked being close to a tube as one of their top two priorities, compared with 63% a year ago.”

For those settling into a Tuesday to Thursday ‘in person’ working week, the temptation may be to purchase or rent a Central London pied-a-terre. With subdued price activity in the one-to-two-bed flat market over the last year – both for capital and rental values – either owning or renting a smaller property close to work could be an appealing option for those who have swapped London life for the countryside. Average PCL rents were down by 14.3% in the 12 months to March, according to Knight Frank, who believe rental value declines are starting to bottom out, with new prospective tenants up by 167% in March.

 

Managed Sale of the Month: Elgin Mansions, Elgin Avenue, W9 – £1,165,000

Our clients were looking to sell this lateral three-bedroom apartment in Maida Vale so they could make the move to a much larger house we had found for them in Brook Green. Therefore, we not only managed the sale for our client, but we also assisted them with their onward search – part of Black Brick’s award-winning and uniquely holistic approach to helping our clients.

Due to Covid, the demand for apartments with no significant outside space in London was at an all-time low. This combined with lockdown restrictions meant that it was a tough environment to sell central London flats. In the midst of Lockdown 3, we successfully found two chain free buyers who submitted competing bids for the flat. The sale was agreed with the higher of the two bidders at £1,106/sqft (for a total consideration of £1,165,000, within 3% of the £1,200,000 asking price). An almost identical flat next door in the same building only achieved £1,030/sqft last year. The sale we agreed was the highest £/sqft achieved for a second floor flat on the road since 2016. This allowed our clients to tie in the sale of this flat with their onward purchase which not only saved them the higher rate of stamp duty but also the higher borrowing cost too.

We have the experience, expertise and patience to manage sales in very challenging markets and in doing so are able to reach record prices for our clients. Acting for fewer sellers means we have the time and dedication to deliver a successful sale, no matter the market.

We’re ready when you are

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We’re ready when you are

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