5 January 2021, Financial Times
The year the UK housing market defied gravity
But there are reasons to believe that the ‘mini boom’ will not survive into 2021
By Nathan Brooker
Aside from all else, 2020 has been the year that really put our homes through the wringer. The pressures of homeworking and schooling have pummelled them into submission. In our flat, the clutter has taken over: boxed and unboxed monitors crowd every table, laptops teeter on piles of books and sprouting from every corner is a tangled mass of cables, unclearable, like a bad case of Japanese knotweed.
At the start of lockdown, a colleague tweeted that we weren’t so much working from home, as living at work. He was right — except that in the office, the neighbours aren’t banging and crashing all day as they extend into the loft. Back in April, after the first lockdowns took hold in Europe, the UK and the US, worldwide Google searches for “DIY” hit record highs.
Sales of premium paint brands such as Farrow & Ball have surged; the managing director of Mylands paint even took a forklift truck driving test so that he could help shift orders.
Bitten by the home-improvement bug, my wife and I rearranged all the furniture in our living room. A couple of weeks ago, we moved it all back. Turns out there is no way of placing a sofa that will make a room bigger by 30 sq ft. Our homes have become everything to us this year: offices, schoolrooms, restaurants, weekend retreats — it is no wonder we’re sick to death of them. This is a level of contempt usually reserved for the weeks following Christmas when, after being cooped up with our families for days on end, traffic on property portals begins to rise.
Between December 26 last year and January 8, the number of daily visits to Rightmove increased by 71 per cent. This year is different, of course, but Camilla Dell, managing partner at buying agents Black Brick, still thinks people will find the time for some mindless festive scrolling. “This time of year people are always drawn to the portals for some good old ‘property porn’ — and perhaps this year more than ever as, let’s face it, there isn’t much else to do,” she says. “But, whether this will translate into a flurry of new transactions in the new year remains to be seen. I think a lot of people wanting to make a move this year already have.” Estate agents have come to celebrate the beginning of the year as
one of the busier times of the calendar.
But at the start of 2021, the “mini boom” in the UK property market might start petering out, as a series of government schemes that have helped shield house prices from the economic realities of the coronavirus crisis are withdrawn. The stamp-duty holiday — which waives the charge on the first £500,000 of any home purchase, saving buyers up to £15,000 — is due to end on March 31.
When it was announced on July 8, about 8.5m people logged on to Rightmove to see what was on offer; it was the portal’s busiest day of the year. The end of March is also when the business loan schemes are set to close, and new applications for the mortgage-holiday programme. A month later, the worker-furlough scheme will end.
We are, thankfully, in the process of rolling out the coronavirus vaccine, but it is anyone’s guess how long the UK property market can continue its gravity-defying run — which, given the fact that the UK is facing the worst economic
recession in 300 years, is a source of perpetual bemusement.
Last month, the average house price was 7.6 per cent higher than in November 2019, according to Halifax, the strongest annual growth rate for four years. Even now, the booming market is not being felt by everyone. Many first-time buyers have had their dreams upended by the impact of the pandemic on their incomes and savings. Many of them have struggled to get financing, as lenders have reduced the availability of higher loan-to-value mortgages — though this is slowly coming back.
Above all, I am reminded of the homeowners I spoke to this year who have had to put their lives on hold because they have been caught up in the cladding crisis.
One campaign group estimates that 1.93m people in England cannot sell their flats because they need a new fire-safety certificate, known as an EWS1 form, before lenders will offer mortgages to any would-be buyers. Among them, there will be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, who must face spending this Christmas in homes they
do not feel safe in.
It rather puts a few monitors and unruly cables into perspective.