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Safe as houses?

It has been a funny old crisis. Millions not working as entire industries were stopped in their tracks by the pandemic. And yet, only a year on from the first economic shutdown figures point to a dramatic recovery, while some industries that one would have been expected to have been hit hardest by economic weakness have powered through, not least the residential property market.

For better or worse, property is the foundation of the UK economy and a key determinant of how good people are feeling, financially at least. If house prices are doing well, then the owners of those houses feel richer and are likely to spend more. A foot on the housing ladder is seen as a momentous step in most people’s lives, as is paying off the mortgage. And houses are the source of much generational tension between those several rungs up and those challenged by ever-diminishing affordability and ever-rising deposit requirements to get on the first. Few spend more money on anything else in their lifetimes, whether renting or paying a mortgage.

The eternal question among those looking to take that first step – or those looking at residential property as an investment – is whether the time is right to buy now, one we tried to answer in one of our most popular articles of the pandemic year. As residential affordability has notably stretched over the past two decades, the fear of buying at the top has grown. But that top has not come, with even crises like the credit crunch and last year’s pandemic causing only temporary wobbles. Even now, the readings show a market in good health. The housing market has seemed unshakeable, and offered a firm foundation for the nation to cope with much economic uncertainty elsewhere.

That wouldn’t be the case, of course, had the government not thrown such enormous support behind it, either directly through schemes such as Help to Buy or fiscal stimulus in the form of the stamp duty holiday, or indirectly via furlough payments or the encouragement of forbearance. And although the ratio of house prices to earnings has continued to rise, low interest rates have enabled borrowers to stretch themselves much further, in turn raising housing demand further. Should we see an uptick in inflation, it will be keenly felt by borrowers in the form of rising interest rates. Indeed, risks continue to abound in the housing market, and should not be discounted. 

Cheap money has, of course, been the catalyst for all manner of asset price rises, and the assumption is that this cheap money is here for the foreseeable future. As Professors Marsh, Dimson and Staunton put it in this year’s Credit Suisse Global Returns Yearbook, “the policy dilemma of if, and how, to unwind these crisis measures looms large, particularly with inflation expectations hardening” – no central banker wants to be the one to choke off a recovery by tightening too soon. That means that stretched valuations, whether of shares or property or anything else, are also likely to remain a feature of markets for some time – until the inflation genie finally escapes its bottle.