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9 Sep 2019

Is buying a house in London becoming more affordable?

Cheap mortgages and falling house prices could lure buyers to the capital

Despite speculation to the contrary, the ceiling hasn't yet fallen in on London's property market.

However, recent economic uncertainty has left its mark on both buyers and sellers.

Here, we cut through the noise and offer advice on what's really happening in the capital's property market, and answer that age-old question: is now the time to buy?

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What's actually happening to the London property market?

There's little doubt that Brexit uncertainty has had some effect on the London housing market, with fewer properties selling each month.

Data from the Land Registry shows 5,313 sales recorded in April this year, the lowest since the depths of the financial crash in February 2009, when just 3,251 homes were sold in the capital.

As the graph below shows, sales in London have stuttered since the EU referendum in June 2016.

Can first-time buyers benefit from lower prices?

Buyers are still eager to get on the housing ladder, and prices have remained fairly robust.

The average sale price in London was £466,824 in June this year; 2.8% down from £479,931 the year before.

This means that, although prices in London have dropped below the peaks we saw in mid-2017, talk of a crash has been wildly exaggerated.

There are also some signs that things are getting easier for first-time buyers in London.

Although overall prices fell by 2.8%, the prices paid by first-time buyers fell by 3.4% - £14,000 on average - suggesting that the flats and smaller houses preferred by first-time buyers are getting cheaper.

Property prices have also fallen further for first-time buyers than for existing homeowners progressing up the ladder.

Existing homeownersFirst-time buyers
June 2018£541,684£419,787
June 2019£531,987£405,419
Year-on-year change (£)-£9,747-£14,368
Year-on-year change (%)-1.8%-3.4%

Source: Land Registry. September 2019.

Does this mean that homes are now more affordable?

Although a fall in prices is, in theory, a positive thing for buyers, London house prices simply remain too high for many first-time buyers and upsizers.

The Zoopla Cities House Price Index found that homes in the capital now cost 13.1 times the average earnings of residents, considerably higher than London's 20-year average of 9.9 and the current UK average of 6.7.

Separate data from Post Office Money highlights the difficulties facing first-time buyers in London.

Out of 80 areas the Post Office assessed on first-time buyer affordability, London languishes in 68th place, with just one in five properties (19%) affordable on an average household income of just under £80,000.

Mortgage rate boost could price-in buyers

One crumb of comfort for first-time buyers and homemovers in London comes in the shape of cheaper and longer mortgages.

Competition in the mortgage market has resulted in two and five-year average interest rates dropping to just 2.44% and 2.75% respectively, down from 2.53% and 2.92% a year ago.

It's not just average rates that are going down: the initial rate you pay is also getting cheaper on average, as you can see on the chart below.

Elsewhere, longer mortgage terms of 30 years and more are becoming increasingly popular, as buyers look to spread the cost of their loans.

Last month, Virgin Money and Yorkshire Building Society launched the first 15-year fixed-rate deals seen since the financial crisis.

Greater innovation and competition in the lending market, along with speculation over a drop in the Bank of England base rate, could continue to keep the cost of borrowing down for buyers and remortgagers.

What next for London's property market?

This depends largely on the outcome of Brexit and how it affects buyer and seller sentiment.

The accountancy firm KPMG says that house prices in London could fall by as much as 7% in the event of a no-deal Brexit, while leaving with a deal could still result in a fall of 4.7%.

Of course, these figures are speculative, and anyone who tells you they know exactly what will happen is either guessing or selling you something.

It is possible that if the pound continues to fall, overseas buyers may sense an opportunity to sweep up some properties in prime London areas, having been put off in the past few years by stamp duty changes.

Right now, the biggest barrier to homes selling in the capital is continuing uncertainty, causing would-be sellers to stay put and resulting in fewer homes coming onto the market.

Should I buy a home in London?

You might not be surprised to hear that the answer is 'it depends'.

Property prices have remained robust in London, so if you've got your finances in place and done your market research, now isn't a bad time to take the plunge, especially given how attractive mortgage rates are right now.

That said, there are some circumstances where you might want to think twice.

If you're buying with a 95% mortgage, it would only take a fairly small ripple through the property market to leave you in danger of negative equity, so you might be better considering saving until you can get a 90% mortgage instead. Not only will this protect you against any price drops, it will enable you to get a better mortgage rate, too.

Likewise, it's worth assessing the pros and cons of schemes such as Help to Buy and shared ownership. In a market so price-sensitive, buying a new-build home at a premium price with a small deposit could be a riskier move than seeking out a cheaper existing property.