Property predictions for the St Albans and Harpenden market during 2019
- Credit: Archant
What does the future hold for the local property market in 2019? Richard Burton investigated...
At any other time, the housing market would be booming and we’d be looking forward to a healthy New Year.
Comfortingly low unemployment, even lower interest rates and easy access to borrowing would normally all point to perfect conditions for a bullish 2019.
But as we reach the end of a year marked - or marred - by uncertainty over Brexit, predictions vary on exactly what lies ahead, even if experts are united on the reasons behind it.
Local estate agents agree that the past few months in particular have been tough and many who hit the problem head-on reported a surprisingly good autumn, thanks to a continuing demand to live in the traditionally coveted areas of Hertfordshire.
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Nationally, the mood in the major agency chains has been moving between a basic acceptance of stagnation to an optimistic hope for minimal growth of 1-2 per cent, although that assumes there is a deal on Europe of some sort.
But the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) recently described the market as its weakest for six years, with prices staying flat or falling across much of the country - and set to remain in limbo or continuing to fall in areas such as London, the south east and East Anglia.
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And when economists were asked if a deal of some sort would see a return to above-inflation growth, 14 of the 17 interviewed for a recent Reuters poll said no.
“We are in very challenging times. We’re in uncharted territory,” said Nick Devonport, area director of Connells in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.
“A lot of key indicators are really strong at the moment but people are just having so much negative stuff thrown at them about Brexit.
“We just need to get certainty back into the market - in whatever form that takes - and when that comes we’ll see things improving.
“This is perhaps the first time since I started in the business 25 years ago that all the positive elements are there, but we find ourselves being held back by the unknown. A lot of people are holding off until they know what’s happening, it’s as simple as that.”
So are people buying at all and is this a good time for anyone to be selling?
“People are buying but it’s being reflected in the offers they make. Having said that, it’s a good time to move if you’re going upmarket,” he added, recognising that a percentage drop in prices will invariably mean that what you lose on your sale, you more than win back on the purchase.
“As for the best time, I’d always say, it’s when it’s right for you. There’s never really a good time or bad time. If you are confident and motivated, you will get a sale.”
Steve Walker, managing director of Collinson Hall, was cautiously optimistic that things could well improve later in 2019 if the political climate changed, but maintained that the market in the St Albans area in particular was holding its own.
“We’ve had a good month overall but it’s been hard work. Purchasers have tended to be very serious about what they’re doing but the market is being driven by the sort of sales that would happen anyway; those where people have to buy or sell.
“I think people are now impatient for certainty. They just want to know and when they do, confidence will return. Once that happens everyone will be able to readjust their expectations and we can move forward.
“We have seen this sort of thing before. We get an occasional pause at the time of a general election or an interest rate rise. The difference here is that this is a very elongated pause.”
The last pause 10 years ago reaped benefits for some. As prices fell during the so-called Credit Crunch when the buzzword was “don’t buy a house”, the Government suspended stamp duty in a bid to kick-start the market. As a result, those lucky enough to sell early were able to bide their time and reinvest as prices hit rock bottom.
Meanwhile, developers caught with homes on their hands were forced to drop prices, sometimes early in the sales process “to get a few chalked up” and stimulate interest in the project or later on as interest slowed to ensure none remained empty for too long.
One told me at the time he just needed to recoup what he could, get out and free up the cash to move on.
Several in the Poets area of Harpenden, for example, saw prices culled from £850,000 to £750,000 “or near offer”. One of them sold a few months ago for £1.2 million.
Strutt & Parker also reported a good autumn in terms of sales, having predicted the challenges early and adjusted their expectations accordingly. But they too caution that there were few impulse deals to be had.
“There will always be people in the marketplace who need and want to move,” said senior associate director Rozanne Edwards.
“And those are the sort we’ve been seeing come to the market of late; the ones with a strong desire to be in places such as St Albans or Harpenden or move for the schools or simply needing bigger homes as their families grow.”
So are there virtues in that, I asked. Fewer time-wasters perhaps, a factor quite important to anyone hosting viewings.
“The ones we are seeing tend to be serious, very serious,” she said.
“So, while we may not be getting the quantity, we are certainly getting very good quality in terms of prospective buyers. As for how long this will last, I wouldn’t like to say. Nothing is clear-cut in this, there’s too much involved to make that prediction.”
There are encouraging noises coming out of the market. James Greenwood of Stacks Property Search, one of the country’s top buying agents, says he expects 2019 to be a much better year than this as Brexit uncertainty subsides, banking on the fact that “there are an estimated six million households living in the wrong property”.
The local Connells website includes a wanted list of properties clients are actively seeking.
It also reminds potential buyers that Boxing Day is usually the day millions begin their search for a new home.
This year the firm plans to get ahead of that by flooding the internet with properties on December 26, a day which traditionally sees a massive spike in users.
There is, of course, an irony in a Brexit-driven slump.
The Investors Chronicle reports that a third of all homes bought in the UK for more than £1 million this year were snapped up by, wait for it, foreign investors as second homes.
How to sell – it’s got to have style
As the National Association of Estate Agents report the lowest number of registered buyers per branch since 2012, sellers are being forced to go the extra mile to present their homes in the way that’s likely to attract the most interest.
Showing them at their best – or staging – has become the norm for many vendors who often turn to interiors experts who specialise in making the right impression.
Some of them even rent out furniture to make empty properties look more homely and lived in. Others advise the opposite; removing furniture to make family homes, for example, appear less cluttered.
It’s not unusual to see touches like cushions, rugs and paintings and even coffee table books bought in to create an appealing lifestyle image, like this one styled by the luxury furniture company, Ligne Roset.
The most extreme one close to me recently saw a four-bed family home repainted and re-carpeted from top to bottom. Anything and everything in everyday use was kept in plastic boxes which were then placed in the boot of the SUV on viewing days as the family drove off and left the agent with a virtual show home to sell. It did. In four weeks.