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Still plenty of opportunities out there for property investors

25 October 2018

Alan Cleary - Managing Director of Precise Mortgages

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster for headlines in the property press.

Rightmove's index, which tracks asking prices, showed a monthly rise of 0.7 per cent for newly marketed properties - a relatively healthy figure and in line with Septembers every year going back to 20111. The index's authors noted that the national annual rate of increase remains muted at 1.2 per cent, but there are some positive signs for the autumn market in regions where affordability and sentiment are good. They also acknowledged that stretched buyer affordability or negative market sentiment in other regions is limiting price growth.

Haart estate agents then came out with some positive figures on monthly transaction levels in September, showing a 10 per cent jump in transactions across England and Wales on the month to the highest level since November 20162. And we've had figures from the ONS showing that average house prices on completed sales in the UK have increased by 3.1 per cent in the year to July 2018, down slightly from 3.2 per cent in June 20183.

So it came as a surprise for many when the papers reported that Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, had warned that house prices could fall by a third if the Government can't agree a deal with Europe over Britain's exit from the EU in March next year.

In fact, that's not quite what he said. In describing worst-case scenarios for stress-testing affordability on mortgages, Mr Carney suggested that banks and building societies might consider stressing affordability in the event that property prices were to collapse by a third. He was, sensibly, describing an Armageddon scenario that he does not believe is likely to materialise - even if Britain crashes out of the EU next year. If we learned anything from the last crash in the economy, it is to expect and anticipate the unexpected.

However, the unhappy truth is that Mr Carney's comments, taken out of context, made for a great shock headline. And buyers and sellers read those headlines and it will influence both confidence and appetite to buy and sell property.

While the Bank of England is right to ensure financial institutions are prepared for a downturn, thus protecting customers, there is a danger that they have talked down a market that is already subdued. I won't debate the wisdom of this, but it highlights a real opportunity for property investors who understand the value of adding value.

There is still plenty of appetite for well-priced property and following the exit of several thousand amateur buy-to-let investors, there are bargains to be found - particularly for those looking to expand larger portfolios held within limited companies and who are prepared to do some refurbishment work before letting.

Markets are cyclical and anyone in property knows that - and knows how to deal with it. Luckily for them, there are also lenders in the market with appetite to fund those deals - even in light of uncertainty over Brexit, British people still need somewhere to live.

1https://www.rightmove.co.uk/news/house-price-index/
2http://www.financialreporter.co.uk/finance-news/number-of-homebuyers-jumps-to-two-year-high.html
3https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/bulletins/housepriceindex/july2018

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Market waits with bated breath ahead of the Autumn Budget

01 October 2018

Alan Cleary - Managing Director of Precise Mortgages

It’s nearly the Autumn Budget time of the year again and, this year, the Chancellor Philip Hammond has opted to deliver his government’s Budget on a Monday, ditching the usual Wednesday tradition. Writing this as I am, before we know the outcome of his statement, it’s hard to second guess what it will contain. That said, there are the usual calls that start to come out of the woodwork around Budget day: stamp duty reform, commitment to support building and infrastructure and this year, perhaps loudest of all, some clarity on the future of the Help to Buy scheme.

The scheme has been in the press a lot over the past couple of months, with allegations made that as well as providing support to tens of thousands of first-time buyers, it has helped inflate house prices and, consequently, the profit margins of the construction firms. There has been talk of extending the scheme but in an amended format, perhaps with an eye on its effect on house price inflation. The government has resolutely refused to be drawn on its plans for Help to Buy in the run up to the Budget, focusing instead on the other B word.

Whatever the outcome for the scheme on 29th October, it is currently scheduled to close in 2021 and because builders require a long lead-in time to plan housing starts, we have already begun to see the effects of its possible closure.

Government statistics* revealed that new housing starts dropped in the second quarter of this year - a 3.7 per cent fall compared to the previous quarter. On an annual basis, starts are down by 4.1 per cent. In July, housebuilders reported the steepest fall in site visits and net reservations since 2010 and 2008 respectively. They also reported the fastest rise in the use of sales incentives in over six years.

The fall in new starts is undoubtedly linked to uncertainty on the future shape of Help to Buy, but it is likely as much to do with uncertainty on the terms of Brexit. Construction is not immune to the effects of reduced immigration and the potential loss of skilled and cheap labour, as well as the effects of a weak pound on building costs.

House price inflation across the board is also softening and new build isn’t immune. But let’s not give the stats too much credit. This type of data and insight is useful for businesses in planning their future strategies, but the reality is that the Help to Buy scheme, whether or not Mr Hammond extends it during his Budget, is still very much open for business today.

Lenders are committed to supporting the scheme and while a year ago there were limited options available to buyers looking to remortgage their Help to Buy loans, there is now a lot more choice and competition. We should also not forget that there is considerably more competition at the high loan-to-value end of the market as well, a stated aim of the scheme when it was first launched.

At Precise Mortgages, we are a big supporter of Help to Buy as well as new build. We have a range of products designed with this market specifically in mind and our LTVs reflect our ongoing belief that this part of the market is vital to a healthy housing sector all round.

As I write, we’re also in party conference season – yet another reason that there is so much clamour from the industry for policy change and support for housing. While I’m usually in favour of any measures that support our market, I’m also inclined largely to ignore the noise this time of year creates.

I’m more interested in the fundamentals faced by real people. Namely that home ownership remains the ultimate aspiration for most people living in Britain, and Brexit isn’t going to change that; that we haven’t got enough houses in this country and Brexit isn’t going to change that; that the latest analysis from the Office for National Statistics suggests that rising divorce rates and longer life expectancies mean that the number of households in the UK is going in one direction only, up, and guess what, Brexit isn’t going to change that.

Yes, we must keep in mind that Brexit is spooking buyers and putting a bit of a dampener on their keenness to commit to buying while politicians continue to bicker about what deal we can reach. But we must also remember that people are still getting married and divorced, people are still having children and getting older. And all these people need somewhere to live. In times of uncertainty, both lenders and brokers are in a position to offer these people a degree of stability – something we fully intend to do.

*Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-house-building

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A not-so-quiet month

27 September 2018

Alan Cleary - Managing Director of Precise Mortgages

August is usually a quieter month for those of us in the bridging world. It tends to coincide with estate agents going on holiday, fewer properties being put on the market and a general reset before school term starts in September and the year begins again.

This year has been a different story, for us at least. Rather than see a seasonal slowdown, we've actually seen bridging enquiries and completions pick up. I've been asked whether this summer rush has anything to do with the base rate rise earlier this month, but my sense is not. While in the mainstream residential market, interest rate changes can have a noticeable effect on customer behaviour, particularly in the remortgage market, bridging doesn't really work like that.

Consider the path of bridging rates over the decade. They've gone from around 1.5 per cent a month, when the base rate was 5.75 per cent in 2007, to a low of 0.49 per cent a month today, when the base rate is at 0.75 per cent. Rates in the bridging market are more a function of competition between lenders, the cost of funding and, increasingly, the evolution of specific niches in the market.

Bridging has always been used to fund the purchase of property at auctions, to finance refurbishment projects and to bridge the gap between the purchase of a new home and sale of an old one. But 10 years ago, there was one price for every scenario, give or take a couple of basis points. Today, the market is far more sophisticated.

Products have evolved and pricing has diverged to match the specific risks that each scenario represents. Generally speaking, a light refurb deserves a lower rate than a development project. A consumer whose sale has fallen through at the last minute due to reasons controlled by the purchaser is even lower risk typically.

Cost of funding has also been a big driver of competition in the short-term market. In 2010 private equity, hedge funds and investment banks were struggling to find decent returns anywhere. Bridging providers were still offering eye-watering returns in excess of 20 per cent. It was a no-brainer. Today, there's a lot of this money still in the market, demanding returns of around 15 per cent. But to offer this, lenders must charge a rate averaging around 1.5 per cent a month to turn a profit. For the majority of sensible deals, that is a rate that is no longer competitive. The entry of lenders with access to retail deposit funding has facilitated much more competitive - and fair pricing.

At Precise, we've always been committed to pushing the market towards serving customers better. We've innovated on product design over the years, launching the market's first bridge-to-let back in 2013. Today, this is a staple product across the market. This commitment to giving our customers what they want, and pricing it as competitively as we can continues. We now offer our lowest ever bridging rate at 0.49 per cent - something that could account for our recent uptick in business. Because we're a full service lender, we also pay close attention to adjacent markets. Our buy-to-let team have just launched a holiday let product and we're now accepting multi-units. This is particularly important in the bridging market, as exit is king.

It's no secret that landlords are under pressure following the tax changes. But those who are rebalancing their portfolios, selling off less profitable properties and purchasing lets with better returns, are in our view good business. Bridging is often key to making this transition, particularly given the higher cost of stamp duty now levied. The wider housing market may be becoming more subdued, but there are still plenty of opportunities to be found with the right partner.

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Still some good deals to be had in the capital

04 September 2018

Alan Cleary - Managing Director of Precise Mortgages

When it comes to where to invest in a buy-to-let property today, the prevailing wisdom seems to be the Midlands. Cities such as Birmingham and Nottingham are increasingly popular, while further north Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds are hives of activity for landlords looking to expand portfolios – particularly if they’ve recently sold up in London or the South East.

We’ve seen our fair share of lending in these locations, but contrary to the tide of surveys tipping Birmingham as this year’s buy-to-let hotspot, I believe London is still a great market.

Now, hands up, I know the vast majority of brokers are outside the capital – I live in the Midlands myself and know how frustrating it can be to read about London’s housing market as though the rest of the UK was exactly the same. It’s not. But bear with me, because I think London might be a better prospect than the headlines would have you believe at the moment.

We recently commissioned some exclusive research from BDRC and found some interesting numbers that tally with our own experience.

London has been through a couple of years of house prices under pressure and there is definitely evidence that a lot of landlords in the capital have been offloading unprofitable properties following the tax relief changes.

Brexit has also prompted many of the big banking and financial services providers headquartered in London to move staff back to the continent over the past couple of years, putting a severe dent on demand for premium rental stock in central London. Rental incomes suffered as a result.

There’s also been a lot of new stock of flats for rent coming onto the London market over the past 24 months, adding to the pressure on rents.

The combination of these factors means that now, savvy landlords are finding there are some good deals to be had in the capital – an area of the UK that has historically always delivered excellent capital growth.

For example, BDRC found that the situation in central London is showing signs of improvement with a 5 per cent increase in the proportion of landlords reporting increasing demand from tenants. The proportion of landlords reporting falling rents in central London in Q2 has also halved from Q1.

According to BDRC’s research, mean rental yields in the capital remain strong with central London returning 6.2 per cent and outer London 5.9 per cent. These are not insignificant returns, and where properties are flooding onto the market, there’s also plenty of scope to get a decent discount on purchase prices, which can go some way to offsetting the higher stamp duty costs.

In spite of the tide of so-called ‘dire’ warnings about the property market in London, we think there’s opportunity to be found.

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Still plenty of opportunities for landlords to stay ahead of the game

03 September 2018

Alan Cleary - Managing Director of Precise Mortgages

The clock’s ticking for HMO landlords to make sure they’re ready for the introduction of new licensing legislation due to come into effect in October. From the beginning of the month, the government will be enforcing its new HMO licensing rules which are forecast to bring tens of thousands of landlords not currently in the scope of regulation under their purview.

As it currently stands properties that are three or more storeys, have five or more tenants in two or more single households or where amenities such as the kitchen are shared must be licensed.

From October, the number of storeys will become irrelevant and HMO licensing will be required where there are five or more tenants in two or more single households. Certain flats above commercial properties let out on this basis will also come into the regime from next month, as will some smaller blocks.

According to the Residential Landlords’ Association, 16 per cent of landlords currently rent to people in HMOs. Their analysis suggests that an additional 177,000 HMOs will become subject to mandatory licensing in England as a result of October’s extension of the rules*.

It means if properties aren’t up to the new regulatory standards by 1st October then landlords can be prosecuted by their local authority and fined up to £30,000 per unlicensed property.

While it’s up to landlords themselves to make sure they don’t get hit by these new rules, it’s something that all lenders will be keeping a close eye on.

The HMO and multi-unit market has become an increasingly important one for both landlords and lenders. As the financial reality of the tapered removal of tax relief on mortgage interest has sunk in, landlords who are ahead of the game have been reviewing their portfolios, selling up those properties that no longer add up and, in many cases, replacing them with others that have stronger financial possibilities.

While this has partly precipitated a general wash of activity out of London’s most expensive areas, into the commuter suburbs and further north to the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Leeds, we’ve also seen stronger activity in the capital and the South East too. This has shifted from single unit to multi-unit properties though, with a strong bent towards HMOs.

The advantage of letting houses in multiple occupation and multi-unit properties boils down to risk management. More tenants on separate tenancy agreements means your eggs are spread across multiple baskets. If one tenant falls behind on rent or ducks out of their agreement early, the other 80 per cent of your rental income is still coming in, covering off the mortgage. The same is true of multi-unit.

These types of property also tend to appeal to landlords with slightly larger portfolios and more experience in running them. Emotional attachment to properties is absent; they’re running a business and as such, the numbers need to make sense

In our view, these are exactly the sort of borrowers we want to work with on buy-to-let. The smaller portfolio end of the market is no doubt the larger portion, but that is changing slowly. It’s also catered for by lenders that wish to have minimal touch on the underwriting of these, typically, more straightforward and uniform cases.

We’ve never tried to compete with the mainstream. Our expertise has always been understanding the niches in the market across buy-to-let, residential and short-term lending and this is why we’ve been busy developing criteria that helps to provide the changing shape of the market with the products needed to remain competitive in the future.

We’ve improved our criteria on multi-units for those landlords who have identified the future potential of this property type and want to extend this part of their portfolios. Experience multi-let landlords can now have up to six self-continued units within a single freehold and borrow up to £750,000 at 75 per cent LTV, and up to £1m at 70 per cent LTV.

While the political, tax and regulatory landscape for landlords remains a challenge, there are still undoubtedly opportunities available for landlords who know what they have to do to stay ahead. For our part, we’re trying to make the shift as smooth as possible.

*Source: https://news.rla.org.uk/extension-of-mandatory-hmo-licensing-set-for-october-2018/

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