The house price dilemma: The impact of the rise and falls in the cost of homes

When are you happy to see the price of something go up? The answer, of course, is when you own it.

'2.5 million council houses sold' under Right-to-Buy

Yet it’s this simple economic fact that lies at the heart of a dilemma we face in the housing market.

For homeowners, rising house prices mean the property they own (or have a mortgage on at least) is worth more than they paid for it and their wealth, as a result, goes up.

Yet for struggling first time buyers, every 0.1% prices rise pushes their dream of becoming a homeowner further into the distance.

Buyers now face borrowing six times their average salary to get a home but in some parts of the country property is a staggering 17 times more expensive than the average annual salary.

Yet it’s important to realise the levels of complexity that lie beneath this rather black and white dilemma.

Rising house prices aren’t, for example, universally bad news for buyers.

Yes, they have to find more cash to make a purchase but it’s also true that property price increases give banks greater confidence and make them more inclined to lend.

Conversely, falling values in the property market can cause lenders to be nervous and clam up – adding another factor to the list of reasons that might already cause you to have your mortgage application turned down.

If house prices are strong, the confidence does tend to spread through the economy too – with these values used by commentators and the media to hail the strength of the nation’s finances.

When house prices rise, homeowners have the confidence to spend – or to withdraw equity from their property to fund spending – and buoyant consumer spending is good for people in the retail and services sectors and beyond.

Similarly, imagine if prices were to drop overnight to a more affordable level.

That all-important confidence in the market would completely disappear. Consumers, like banks, would reign in their spending and they might even fall into ‘negative equity’ – owing more to the bank than their property was now worth.

This might even create the conditions for a fully-blown downturn in the economy, especially given the way that many households have stretched their finances to be able to borrow the money they need for housing and other big ticket purchases in recent years.

Some sellers might even choose to take their houses off the market and wait for more favourable conditions.

It wouldn’t be much comfort for buyers if prices fell but so did their ability to borrow, job prospects and the availability of the sort of properties they’d like to buy.

Successive governments have wrestled with this dilemma.

Clearly it would be political suicide to legislate to ‘make’ prices fall, even if that were possible.

The answer has tended to be two-fold: try to encourage the building of more houses and introduce measures to try to help first-time buyers to bridge the gap between the amount they can afford and the cost of homes.

Success so far, it has to be said, has been limited but parties of all hues seem to be offering a mixture of more of the same formula.

A major housebuilding programme would help to boost the construction sector at the same time as creating greater supply in a way that shouldn’t tip the balance against either homeowners or prospective buyers.