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Mortgage Market Bounce drives housing market recovery

The number of mortgages offered to home buyers went up from 49,300 in November to 50,500 in December, against the normal seasonal downtrend. 

Meanwhile, the number of remortgages approved rose from 25,700 to 30,800 in the month, according to data from the Bank of England.

At the same time the interest rate paid on newly drawn mortgages dropped by 0.6 per cent: this is the first time it has fallen in three years.


Charlotte Nixon, mortgage expert at Quilter, says: “This modest increase in mortgage approvals could indicate a stabilising or slightly more optimistic housing market. However, the numbers are still relatively modest, reflecting ongoing caution among both borrowers and lenders due to economic uncertainties like job security. In uncertain times, reducing debt can be a way to decrease monthly expenses and prepare for potential financial strains.”

Jeremy Leaf, north London estate agent and a former RICS residential chairman, is more optimistic and says: “The increase in buying and selling activity we noticed in early January clearly started several months earlier, following the falls in inflation. These mortgage approvals offer a comprehensive snapshot as they cover not just the data of individual lenders but the wider marketplace and are a reliable indicator of future activity. As a result, the market improvement is likely to be sustained despite the recent uptick in the cost of living and rise in stock levels which is keeping a lid on prices."

Meanwhile Simon Gammon - managing partner at Knight Frank Finance - comments: "Mortgage approvals for house purchase accelerated between November and December and posted a 42 per cent gain compared to December last year. Falling mortgage rates have transformed sentiment among borrowers and we'll see a busy spring market this year. High street lenders appear to have called a temporary truce in their price war after economic indicators published in January pushed back the likely date of the Bank of England's first rate cut.”

Sarah Coles, head of personal finance at Hargreaves Lansdown, states: "We can celebrate approvals pushing through 50,000, and there are some signs that January has seen another bounce, but we're still a long way from a healthy market. Approvals have to be seen in the context of the fact that, excluding the start of the pandemic, we had been used to approvals of over 60,000 a month for the best part of a decade, and we're still well short of this."

And Thomas Pugh - an economist at the tax and consulting firm RSM UK - says this may be a good sign for the housing market more generally: “ Life may be starting to return to the housing market and that, if house prices haven't quite reached their nadir, they're probably not far off it. Indeed, now that attention has firmly turned to when interest rates will start to fall, mortgage rates have started to drop."

There’s every evidence that the price war between lenders is driving a housing market recovery. 

UK house prices rose by 0.7 per cent in January, resulting in an improvement in the annual rate of house prices from a fall of 1.8 per cent recorded in December to an annual drop of just 0.2 per cent now. This is the strongest annual figure for the market since January 2023.

The figures come from the Nationwide and its chief economist Robert Gardner says: “There have been some encouraging signs for potential buyers recently with mortgage rates continuing to trend down. This follows a shift in view amongst investors around the future path of Bank Rate, with investors becoming more optimistic that the Bank of England will lower rates in the years ahead.

“These shifts are important as this led to a decline in the longer-term interest rates (swap rates) that underpin mortgage pricing around the turn of the year. However, the partial reversal in recent weeks in response to stronger than expected inflation and activity data cautions that the interest rate outlook remains highly uncertain.

“While a rapid rebound in activity or house prices in 2024 appears unlikely, the outlook is looking a little more positive. The most recent RICS survey suggests the decline in new buyer enquiries has halted, while there are tentative signs of a pickup in the number of properties coming onto the market.

“How mortgage rates evolve will be crucial, as affordability pressures were the key factor holding back housing market activity in 2023. Indeed, at the end of 2023, a borrower earning the average UK income and buying a typical first-time buyer property with a 20 per cent deposit had a monthly mortgage payment equivalent to 38 per cent of take-home pay – well above the long run average of 30 per cent.

"If average mortgage rates were to trend down to four per cent, this would ease the mortgage payments burden to 34% of take-home pay (assuming house prices and earnings are unchanged). However, other things equal, mortgage rates of three per cent (still well above the lows seen in the wake of the pandemic) would be needed to bring this measure of affordability back towards its long run average.”

But Gardner says raising a deposit also remains a major challenge for those wanting to buy, with a 20 per cent deposit on a typical first-time buyer home equating to around 105 per cent of average annual gross income – down from the all-time high of 116 per cent recorded in 2022, but still close to the pre-financial crisis level of 108 per cent.

This reflects that house prices are still very high relative to earnings, with the house price to earnings ratio standing at 5.2 at the end of 2023, well above the long run average of 3.9.

The Nationwide says this helps to explain why the proportion of first-time buyers drawing on help from friends and family or an inheritance to help raise a deposit has increased from already elevated levels. In 2022/23, nearly half of first-time buyers had some help raising a deposit, either in the form of a gift or loan from family or friends, or through inheritance – up from 27 per cent in the mid-1990s.

Gardner continues: “There remains considerable variation in affordability across the country, with pressures particularly acute in London, the south of England and East Anglia. Scotland and the North continue to be the most affordable regions, with mortgage payments as a share of take-home pay much closer to their long run average.

“These variations have led to stark differences emerging between those who would like to buy and those who are actually able to do so. This is most pronounced in London, where the average income of actual first-time buyers (for a single borrower) is around 55 per cent higher than the average income in the capital (for an adult fulltime worker).

“Similarly, in the South East and East of England, the average income of actual first-time buyers is around 25 per cent above the average income in these regions.

“However, in parts of the UK where affordability is less stretched, such as Yorkshire & The Humber and the North East, we find that incomes of actual first-time buyers are broadly similar to average regional incomes. Moreover, in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the average income of first-time buyers is actually slightly lower than average incomes in those regions.”


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