18 Apr 2017, 11:24am
housing personal finance:
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  • Fear and loathing in Britain’s favourite asset class

    On a small island with a lot of people, there is one type of asset that has become a national religion for Britons, and that is residential housing. You can’t lose with bricks and mortar, is written through the national psyche like the lettering on a stick of rock. It runs so deep within the national character that we have the common spectacle of well-off people preying on the poor by buying up houses to rent to others on a onesy-twosy basis, using the terrible security of tenure in British rental housing facilitated in the Housing Act 1996 to extract cash from those who can’t get a mortgage because they are too poor.

    Thatcher handing something over that wasn’t hers to give – an early RTB house deeds

    So rich people use their better creditworthiness to borrow money to buy houses to let, renting them out to poor people who can’t borrow money to buy houses, and making a tidy profit. They even claimed back the tax on the mortgage interest, a privilege denied to the poor saps who are buying a house on a mortgage to live it it. I am pleased to say that this nasty little anomaly has been canned now 😉 Britain has too few houses as it is for people who want to buy-to-live, they don’t need BTL (buy-to-let) middlemen inserting their money funnel into the punters’ wage packets sponsored on the government’s dime.

    When the Ermine was a child, this job of landlording to families was largely done by the councils and the poor and even the modestly well-to-do had the option of renting with an adequate security of tenure, but those days were lost when Thatcher bought the votes of the sitting council tenants by selling the council housing stock to them at a knock-down price. The official version of this is of course a roaring success

    the policy of giving tenants the Right to Buy on advantageous terms their council houses gave immense pleasure to many who had never imagined being able to possess a place of their own and pass it on to their children. People were ecstatic.

    Well, they would be. You always make friends dishing out free money, and it was the discounts (a.k.a. free money) given with Right to Buy that made the impact

     the Right to Buy had benefited a large number of individual households but it has also had an uneven impact spatially and socially, has added to residualisation in social renting and has had an adverse strategic impact on housing. The discounts provided under the Right to Buy had inflated the demand for home ownership. In the longer term transfers to private renting further diverted resources to meet higher rents in the private sector rather than providing additional or affordable housing.

    […]

    Looking back over the history of RTB it is apparent that, rather than the symbolism associated with a legal Right, it was the manipulation of levels of discount that were key to the operation of the policy. The Right to Buy with lower discounts would have had much less impact.

    Which is how we got from my London grammar school days when about half the kids lived in council houses, including some of the ones whose parents were white-collar workers, to today where almost half of all local authorities in England no longer have any significant council housing.

    Housing is to the Ermine as Moscow was to Napoleon

    Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: “Do not march on Moscow”. Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good.

    Monty

    So it is with the Ermine – the greatest personal finance error I have ever made was buying a house in 1989. I have never managed to beat that level of numbskullery despite greater resources. Now I hope that this is an indication of actually using the intervening 30 times round the sun to improve the art of being human, but let’s face it, the bar was set very low for the depths of financial folly I needed to avoid plumbing again. I moved once since that first house, because a two-up-two down was okay for a bachelor Ermine but when DxGF moved in it was time to get some more space, which is the entirely average three-bed semi I am in now.

    When I bought it in the dog days of the dotcom boom, I bought the new house before completing on the old house. That sort of thing makes moving a lot easier, and you can get decoration and rewiring done much easier in an empty house. I hate being a function of other people, so housing chains rub my fur up the wrong way and make me snarl. The amount I had lost on the old house meant I could carry the old house with a combination of savings and a hefty 0% interest loan on a credit card, I had a 90% mortgage on the new house.

    I am looking at moving again, and it is a significant distance across country. Retiring is a good time to think about where you want to live, as the limitations placed by working are lifted. It’s not necessary to move, but I find the the dreary journey halfway round the M25 to get past the carbuncle of London more and more irritating, now I have the time and the money to travel more. On the other hand, a retiree needs to think about the human setting, so we want to move to an area where we already know a number of people, so in our case that is westwards but not particularly northwards.

    Stoney Littleton Long barrow. One of the many megalithic sites that draw me westwards as a retiree. No, I’m not planning to live in it 😉

    We own this house outright, and have stocks and non-residential land assets, the combination is considerably more than the sort of house we are looking at buying.If I put the stocks together with the proceeds from the land assets and cash I hold, I have enough to buy a house of the sort I want before selling the current house. Trouble is all the stocks are in my ISA. Some of the cash is with NS&I ILSCs, ideally I would prefer not to sell that either. Some of it is in my SIPP, had I jumped to it I would have drawn out to just below the higher rate tax threshold last month, but I failed to engage brain there.

    I get to do that this month, drawing ~43k gross, and pay £7k in tax. I can chill about that because I would have paid 41% in tax had I not used the SIPP when I earned the money. So I am still 21% better off, and indeed I got the Brexit boost on that last year since it was in some international exUK index fund.

    I started to sell out of some of the ISA, though of course keeping the cash in the wrapper until the last moment. I started with the crap, the sorts of things one acquires in a HYP but turned out to be a really bad idea. Many years ago I came to the conclusion that while I may do okay on buying, I have no talent for selling, which is why in the HYP I don’t sell out of the crap. Some of it even came good – dogs like RSA eventually crossed the loss to breakeven to profit mark simply by paying dividends. Some didn’t, I followed Warren Buffett into Tesco, and, well, ’nuff said, eh? At least I had illustrious company in the cock-up. I paid less than WB 1, but he bailed faster. As Buffett said (p18)

    In the world of business, bad news often surfaces serially: You see a cockroach in your kitchen; as the days go by, you meet his relatives.

    I ain’t got Buffett’s talent, I was far too trigger-happy as a seller, so I needed to stop that. That trigger-happiness shows even in my actions here – although I believed I was going to liquidate the entire ISA to raise the cash at the time, I started shooting dogs first. A different way of looking at reversion to the mean might have started to liquidate from the top, after all those are the greatest gains to be crystallised. Once a mutt’s lost > 50% most of the damage has been done 😉

    you had it coming to you, bud. There is a school of thought that says you should actively seek out dogs, but I’ve waited many years for my ISA mutts to turn, they aren’t just last year’s disreputable hounds

    Shooting the dogs was easy. Most of them I’ve had for a long time and they’ve never come good. Now a fifth of my ISA is cash, and I’ve run out of hounds to put up against the wall.I had about a twentieth of the ISA as mutts, I sold about a twentieth of good stuff before I just couldn’t do it any more, and a tenth I carry in cash because you never know when buying opportunities may show up.

    exchanging equities for housing felt that I was marching to Moscow. No good would come of it…

    Look at the housing market now. It is up in the sky 2. We have the economic damage 3  of Brexit coming down the pike, inflation is lifting which may bode rising interest rates and the market is softening. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, as I am looking to move upmarket. I’m not carrying any debt once all is settled so rising interest rates don’t trouble me, but they sure as hell will trouble others in the market carrying a huge mortgage based on affordability at 2%. Which will depress prices, because if they can’t pay they won’t pay.

    This play by Dario Fo was big in the early 1970s inflationary oil shock. The title could be the anthem for Britain’s overstretched mortgagees as Brexit inflation starts to bite and interest rates rise. According to Wikipedia, Pluto Press was a division of the Socialist Workers Party when this was published.

    I looked at what I have left in the ISA and I simply couldn’t bring myself to press the sell button, and exchange stocks, something of value, for housing, because I loathe the housing asset class. Couldn’t do it even on a temporary basis, as I searched for something else to sell from the ISA and would have had to mine the good stuff I began to feel sick, and an old recording started to play out in the back of my mind. A recording first made in 1990 through to 1992, when I froze in that first house to save money for the mortgage and subsisted on peas, economy bean soup mix 4 and rice while I watched one neighbour get repossessed and the other side jump before that happened. Interest rates came within a hair’s-breadth of 15% p.a. Intellectually I can tell myself that things are really different this time because I am not buying as a leveraged buyer with a mortgage, but it’s no good. I drank the water from that polluted well before and was sick for ten years. Sure, I’ve taken losses in the stock market, but never got to lose more than I had to start with…

    Repairing the ISA

    I need to go fix the damage I did to my ISA estate by trying and failing to convince myself I was going to liquidate it to bridge the housing purchase. I can’t honestly say I am that sad to see the back of the dogs, though they did of course serve as a sort of memento mori reproaching me to the tune of “Self, you aren’t such a fantastic hot-handed stock-picker – I am TSCO and I remind you that you had absolutely no ‘king idea of what you were doing trying to slipstream Warren Buffett, so don’t get so full of cock”. I have a limit order on some gold that should go through this week, because God knows what the pound will do over the next couple of years, and it’ll bring down the cash to 10% where I’m easy with it. There is a case to be made that a fellow with no unwrapped holdings any more should hold his gold outside tax wrappers, because I don’t have so much that CGT would be a hassle, and gold doesn’t pay dividends which are troublesome outside a tax shelter nowadays. But I just need to get it to a holding position for now. And my Charles Stanley ISA needs to go back into VWRL and L&G Dev World ExUK where it was, so I get to eat a load of transaction costs for my thumb-sucking indecision. Bummer. Still beats the hell out of losing all that ISA tax sheltering. At least I stepped back from the brink. Obviously I’m not putting my £20k new contribution into the ISA while I need short-term float, because I have till nearly this time next year to get round to that.

    There’s the smell of decay in the air on housing

    A grizzled snout sniffs the air, and I smell the sickly scent of putrefaction in the housing market, the scent the youthful Ermine  insouciantly ignored. One of the things that puzzles me about housing now is the shocking compression of prices. When I was buying my first house 5 on the  terraced places were about £45k, and semis were about £60k 6. Where I am looking Zoopla tell me terraced houses are about £214k and semis are £248k. It’s as if the entry-level prices have been skyrocketed proportionally, whereas the incremental costs to get something better has reduced. The terrace to semi ratio was  1.3 in the late 1980s and has fallen to 1.16 – you get a lot more for a little bit extra, and this still sort of holds going up to detached places, which command less of a premium than I expected. It is as if first-time buyers are flattening themselves, artificially boosting the crummy end of the housing market. Looking at my existing area this ratio is about 1.2. Only another 10% on my house would get me a detached house over the road. Of course Zoopla could be full of crap, but these differentials seem very squeezed to me.

    The Ermine’s twitchy snout has picked up the last ten of the one real housing recessions we’ve had this millennium, so I am prone to false alarms, that early experience of housing is a distorting lens through which I look at Britain’s favourite asset class. It’s why I am not a BTL landlord, and property is a lot less than half my net worth. This is not because fundamentally I have a beautiful nature full of compassion for my fellow man, after all if I am not a BTLer then some other person will step into the breach. I am not a BTLer because I am shit scared of the asset class, it’s hateful because of what it did to me, it’s illiquid, it depreciates much faster with a tenant than an owner-occupier, and there seems a shedload of miscellaneous aggravation that goes with the whole patch.

    Everything is vile about buying and selling houses in England. I haven’t done it for almost twenty years, and while the experience wasn’t great then, many things seem to have become worse. For starters, exactly what reason does an estate agent have to exist in the 21st century? The cheeky blighters seem to want to see proof of capital assets before taking an offer to a vendor, which is not easy in a distant town with ratty internet connections 7 and no printer. This was an absolute blinder on me and was definitely not the case 20 years ago. I suspect there was also some subtle discrimination too, if I had shiny shoes and dressed in a sharp suit I might have been given the benefit of the doubt. But seriously, WTF is the point of an estate agent? I use rightmove to search 8, the days of receiving endless offers of places 200% overbudget through the post aren’t something I want to go back to. Rightmove and other Internet sites actually listen and don’t show things that are overbudget. I would have thought the Internet would have fixed the problem of estate agents by eating their lunch by now, but it appears not.

    I’m also unlucky enough to be selling into a gently softening market sector in Suffolk and a slightly appreciating one where I want to go. Some of that is because of who I am and what I want to buy. I want a detached place because I don’t want to hear people’s kids, pets and domestics, we want more garden, and stairs if any only in a straight line. I don’t want to see children’s trampolines and plastic toys, or people fixing cars in their front gardens. I don’t want to hear traffic from main roads, and I have no interest in new houses, which are tiny and too close together. I don’t want a ‘period property’ which is a maintenance and energy efficiency hazard. I don’t want anything near a river or less than 40m above sea level because of flooding amplified by climate change, low-lying parts of the target region has had problems with this in recent years. Something built from the late 1950s to 1970 is probably about right.

    I am competing with old gits like me who have a working life behind them, and what I am selling is a 3 bed semi which is a typical family home. Families made hay with all the child-friendly largesse Labour showered them with in the times of plenty, and are feeling the draught now.  Hence the softening market my end. Countering that I am looking to move somewhere where there appears to be zero professional work to be had for forty miles 9 which tends to be the way for attractive places because work is usually a blot on the landscape.

    The design of the conveyancing system in England is foul, where there is no commitment from the buyer and seller until exchange of contracts; something done so much better in Scotland and probably just about any other First World country. The English way brings out the worst in both the buyers and sellers, making evil shits of us all. Requiring a 10% escrowed deposit forfeited if either side welch on the deal would improve that no end. Hopefully being a cash buyer will help the power balance for me there, and not having a chain will help with selling. Time will show.

    How about joining my fellow countrymen on the never-never?

    How about borrowing? It’s all the rage on this septic isle, I hear. I can breeze way past the average UK household non-mortgage debt of £13,000 and lift the old stats a bit. Normally the Ermine has the same attitude to debt as a vampire has to sunlight, but:

    I have the cash, but it’s tax-embargoed in my ISA and SIPP. Unlike the rest of the country, with their rising credit card debt, PCP car loans and whatnot in need of government help to bail them out of their fiscal stupidity, I actually have the money to back the loan. As long as I pay less than 20% over the life of the loan I am better off borrowing the money than paying the extra 40% tax on it taking it from my SIPP, which I need to clear down to £3600 10 before reaching normal retirement age for my main pension.

    I can’t get a mortgage, because I am too old and mortgage affordability is all about income. I would have thought a DB pension payable in three years time would be good enough as an income but it has to already be in the process of being drawn, and the SIPP doesn’t count because I draw in variable amounts a year according to need. The credit card company won’t give me an increase in credit limit to use the balance transfer stunt that worked when I bought my first house, because I am poor in their eyes, under the railway arches poor..

    MBNA to Ermine – “Swivel on this, bud. You may, of course, beg us on bended knee and we may graciously reconsider your request”. Ermine thinks to self “well up yours too then”. There are other ways to skin this cat.

    In 1989 two credit card firms loaned me £15k, the equivalent of £34,000 today at 0% interest to reduce my mortgage LTV. And they got paid back on time. In those far-off days you didn’t have to declare anything other than income on a mortgage application and there were no credit reference agencies. The 20-something year old Ermine doing the most gormless thing in his financial life with no capital was deemed a better risk than the grizzled mustelid of today who actually has capital assets several times the putative loan. No. I’m not bitter and twisted. Really I’m not 😉

    I have been a small-time ~5k Zopa lender since 2013 until now when I recalled that to build up reserves, and curiously enough Zopa offered me a decent amount for five years at 3.4%. They had a much better repayment structure too. You have the take the loan for a long term, so that the repayments aren’t too high, but for a part bridging loan I don’t need to keep the loan for the term. Normally if you take a loan for five years, you don’t save any interest repaying it early. With Zopa it seems there is a fixed fee of .6% you pay if you have the loan for a microsecond or all the way to five years, plus 3.2% p.a. As such carrying the loan for six months would cost 2.2% of the loan – much less than a normal five year loan for that APR.

    I liked Zopa, though in the end their 25k lending limit isn’t really enough to put much of a dent in the ISA. But I’ve often had the odd tax, ISA filling or CGT need to defer liquidating unwrapped shares from one tax year to another and I wish I’d thought of them before. I’ve used credit card 0% offers for these applications, but the trouble is one has to borrow about twice as much as needed (and pay the arrangement fee of ~2% of the total) because of the requirement to pay down the loan at 5% of the residual a month. Zopa is a much better match for that sort of thing.

    In the end I raised the loan privately. It seems commercial lending to punters is axiomatically all about income, so it will always be mismatched to FI/RE folk. The takeaway from that when interest rates are low is don’t pay off your mortgage early – you will often need flexibility as you thread your way in early stages of FI/RE, particularly before you reach your DC pension age (55 at the moment). That mortgage gives you flexibility, and the tax-free pension commencement lump sum is a good fit to paying down the capital – effectively you redeem the capital with deferred pre-tax income.

    BTL-ers score several hits on the Ermine by proxy

    BTL owners are bad news for owner occupiers, for different reasons than why they are bad for tenants and for first-time buyers. As an owner-occupier you want to move away from such areas. BTLers are strapped for cash, and they aren’t there in person to deal with the consequences of their or their tenants’ actions. It slightly disturbs me that all the regions I used to live have gone downhill. My parents’ place in SE London used to be an owner-occupied zone where they were among the poorer on the block, over nearly 50 years it became a dump where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, I had a pushbike locked to itself half-inched from their drive in the 1990s, they got robbed in the early 2000s. I wouldn’t dream of living there if you paid me and provided an armed guard. And it’s gone BTL, because, well, it’s London.

    Two places I had a bedsits in west London seemed to have descended into high streets of dirty chicken shops, betting joints and fast food retail. I guess the areas were already fully landlorded, but landlords in those days used to really own the places they rented, tending to be on a professional and larger scale. The blight of BTL mortgages started in 1996, around the time the AST was enacted, so BTL landlords could know that they could kick tenants out on reasonably short order. The area I bought my first house in Ipswich in ’89 has become a BTL rental dump with frequent mattresses on the street and much multiple occupation, and towards the end I had a pushbike nicked from my own back garden – not particularly to do with the BTL-ers but bike thieves prey on studenty neighbourhoods and BTL had made it studenty, so it was worth doing over for bikes. I’m beginning to suspect this downhill drift is a curse on me, but at least so far I’ve jumped in time…

    Hopefully the BTL thing will be reined it a bit by not letting the BTLers squeeze real people who couldn’t get tax relief on mortgage interest payments, the poor devils are so desperate that first time buyers sometimes try to masquerade as BTL buyers to get round the way the system is stacked in favour of BTL buyers. I’m going to watch carefully for the presence of BTL in the next place I go.

    BTLers have other adverse effects on housing – the market has slowed after being pumped because the buy-to-let brigade are finally getting soaked on tax on the same basis as real people who actually live in the houses they buy. It is perhaps a reason for the softening where I am, I’ve noticed more To Let signs and when you look on Zoopla they have been recent sales , so BTL was over this area like a rash a couple of years ago.

    And finally I take an incidental hit in needing to front the extra BTL secondary home ownership stamp duty tax for the time I have two houses. I have zero ambition to become a BTL landlord, but I have to drum up an extra £10k because of the guilt by association and presumably have to fight HMRC to get it back.

    But UK property is hopelessly overpriced?

    Yes. It’s a foul asset class that has screwed me royally before. It will no doubt screw me royally again, at least to the tune of the difference between what I sell my current house for 11 and the price of what I buy. But for the bulk of the transaction I will be selling a hopelessly overvalued asset to buy a similarly hopelessly overvalued asset. I have another 20-30 years of healthspan if I am lucky. Waiting another two years for the existential clusterfuck that is Brexit to make all of us poorer may save me money if there’s a housepricecrash, 12 but it is 10% of that healthspan. The gimlet-eyed older Ermine is more able to take the hit than the fresh-faced twenty-year old Ermine who was shafted by the 1989 housing market. In theory a softening market is good for someone going upmarket, but the devil is in the detail, and there is always devil in anything to do with UK residential property.

    Notes:

    1. I bought into some of the suckouts, which reduced more my overall cost of acquisition. But TSCO was still a falling knife, and WB is still a better investor than me
    2. Equities are also up in the sky now, although some of that is the Brexit effect making them look higher. But they’ve been tracking up since 2009… However, the tax sheltering of my ISA has a separate value of its own, I would be in deep shit with the changes to dividend taxation if I had to hold it unwrapped
    3. or short-term adjustment to liberation pains if you are a Brexit booster
    4. I just took a look for bean soup mix and I’m chuffed that they still do this, though the price looks astronomical to me. This stuff explodes in volume when you cook it so the young Ermine could stretch a packet of it a very long way, more than a week ISTR. Note that it’s a lot cheaper if you buy the parts from your local store catering to local Asian consumers and mix ’em up yourself rather than buying from Sainsbury’s
    5. Although it was a similar time of excessive valuations, the distorting factor then was couples were rushing to buy to get dual MIRAS tax-relief on 60k rather than 30k, I presume they were targeting the semidetached sector with a view to having kids, whereas now the focus is on get anything
    6. this was in 1989, the 2016 inflation adjusted amounts are £102740 and £137000 respectively
    7. in the usual way, everything a mobile phone does, like providing a tethered data connection works, but badly and only a ghost of what it should be
    8. I do appreciate the irony of using something owned by a bunch of estate agents, but at least they follow my limit and requirement instructions properly
    9. I am, of course, looking at this with the jaded eyes of an ex-big company careerist, not the dynamic go-getting entrepreneurial sort that the powers that be hope will drag Britain out of the shit in the years to come
    10. which is the amount non-earners can put in a pension
    11. when owning two houses there is the risk of the market running against me over the difference. Although every other Briton believes you can’t go wrong with property I know from experience you can, and the current falling trend in the housing market is against me if I buy first and sell later, so I will try and minimize that period. Being a cash buyer and chainless seller has some value in the transactions, which may compensate a little for what I lose across the gap.
    12. HPC’s wishful thinking gives them an even worse house price prediction crystal ball than the Ermine, they predict a perma-status of impending house price crash, pretty much the last 100 of the one retrenchments we’ve had
     
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