30 Sep 2017, 1:46am
housing
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  • Michaelmas – a good time to get out of Britain’s favourite asset class

    The Ermine has lately been that pariah of the bien-pensant crew, a vile second homer. Not particularly because I wanted to oppress the young of some rural district but to give me some more time to move, and widen my options. As such I have been long residential property. When everyone else in the UK looks at residential property they see this

    but when I look at UK housing I see this

    Housing is a particularly evil asset class because you tend to be a forced buyer, initially when you get old enough to need to set up on your own or want to fire out kids. That’s basically a function of when you are born, then add about 30 years. There’s not much scope for riding out the market cycles which are very long with housing compared to the stock market.

    In our case although I was a free agent after retiring Mrs Ermine was very much connected with the location, but it started to get apparent that working in the open was starting to get physically demanding, and various things got in the way of even being able to get a field shelter. So it was time to move on, but the trouble was that just before we came to this conclusion, the good people of Britain decided they wanted the 1950’s back. I know that the protagonists say that dynamic Blighty is being held back by the sheet anchor of trading tariff-free with the EU and wanted to take back control, but the trouble with all that is none of them seem to have a clue. They don’t agree on what they want, and they have no idea of how to go about it. Brexit may mean Brexit but no bugger seems to be able to tell us how they plan to make it happen. Those that do major on bluster rather than substance, BoJo, I’m looking at you, while you’re not busy making our man in Myanmar’s toes curl by reciting Kipling in their temple, FFS. I know you want to recreate the glory of Empire, but not everyone is as fond of it as the Brexit brigade and as foreign secretary it behooves you to keep that in mind. Keep the Kipling for the Conservative Club, eh?

    The UK housing market seems to be in a strange place at the moment, puffed up by low interest rates. I wanted to go upmarket a bit, and there seems to be a strange effect of compressing prices. You seem to have to pay an awful lot to get anything at all, and not as much more to get a lot more house than when I last bought a house. We aren’t getting younger, so I wanted to do this before Brexit, not after, although people going upmarket want a housing crash. But I didn’t know if that compression would unwind, and in the end I don’t have enough time to sit out the cycle.

    So we bought the new place a couple of months ago and completed the sale of the old one recently. It’s good to be clear of it by Michaelmas – one of the old quarter days. The quarter days were traditionally days when debts were settled and when magistrates would visit outlying districts to administer their justice.

    “There is a principle of justice enshrined in this institution: debts and unresolved conflicts must not be allowed to linger on.

    However complex the case, however difficult to settle the debt, a reckoning has to be made and publicly recorded; for it is one of the oldest legal principles of this country that justice delayed is injustice”

    On the way to the Postmodern

    It is pure happenstance that this came good for me by Michaelmas, but I like the olde-worlde symbolism. Some commercial leases still cleave to the old quarter days for rent periods – I noticed some shops closed or moved in the last week or so, presumably when their rent period ended.

    I discovered that the trauma of the first house I bought runs very deep. Whenever I look at a house, in the back of my mind there is a siren going off which asks “yes but what happens if this falls by half in real terms” because that’s what happened to me. And there are parallels with 1989, cynics would say that to an Ermine every year has parallels with ’89 in housing – but:

    Prices were in the late 1980s Lawson boom because of government policy. Well, they’re high now because of government policy – 10 years of interest rates way below the long term average means people can ‘afford’ to pay stupidly high prices. I would hate to be bringing new money into this market – although we have bought ridiculously overpriced property we were selling overpriced property to buy it, and divesting ourselves of land which is a similar asset class.

    Then, in a couple of years, there was a recession in the early 1990s. Perhaps in a foretaste of Brexit we attempted to track the ERM and failed dismally in 1992. I was paying a mortgage rate of just shy of 15%. Unless you’re a rampant Brexit booster we have that recession coming our way, hell, we voted for it. If anybody wants to see what Britain’s free trade agreement with the US will be like, well, let’s see how it goes with Boeing and Bombardier, shall we? The Telegraph is steaming that May took dictation from the EU, but the US is the 900lb gorilla compared with the UK. It will be a case of “here are the terms, you sign here”.

    So we have high valuations, the only way for interest rates to move is up, and we have got a recession on the way. As the IPPR said in forever blowing bubbles

    In short, house price rises are particularly vulnerable to depart from fundamentals and are very hard to correct if they do. Meanwhile market actors are likely to suffer from momentum behaviour and have strong reasons to behave speculatively. So, we move from periodic bouts of fear of ‘missing the boat’, followed by the pain of negative equity and retrenchment.

    OK, so we haven’t heard much about negative equity for three decades. So it’s all different now and that will never happen again. Until it does. But at least I’m out of here. One bite of that damn cherry is enough for a lifetime.

    Buying a house is a lot more scary without a mortgage

    I last bought a house 20 years ago, with a mortgage for most of the capital. You never see most of the money, because a lot of it’s between the solicitors and the mortgage company. When you do it without a mortgage, massive amounts of money go flying in and out of your bank account – for starters the normal payment system seems to max out at £100k, so I had to go to the bank to initiate a CHAPS payment. Then of course there’s the  stress of trying to ensure thieving bastards don’t intercept email transactions, basically don’t let solicitors act on emails account details, face to face is the only way 😉

    You can borrow from your ISA under certain conditions

    I also learned that you can borrow from your ISA, this helped me capitalise some of the second house. To do that it must be a flexible ISA – not all ISAs are but it so happened that my Charles Stanley one was, although my TD Direct ISA wasn’t. I use the CS ISA for index fund investing, basically world according to Kroijer  with an L&G FTSE World ExUK tracker, to lean against the UK bias of my shares, matched with VGLS100. I sold a hefty chunk of this and took it out, as long as I put it back by the end of March I still have my entire 20k allowance for this year. Which is pretty neat. What borrowing from your ISA won’t help you with is if you need to borrow money across the April change in the tax year – in that case you lose the tax shelter.

    All this means my ISA is about 30% in cash now. I’m not in that much of a hurry to restore it to what it was before because the markets are at a high, but I am still regularly buying the two funds back.

     
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