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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 March, 2005, 17:25 GMT
The Great House Price Crash 2005?
By Hannah Liptrot
BBC Money Programme

After a decade of defying gravity, house prices look set to come down to earth.

Adrian Manic's home in Ashford, Middlesex
Mr Manic paid 165,000 for a two-bedroom shop conversion

But will it be a soft-landing for Britain's longest ever property boom, or are we in for a house price crash?

It seemed they would keep going up forever. For nine years house prices have surged ahead with barely a wobble, almost trebling since 1996.

Thousands of ordinary homeowners have watched their wealth increase as the value of their home has soared.

The promise of profit from bricks and mortar has created a generation desperate to buy, at any cost. Adrian Manic, 27, started looking for his first home in January 2004.

"I needed to get on the property ladder," he remembers. "It wasn't a case of spending six or eight months to find a place, because in eight months' time they'd have gone up another 10 grand."

'Dream home'

Mr Manic took out a mortgage for 4.2 times his salary and borrowed a further 15,000 from his father to raise the 165,000 he needed to buy a two-bedroom shop conversion in Ashford, Middlesex.

Tim Ashton who sold his house to rent
Tim Ashton sold his house to rent

With no front door, a derelict house next door and a windowless living room, it wasn't exactly his dream home, but that wasn't the point.

"It would go up in price, I could sell it, buy a larger place that would go up in value, then I could sell that and on and on until I ended up with my dream home in the country or something," he explains.

The bad news for Adrian is that the house price boom of the last nine years appears to be finally over, putting an end to his hopes of trading up.

"I'd always dreamed of having a proper home with a garden and a garage, now it looks like I'm going to be stuck in this flat."

The first real signs of a slowdown came in June 2004, when Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, spoke in public about his concerns for the housing market.

"Anyone entering or moving within the housing market should consider carefully the possible future paths of both house prices and interest rates," he said in a speech in Glasgow.

House prices have been rising since the mid-1990s
Can anone predict when the UK housing market will stop rising?

The comment, coming on the back of four interest rate rises in seven months, had an immediate effect.

"We saw visitor numbers to our offices decrease dramatically," remembers estate agent Simon Wilkinson, based in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.

"Hits to our website fell through the floor, the telephones simply stopped ringing."

'Sell-to-rent'

The UK's largest property website, Rightmove, also felt the impact. Visits to its site dropped 7% in the week following Mr King's comments.

By August interest rates had hit 4.75% and the Halifax's monthly price index recorded a house price fall.

Uncertainty about the direction of rates and house prices has introduced caution into the market.

And it's not just prospective buyers who are bailing out.

I think house prices will fall from peak to trough by around 20%
Roger Bootle, Capital Economics

The latest trend in the housing market sees homeowners actually jumping off the ladder; it's a trend called "sell-to-rent".

Tim Ashton is a typical sell-to-renter. He bought his home in 1999 for 125,000 and 4 years later, convinced that prices were about to fall, he sold it for 220,000.

But, instead of buying a new house, he thought it would be better to rent.

"While it was risky being out of the market it was no riskier than being in," he says.

'Struggling'

For those that are in, and have borrowed a lot to get in, the interest rate rises are starting to hit home.

"We are struggling at the moment, just keeping our heads above water," says Olivia Sayfritz, a home-owner from south London.

Mrs Sayfritz and her husband have seen their monthly mortgage payments increase by almost 400 because of rising interest rates.

"If interest rates were to go up again, it would have quite a significant impact on us," she says.

Bank of England Governor, Mervyn King
Mervyn King may not have finished raising interest rate rises just yet

Confidence is dented, and some borrowers are feeling the squeeze, but experts are still arguing about where the market is heading.

Will the current cooling give way to steeply falling prices in a house price crash, or will there be a so-called "soft landing" where prices simply stagnate?

Roger Bootle, managing director of Capital Economics, is convinced houses are overvalued and the only way is down.

"I think house prices will fall from peak to trough by around 20%." he says.

"I suspect it will be strung out over a number of years, maybe two, maybe three years, and this year - the first year of falls - maybe it'll be 5 or 6%."

'Dull market'

But David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times, thinks low interest rates and a steady economy make such dramatic falls unlikely.

"What we are going to see is modest or no rises in house prices. A very dull market in some ways. A house price crash in the absence of an economic recession? It just doesn't happen in the UK."

Meanwhile, many, like Adrian Manic, are wondering if they jumped in too soon.

"Now that prices are going down I am thinking I was foolish."

However, the Sayfritz family is still holding on to its property dreams.

"I think long term it will pay off," says Andrew Sayfritz. "The trick is to be able to meet rising costs in the meantime."

And, as prices stall and confidence wavers, can any of us dare to believe the longest property boom in UK history will end not with a bang, but a whimper?

The Great House Price Crash 2005? was broadcast on BBC Two on Friday, 4 March at 1900 GMT.




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