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What if Britain leaves the EU?

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Mon 20 Jun 2016

What if Britain leaves the EU?

The sense of gathering momentum for the Leave campaign ahead of the upcoming EU referendum is causing high levels of uncertainty in the UK housing market, as many ‘nervous’ buyers and sellers adopt a wait and see policy, causing activity in the market to slow and property price growth to cool.

Both buyers and sellers are clearly anxious, as reflected by a noteworthy drop in sales market activity, while landlords, much like the rest of the British public, are evenly divided on how they will vote in the EU referendum, according to research from the National Landlords Association (NLA). Jo Eccles, managing director at Sourcing Property, reports that the prospect of a Brexit has caused divided reaction amongst buyers, with UK-based buyers falling into two camps.

“Our family clients are buying as normal, whether it’s that they have to move to upsize, or be closer to certain schools. We call these ‘necessity purchases’ and the upcoming referendum has had very little impact on this part of the market,” she said. “With our other UK buyers, who don’t necessarily need to buy now, they’re also holding off to see what the outcome is,” Eccles (left) added.

According to estate agency Haart, new buyer demand fell by 5% in May, while the volume of agreed transactions dropped by 3.9% as prices rose by just 0.8% month-on-month, down from the 1% rise reported in April.

Haart’s findings are supported by the latest study by the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) which shows that demand for residential property across the UK has fallen to one of the lowest levels on record as prospective buyers and sellers postpone investment ahead of the EU referendum. The latest examining of housing market activity revealed a sharp slowdown in demand for homes across the UK, owed largely to the looming referendum as well as the recent buy-to-let stamp duty changes.

“Should we vote to leave, then this will create ongoing uncertainty as the UK seeks to agree a way forwards with the EU,” said Camilla Dell (right), managing partner at Black Brick.

Even in the new homes market, activity has slowed, with the Berkeley Group the latest housebuilder to report that home reservations have plummeted – down by 20% in the first five months of this year amid Brexit vote uncertainty. “The upcoming EU referendum means we’ve entered a period of uncertainty, as buyers put off their hunt in anticipation of the result,” said Mark Hayward, managing director, NAEA. Almost a quarter (24%) of estate agents expect house prices to decrease and a further one in four (23%) expect demand to decrease if Britain votes to leave the EU in June. This view is shared by many homeowners.

Long road to recovery

The majority of Britons who fear that the price of their property will fall if Britain leaves the EU believe that the road to recovery will not always be easy.

A YouGov survey of 1,735 UK adults revealed that 61% of Britons who think that their house price will decrease if Britain exits the EU believe that it will take at least five years for UK house prices to recover from the impact that the change will have on the UK property market and wider economy. Graham Wellesley, founder and chief executive of Wellesley Finance, said: “These figures show that people across the UK are deeply worried about how their properties will be affected if Britain votes to leave the EU later this month.”

Brexit would put investments at risk

It has been suggested that up to £900bn worth of property investment in this country could be at risk of harm if the UK votes to leave the EU, according to a separate survey of more than 3,000 individual investors.

The study by online equity crowdfunding platform SyndicateRoom assessed how the upcoming EU referendum will affect individual investors and found that almost half of the investments at risk in the event of a Brexit are believed to be in the property market. “At SyndicateRoom, we want to help individuals increase their net wealth through equity investment – and based on this research, it appears that is more likely and more achievable if the UK remains part of the EU,” said Goncalo de Vasconcelos, CEO and co-founder of SyndicateRoom.

Jamie Lester (pictured), head of Haus Properties, also thinks that a vote to remain should see the property market return to normal fairly quickly, while “it remains to be seen what exactly the impact will be if Britain leaves the EU”. Either way, he thinks that the market will “stabilise” once the general public is able to “understand and adapt” to the changes.

Room for growth

Regardless of whether or not the UK opts to remain in the EU, Paul Smith, CEO of Haart, believes that the UK, particularly London, will remain a safe haven for property investment, once the uncertainty is over.

“It is the uncertainty around our status in the EU that is causing the market to stagnate, once we know the outcome, regardless of what it is, the property market will become reinvigorated,” he said.

“In the long term, house prices will bounce back once more as the age-old problem of a disparity between the amount of stock available and the number of buyers competing rears its head,” added Smith (right).

His views are supported by the latest survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), which shows that house prices in the UK are expected to rise further regardless of whether Britain opts to remain or leave.

Despite growing uncertainty ahead of the looming EU vote, many experts still expect to see house prices end the year higher.

Residential property prices are set to increase faster than UK inflation and outstrip average pay gains, making the homeownership dream even harder for the average first-time buyer, a recent Reuters poll found.

But the research does show that the decision to remain a part of the EU or exit the 28-member bloc will impact on the level of capital growth.

If Britain stays in, house prices are expected to rise by 5% this year, the poll of 17 experts taken in the past few weeks found, far outstripping the 0.7% inflation forecast by economists in a separate recent Reuters poll.

Next year and the year after, prices are forecast to increase about 4%, compared with corresponding inflation forecasts of 1.7% and 2%.

In the event Britain votes to leave the EU, prices will almost certainly still rise, albeit at a slower rate of 3.8% this year, but stay flat in 2017 before picking up 2% in 2018, the Reuters poll found.

The poll of experts pours scorn on the Chancellor George Osborne’s claim that a vote to leave the EU would have a ‘major hit’ on residential property prices across the UK.

Doomsday predictions

The scare tactics being adopted by the government to keep Britain in the EU has seen the Chancellor warn about the short-term impact of Brexit, insisting that property prices could drop significantly if voters opt to leave the EU on 23 June.

He recently insisted that a UK exit from the European Union could cause house prices to nosedive.

Property prices have been at the forefront of the EU debate in recent weeks, with the Chancellor claiming that the value of homes in the UK could fall by as much as 18% following a Brexit vote.

Based on the average price of a home in the UK, Osborne’s forecast suggests that the average residential property could fall in value by more than £50,000 within two years of the vote in comparison with what it would be if the UK stayed in the EU.

But some say that Osborne’s predictions are rather bold, given that there is a severe housing shortage in this country.

Nevertheless, the reality is that there is nothing that spooks markets more than uncertainty, as was evident in the run-up to the Scottish referendum in 2014, when the housing market north of the border ground to a virtual halt.

“These have been turbulent times and uncertainty is the very thing that the property market hates,” said Saul Empson from Haringtons UK.

Empson (left) believes that if Britain votes to stay in Europe, “we are likely to get more of the same property market that we have had - more people coming into London than leaving, fewer properties for sale thanks to George Osborne having raised the transaction costs to punitive levels”.

“If we leave, this is unknown territory, and the only certainty is that Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or George Galloway don’t know the answer."

“So from a purely property point of view, we’re swapping Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known, unknowns’ for ‘unknown, unknowns’. And that is without asking the question as to what effect President Trump might have on the world.”

Last month, the chief executive of Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, also warned that a Brexit could place downward pressure on property prices in the UK, especially in the capital, not to mention push up interest rates.

She told the press that a vote to leave the 28-member bloc in the looming referendum could lead to a sharp drop in the amount of foreign investment into London’s property market from abroad.

“My personal view is that property prices would be likely to come down, as inward investment, particularly in London, is less available,” she said. “The risk on a Brexit is I think that property prices come down and interest rates go up.”

Britain will survive outside the EU

Despite concerns that a Brexit will have an adverse impact on the housing market, many property experts, such as Trevor Abrahmsohn at Glentree Estates, believe that the UK housing market will do well outside of Europe.

“I think that the chancellor must believe that the British electorate have all just ‘come off the onion boat’ and that we are too stupid to make sense of what is going on,” he said.

“The government is blaming every element of bad economic news on the Brexit campaign.”

While accepting that trying to second guess which path the property market will take off the back of the political landscape is “purely speculative”, Brendan Cox, managing director of Waterfords, does “not foresee any immediate change in the market” in the event of a Brexit.

“A British exit from the EU could take a decade to negotiate and research suggests that the process will be long and uncertain,” he said.

However, if the UK were no longer tied to EU regulations and attracted more local investment, “the property market could also benefit”, added Cox (right).

He continued: “Forecasters warn that house prices could fall by up to 25% if we exit the EU, but others argue this would bring prices to a more 'sustainable' level in relation to disposable income, which would also provide greater opportunity for first-time buyers.

New housing supply

While a Brexit may present would-be purchasers with fresh opportunities, especially those seeking a first foot on the housing ladder, some experts fear that an ‘out’ vote will have a devastating impact on the UK economy and reduce the level of new housing supply, as many housebuilders will be less willing to commit to new projects due to the uncertain economic climate.

Andy Hill, chief executive at housebuilder Hill, commented: “A Brexit would have severe consequences for the British property industry and economy in general. As Europe’s largest powerhouse, our economy is very much strengthened by our position within the EU, which brings numerous benefits that largely outweigh the costs. Exiting this arrangement will likely result in a largescale slowdown that I believe will take many years to recover from.”

The government’s target of building 1m new homes over this parliament will also become an unrealistic one, according to Hill.

“It is widely acknowledged that we need to build more homes more quickly, with more than 1m required by 2020. Without investment coming into the UK at current levels however and demand diminishing significantly, developers would likely pull away from building more homes and this figure will be incredibly difficult to meet.”

Chris Nelson, co-founder and partner of Cumbria- based developer egg Homes is also of the opinion that the UK shouldn’t leave the EU, “ because our economy is not strong enough to handle all of the implications that could come with the decision”.

“There will, without doubt, be an immediate financial impact following an exit, across all sectors of the construction industry,” he added. “Perhaps long-term, once new trade deals and agreements are put in place with individual European countries, and this could take years, things should go back to normal and we could even be in a stronger position, but the immediate impact is too big a gamble in my opinion.”

Skill shortages

The single biggest challenge for housebuilders is the lack of skilled workers in the UK, and Bob Weston (right), chairman of housebuilder Weston Homes, fears that that an exit from the EU will “exasperate the problem”, if it restricts free movement of people across Europe.

He commented: “Some 80% of the people working on our sites inside the M25 are not of British decent and 60% outside the M25. Who is going to build the extra 100,000 new homes a year that the Government says we need?”

Tony Pidgley, chairman of the Berkelely Group, has also offered his support to the pro-European campaign.

“The outcome of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is significant for the UK's housebuilding and property sector,” he said.

“Berkeley supports a vote to remain in the EU. London's status as the world’s best big city is underpinned by labour mobility, cultural diversity and a constant influx of talent and investment from around the world, and the UK economy in turn is powered by the success of our capital city.”

Summary

While uncertainty has certainly suppressed activity in the housing over the last few weeks, the good news is that the EU referendum has been a relatively short campaign, compared to say the Scottish referendum two years ago.

In the longer term, solid arguments can be made on each side, but regardless of whether the UK votes to stay in or out of the 28-member bloc, the fact is that there is a severe housing shortage that will almost certainly drive home price up further in the medium to long term, but the rate of growth may very well hinge on the outcome of the vote.