As the various house price indicies trickle in with their indications of what happened to house prices and the housing market in February one thing remains certain – you’d be foolish to draw too many conclusions from them about the likely path ahead.
Analysis of the December, January and February data has been clouded by the big freeze in December. And there remains considerable uncertainty over how much the big squeeze from public sector spending cuts has already hit demand and what the overall impact will be on the market and ultimately house prices.
What we see on the face of it appear to be mixed messages.
And the picture gets even more mixed when we add in other numbers such as those for mortgage approvals.
So what do we have?
Rightmove shows asking prices up because in part, says Rightmove director Miles Shipside, most sellers can hold out until they get the right buyer.
Nationwide showed a 0.3% bounce in February after a 0.1% drop in January. But, says its chief economist Robert Gardner, the market is still treading water.
Hometrack on the other hand showed prices dropping again in February by 0.2%, although that was less than the falls of 0.5% in January and 0.4% in December. But it did show a big leap in demand, especially in the South. Hometrack’s director of Research Richard Donnell suggests the outlook for the market is finely balanced. With supply in check, he says, it will be demand that will have the greatest impact on prices.
And today we see the Halifax figures which show house prices down 0.9% in February after a 0.8% rise in January, which broadly leaves prices flat over the first two months of the year. Halifax’s housing economist Martin Ellis suggests that there are fewer properties coming onto the market which should prevent a significant fall in prices.
So if we take all this pile of data and suggestions together along with other indicators, such as mortgage lending which was similarly dull in December and January, we see a seemingly fragile market currently holding stable.
The real question comes back to the economy and the uncertainty over how much people have already battened down the hatches as the fears of the spending cuts begin to hit home and how they may behave in the coming months when the reality strikes more widely.
Fear over job security and the general economy may prove to be a strong force restricting demand and unsettling those who would otherwise be considering moving into the housing market. The question is how much will the uncertainly drain demand, given there will be pent up demand as a result of transactions being so low for so long.
What we do know is that with relatively low mortgage rates, as they are now, unsuccessful sellers are more able to take their properties off the market – and, say, rent them – in the hope of selling at a higher price later. This will restrict supply.
The question here is when and if mortgage rates rise, how will this change the willingness of reluctant landlords or wait-and-see sellers to hold off from finally selling.
The consensus does tend to lean towards a fairly flat, perhaps slightly downward market, this year, with the southern market stronger than the northern. But there are some unsettling downside risks for sellers.
More problematic for the construction industry, though, is that this all points to a continued low level of transactions and that tends to point to a low level of new homes built.
For house builders, meanwhile, that is kind of what they expect and is definitely what they are geared up for.