Housebuilders prepare for tough market conditions as lenders tighten mortgage criteria

Housebuilders in the UK are bracing themselves for greater market turbulence after the near collapse of US bank Bear Stearns.

The fifth biggest bank in the US, Bear Stearns was snapped up by JP Morgan for $240m (£119m) this week as the subprime crisis continued to cause havoc.

The rescue sent shockwaves through global lending markets. UK mortgage lenders are now expected to react by tightening lending criteria, particularly to first-time buyers. Michael Coogan, director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, said: “In the short term this is not going to make things any easier.”

He said lenders feared being burned by the falling price of city-centre flats, some of which have been repossessed at a loss.

Fionnuala Earley, chief economist for mortgage lender Nationwide, said the crisis had forced it to reassess its new year forecast for housing prices from flat growth to a 4% fall this year.

A senior housebuilding source said: “Given that we are still reeling from Northern Rock, of course this is of great concern to housebuilders. Further pressure on the availability of mortgages couldn’t come at a worse time as Easter is supposed to be the best selling period of the year.”

The issue with these banks is that they are all intertwined

John Dodds, Kier

David Miles, chief economist for Morgan Stanley, said traders were now betting on a 20% house price fall in the next two years.

John Dodds, chief executive of Kier, which has a £143m housing business, said it was a “very sensitive time”. He said: “The issue with these banks is that they are all intertwined. Trust appears to have disappeared. How it will repair itself, I don’t know, but somehow it must.”

Tony Pidgley, chief executive of Berkeley Homes, was more upbeat, saying the quick sale of the bank had prevented greater problems. “Sentiment is down, but they dealt with this quickly.”

Meanwhile, construction on Bear Stearns’ European headquarters at Canary Wharf, designed by HOK, was continuing as Building went to press.