Trouble in the home

Media scepticism and a string of negative industry surveys have become the bane of housebuilders’ lives in recent months. Most of them, with the exception of Countryside (which has issued two profits warnings in five months), would have us believe that they welcome the recent rises in interest rates. The result, they tell us, is a more sustainable housing market.

The problem is that it hasn’t staved off the jitters among first-time buyers. Whether they have simply been priced out of the market, or feel that now is the wrong time to buy because the market is about to crash, the statistics speak for themselves.

According to some in the City, a slowing market is not restricted to the luxury, £300,000 plus homes in London and the South-east, but has been caused by a growing malaise among first-time buyers.

It is people wanting urban two-bed flats who are wavering, while there remains a shortage of family homes.

Neil Woodford, fund manager at Invesco Perpetual, last week estimated that house prices will fall by 30-40% over the next four years, from an average of £153,700 to £92,200. Woodford, who manages £6bn of funds, said he would move away from housing and construction to stocks, such as tobacco.

The latest statistics from the House Builders Federation show that visitor numbers, reservations and prices all fell in August compared with the same month last year. Some analysts are also predicting falls for September.

Alastair Stewart, analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein said that recent statistics “could cast doubt on the housebuilders’ view that the sector is heading for a soft landing”.

He said: “At best, we believe the sector is heading for a period of low volumes. This could lead to further downgrades and potentially an industry shake-out.” But it’s likely that large volume housebuilders, including Persimmon, Barratt, Wilson Bowden, Bovis and Bellway will be winners, as will urban regeneration specialists, Berkeley and Crest Nicholson.

Shares in most of the major housebuilders dropped last week. Westbury was the worst hit with shares falling 5% to 389.25p.

The sector as a whole was affected, with construction and building materials shares dropping 1.6% to 2931. The All-Share rose 1%, to 2332.