The need to assess the buy-to-let market

by Christopher Evans

When it comes to making decisions about property investment, the market at present may be somewhat lacking in clarity. While some are sure that the future is bright, others are anything but certain.

One example of the former is chairman of change of address service Simon Preston. Earlier this week he argued that house prices will probably not fall much further and now is a good time to invest.

He stated: "I would think that if you want to buy residential property for reasonable capital gain, then [buying] something in the next 12 months makes sense. Leave it much longer than that and it will start to climb back up."

Mr Preston also pointed to the low cost of borrowing at present as another favourable factor, something that may remain in situ for some time yet.

In its minutes published yesterday, the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee revealed that the decision at this month's meeting to hold the base rate at 0.5 per cent was unanimous.

It may be reasoned that the rate cannot go any lower, so the next move will be a rise - although that could be some time away.

For that reason, one thing buyers are increasingly doing is taking out fixed-rate mortgages, to protect against increases in the base rate in coming years.

Broker John Charcol revealed this week that 80.9 per cent of home loans applied for by its customers in March were fixed, up from 67.4 per cent in February. In December, by contrast, the figure had been only 29.1 per cent.

That may characterise the nature of borrowing at present. Another fact which does so is the increase in mortgages.

Further evidence of this has been produced by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML), showing that gross lending was up 16 per cent in March to £11.5 billion, compared with £9.9 billion in February.

CML director general Michael Coogan's response was representative of the more cautious view. He stated: "While the market is beginning to show some signs of stabilising, housing transactions and lending are set to remain low for the foreseeable future."

Yet fresh figures from HM Revenue & Customs may contradict this. These showed that there was a 40 per cent rise in house sales for homes worth over £40,000 in March - from the February total of 43,000 to 60,000.

Such a rise, coupled with other positive news, may indeed persuade some that better times are on the way and that now is the time to move.

This week's Budget may have brought a further dose of good news.

While calls such as the one Mr Coogan made for the lowest house price threshold for stamp duty to be set at £250,000 fell on deaf ears, chancellor Alistair Darling did extend the temporary increase in the threshold from £125,000 to £175,000 - which was due to expire in September after being in place for one year - until the end of 2009.

Such a move may or may not be relevant to any given property transaction, depending on the price, but for those keen to get involved with investing again or simply hoping to move house, the recent developments in the market may, for all the caution of some, have given rise to hope of better times ahead.

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Published on: April 23, 2009

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