Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Property Market – nowhere to call home

House prices are distorted by demand from investors and governments are making the situation worse

Houses have become so much more than homes and many of us are missing out as a result.  More than just a place to live, houses have become the investment option of choice during turbulent times.  The popularity of investment properties means that buyers looking for a home are being crowded out of the market.  Rather than correcting this distortion, government policies typically make things worse and leave the dream of their own home beyond the hopes of many.

No home sweet home

The property market is never far from any topic of conversation.  Since everybody needs a place to live, it affects us all.  The substantial price tag that comes with buying a house would be enough to weigh on anyone’s mind.  But property purchases take on even greater significance as real estate also counts as a form of saving for the future.  The money tied up in property is the biggest investment that many of us make.  This means that the ups and downs of the housing market shape the financial well-being of many families. 

The predominance of property investment is further accentuated as buy-to-lets become increasingly popular as a means of putting ones wealth to work.  The abstract nature of shares and bonds along with the shenanigans in the financial markets makes property seem like the safe-as-houses option.  Yet this extra source of demand for real estate inflates house prices beyond their value as a mere place to live.  Investment in real estate brings benefits, such as providing rental accommodation and improvements to neglected properties, but the costs also mount as investment in property increases.

With a relatively fixed amount of housing in large cities, one person’s buy-to-let gets in the way of a house becoming a permanent home.  Along with the benefits to home owners, neighbourhoods also have a greater sense of community with stable residents.  The higher house prices due to property investment results in home ownership being coupled with a larger amount of mortgage debt.  This makes the property ladder more tenuous for debt-laden buyers who could easily be caught out by any economic hardship.

Need to make room for more

Governments, which could work to limit these negative consequences, tend to only exacerbate the problem.  Policies targeting the real estate market differ across countries – tax breaks for mortgage debt, low levels of capital gains tax, easier access to loans.  But the common thread is that it is all too tempting for governments to please better off voters by bolstering the property market.  The predominance of monetary policy as the main tool for managing the economy makes this even worse by stoking up borrowing (and the property market) when the economy is weak. 

While pushing up demand, governments do too little to boost supply.  It is more housing that is often cited by politicians as the solution to buoyant property prices but government regulations and zoning rules are not reflective of the growing need for new houses.  Houses take too long to build while elections are never far off even though more building would make for good economic policy at a time when the economy is still suffering from a shortfall in demand.

Financial markets are awash with other places to invest.  Our animal spirits should be limited to parts of the economy where the ups and downs can be absorbed without wider consequences for the rest of us.  Housing is too important to get caught up in such investment games.

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