The Boom Generation Wakes Up to Reality ; PROPERTY_As Prices Falter and Interest Rates Rise, Housing No Longer Looks Such a Safe Investment. by Laura Howard

Article excerpt

For a new generation of homeowners, house prices have only ever gone in one direction: up. Many have spent the past decade watching as the value of their home has soared; according to Halifax, the average property in the UK today costs [pound]196,535, nearly three times as much as in 1997.

Most people who have bought their first home since then are sitting on valuable equity and can be easily forgiven for believing that, as an investment, property is little short of a dead cert.

A housing boom - the result of low interest rates, a buoyant economy and high employment - has given many homeowners new wealth that has in turn led to further investment in property.

With wannabe property speculators eager to take out buy-to-let loans, the UK housing market has grown dramatically. Price rises in some parts of London topped 20 per cent last year.

But some of these bricks and mortar investors may recently have begun to feel the winds of change. Three weeks ago, the Halifax quarterly house price index showed actual falls in average property prices during May, June and July this year in three parts of the UK. In the West Midlands, the South-west and Wales, property depreciated by 1.1 per cent, 0.4 per cent and 2.8 per cent respectively.

Martin Ellis, chief economist at the Halifax, called these dips "indicative of a general cooling of the housing market", following on from five quarter-point rises in interest rates in the past year. The last time negative movements in property prices were recorded by the bank was, he added, in the first quarter of 2005 (this too was a result of a spate of rate rises the previous year - from 3.75 per cent to 4.75 per cent).

Others in the property sector are predicting further price falls elsewhere. They believe the "rate rise medicine" administered by the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England, led by its Governor, Mervyn King, has not yet had the full effect of putting up borrowing costs sufficiently to curb inflation in the housing market and the wider economy.

Many millions of homeowners have yet to feel the sting of rising interest rates, being sheltered by fixed-rate mortgages. More than 50 per cent of home loans are currently on a fixed rate, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders. But between 75 and 80 per cent of these cheap deals are fixed for two years only.

Over the next 18 months, the CML estimates that more than two million borrowers will be coming off this type of mortgage - and straight into a much less borrowing-friendly interest rate environment.

According to Halifax, a borrower with a [pound]114,000 mortgage who took out a two-year fix in 2005 at 5.08 per cent faces an increase in monthly payments of around [pound]65 (or 10 per cent) if they take out another two-year fix when their deal expires this year. …