Nigel Lewis is an experienced property journalist and head of content for the Digital Property Group (the owners of FindaProperty, Primelocation and Globrix). Read on for an interesting take on why Brits are obsessed with property, the future of home-ownership and Government confusion.
You began working, as a journalist, covering the property market right at the start of the most recent boom. Property prices were leading the news and everybody seemed to want to claim their stake in what appeared to be something of a gold rush. Did you “happen into” property journalism… or was the market something you were already interested in?
I had covered a variety of subjects before coming to property, including fishing, motoring and personal finance, but was then invited to join a property dotcom during the late 1990s called smove.com – now defunct – and I immediately warmed to bricks and mortar. But I was then offered a job at the Daily Mail working on its property pages. I love writing about bricks and mortar because it’s so wide ranging, covering personal stories, celebrity moves, government policy and construction, planning – I could go on. But I don’t remember readers and the media being quite so obsessed with house prices then as they are now.
Was anybody questioning the wisdom of house price gains of 20% in 12 months?
I am old enough to have witnessed and worked through two property downturns and during the run up to the current one, or the ‘gold rush’ you refer to, experiences from the previous downturn were ignored by both home owners and many in the industry, not to mention most property writers and that included, sometimes, me. When people’s homes are rising in value so fast, it’s hard to persuade national newspaper editors to calm down – it is a good story at the end of the day.
The period was also characterised by the rise of the popular property TV show, and of the powerful online property portal. You’ve worked for both… do you think television and technology have shaped or altered the British public’s relationship with property?
A regular contributor to the Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, FT, Daily Mail, Independent, Guardian, Observer and others, Graham Norwood is without doubt the UK's most prolific property journalist. We're delighted he agreed to take part in this summer's Rat and Mouse interview series.
If nobody’s ever described you before as the James Brown of property journalism, arguably the hardest working writer in the business, then let me be the first. When and in what circumstances did you start writing about the residential property market?
James Brown huh? Nice compliment but way too flattering - any freelance journalist making a decent living out of writing has to work a lot these days. I began writing about property back in 1999 as I was leaving the BBC and just as the British love affair with home ownership was being consummated. Since then, it’s been full time residential journalism, with four books along the way.
What explains the British obsession with homeownership, compared to, say, the attitude of some of our European neighbours?
Britons are peculiarly individualistic. Owning a book and leaving it to gather dust after we read it is much more popular than borrowing one and passing it to others afterwards, hence the demise of some libraries. Likewise we prefer owning a home over renting one - even if in some circumstances (early and late adult life, in particular) the flexibility of renting makes more sense. But it’s changing, slowly.
Ironically Thatcher made home ownership a symbol of achievement, and then her political lovechild Blair tried to get us all to feel good about it. Now David Cameron’s term in office may see the rise of rental accommodation - if for no other reason than that he appears reluctant to get financial institutions to lend to younger buyers.
For the Rat and Mouse, the inherent contradictions and self-deception of the British relationship with property are fascinating and largely inspired the blog. Houses are both hugely emotional purchases and important personal investments… and the two don’t necessarily mix very well. I was wondering if you’ve seen any changes in the way Brits view their homes during the years you’ve been writing on the subject?
Apparently, "letting is the new sales", the Government missed a trick in 08 by failing to create "a more interesting bank" and the public need to get used to the idea of selling for less (and buying for less, too). Kicking off this year's Rat and Mouse interview series, somebody we've quoted many a time in the past but never before had the chance to chat with, so… so we've been exited about this. Douglas & Gordon's Ed Mead is one of the country's most outspoken and interesting estate agents, an expert on the London market, he's on the board of the Property Ombudsman and he's the man I'd want overseeing the sale of my house.
I love this, from your blog’s “About me” page: “I've been an agent for over 30 years now and have gained a good reputation for saying things as they are. This can occasionally commercially disadvantage me, but really I don't give a t*** as at least I can sleep at night.” The suggestion is that you’re a bit of a lone voice. Critics of the market have long accused journalists and agents of being co-conspirators in propping up the market. Any truth in that?
I know some journalists and some estate agents are arrogant but in the same way King Canute thought he could stop the tide anyone that seriously thinks they can affect the market is mad. Everyone is tired (and it’s partly why people think all estate agents are thick) of hearing agents talking the market up. What’s wrong with giving accurate up-to-date info?
What led you into estate agency?
I got chucked out of Bristol Uni and didn’t have a huge number of options. Luckily I have a brain so have done okay.
Is it a tough job if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to toe the line? Or are there circumstances in which standing out a little can be an advantage?
Regular Rat and Mouse readers will know I've been doing this annually for a few years now... taking a couple of weeks off in the summer and running a series of interviews with the great, the good and the downright infuriating of the UK property scene. In the past, it's proved extremely popular, and so I'm hoping this year's series, kicking off very shortly, will be fun for everyone concerned. There won't be a new post every day (expect two or three new interviews a week), but I'll be back and covering the occasional breaking news story when I just can't help myself. See you soon... x
Home Bunch - a fun American interior design blog written by somebody who proves not all bloggers have to look like this - has featured a London property in its "Cool or Fool?" Friday feature (in which readers get to slug it out over an interior design "statement"). It's a remarkable home, and the way lovely Luciane found it leads to another interesting website. First off, the place looks like this:
There are a whole load more pictures over on her blog. Okay, to many of you I'm sure this looks like an unusual room; over at the Rat and Mouse HQ, we're just wondering where the rest of the restrain furniture's kept, because... one sexual ragdoll at a time? That's so 2010.
Luciane discovered the property at 1st-Option, a completely addictive site aimed at location scouts. It's packed with fascinating properties, many of them in London, and I suggest you head there right now if you've some time to waste.
Incidentally, the above property is "Wonderland", and it's in NW3.
In other words hoover your home, price it at a discount and employ an estate agent who knows what they're doing. The campaign follows figures showing that 70% of properties brought to the market in the first half of the year are still unsold. Here's a little film:
It's hard to argue with that. But the practise has always been much rarer among private vendors, anyway, and the bank says it will continue to accept the practise from developers as long as there's full disclosure on the mortgage application. Another demonstration of the continuing uneasy relationship between lenders, developers and surveyors? More on vendor gifted deposits here.
Following publication of the most recent MPC meeting minutes, Capital Economics joins a host of other analysts to talk down any chatter about an imminent rate rise. Except Capital Economics - as usual - knows just how to grab the headlines:
If you're within twenty miles of Kate Middleton's new Kensington Palace Gardens home, then it's probably just the $1500 of air fresheners she's said to have purchased for the property. I like the way the Americans call it a "cottage".
It's apparently had more than 40 viewings in a fortnight, and - we've got to admit - once we get over the £700,000 price tag and come to terms with the fact that its Cheval Place location and parking place make this guide price kind of inevitable... it's pretty cute. On the ground floor: a single garage, kitchen, toilet; above: living room/bedroom. It'll need work. There's no proper bathroom, although most are apparently attracted by the parking, and see the room above as a possible office. Particulars, here.
He's awaiting a decision by Kensington & Chelsea council on plans to redevelop a former clothing warehouse in Chelsea, creating offices, home and courtyard. This isn't a purely personal project (he's already developing a property down the road, which he'll call home; this looks like a proper experiment in property development. The council have made encouraging noises; much to the chagrin of the Chelsea Society. More here.
And prices are - according to the piece - rising at particularly alarming rates, leaving anyone renting in the borough with the idea of swooping on a family home as soon as it hits the market in a very expensive position.
It's in Hampstead (Inverforth House), it's already been the subject of a bit of a fuss over a roof terrace hot tub and on the market as a £6,000 a week let. Now, it's for sale, with a guide price of £3.95m. Four bedrooms, double garage, lots of terraces, some extravagant fittings and fixtures and the same bedspread it had two years ago. Go here for the particulars.
Our publisher looks at a growing crisis - not just in the former Eastern Bloc countries, but taking in some British investors, too - as the Swiss franc adds an exchange rate burden to mortgages... in his guest column for Citywire.
At the heart of the row, Diana Lindsay's belief that her daughter's married a money-grabbing wastrel. Her argument is based on the fact that when the house was bought, she contributed over a quarter of a million pounds, her daughter put up... hmm... £19,000. Yes, the property's registered in the daughter's name, but - insists the mother - that's a mere technicality. It's an interesting and heartwarming story that's bound to fill the liquor cabinet on a lawyer's yacht.
Remember how Google was at one point dabbling in the property search game? They've pretty much given up on that now, and so presumably took their eyes off the game long enough for one quick-thinking property blogger in the US to buy this.
Brixton's famous Clifton Mansions - home around 50 creative squatters with CVs in the arts for more than a decade - were cleared by police yesterday in a violent exercise that appears to have riled not just the squatters but, we're hearing, their neighbours, too. News that the council will now be paying "live-in guardians" to protect the flats before they can be redeveloped and sold on hasn't won them any fans. More here. According to this (which also features a photograph of what appears to be Superman, cleverly disguised as a squatter, flying above the heads of shocked policemen) the last day at the CM squat wasn't its most glorious, after a party, advertised on Facebook, degenerated into violence and theft.
The Government's own index - late, but based on real transaction figures - shows prices down by 0.5% in May, leaving them down 1.6% over the year. Interestingly, new properties seemed to do better than "pre-owned", rising 7.8% over 12 months. Download your own copy, here.
Every time Mervyn King rubbishes inflation (it's about temporary fuel price hikes, it's about VAT changes, it's about commodity prices), read it as a hint that interest rates are unlikely to be going anywhere fast in the near future. The latest:
The Independent on Sunday reports on rising applications for council housing (up 23% on last year), rising repossessions (up 17% in the first quarter), rising housing association rents, rising numbers of people (40,000 at the last count) facing homelessness as a result of the housing benefit cap. There are some interesting case studies.
Acadametrics and LSL Property Services produce an index based on Land Registry data (hence the delay) and other sources into a proprietary magic number, which they then publish. This month... property prices fall again (the third consecutive month), by 0.8% (in London, -1.4%) from May to June, leaving the index down 1.4% on the year and at its lowest point in 18 months. Transactions were up. Accompanying comment blames inflation and higher taxes.
People aren't moving, we know that, so - according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors - they're "improving"... making their homes bigger, better, more comfortable. Now RICS warns homeowners to think hard before spending their cash. Renovation isn't necessarily going to add value. More here. But what if they're improving their properties for their own comfort, rather than a future buyer's? Ridiculous, I know, but just saying.
In the States, the Huffington Post has a reputation for digging deeper and rewarding readers with a reveal they won't find elsewhere. This - on house prices - isn't a great start for the UK version. Yes, the newspapers largely take a one-sided view of house prices; no, wildly inflating property prices that leave wages behind are not a good thing; yes, it's an iniquitous situation for a generation of first-time buyers. But to suggest these aren't issues most intelligent readers haven't already considered is patronising, and to suggest business/the economy would profit from a "crash" - hurling countless hard-working young families like the author's own into negative equity; leaving older people unable to cash in and pay for care/their old age - is silly. Nobody profits from a "crash". Except the author, perhaps.
It's this that's caused the fuss. A double space in an underground car park on Basil Street, Knightsbridge, with a guide price of £200,000 and currently under offer. The price of an average UK home? £163,049, according to the latest HBOS index, which actually surprised everybody by rising 1.2% on the month, still leaving the three month average down 3.5% on where it was a year ago.
According to experts, the latest cuts are from jobs that might not be coming back at all -- or at least, not any time soon. Since the beginning of 2011, Goldman Sachs cut 5% of its staff, Credit Suisse shed 400-600 jobs and Barclays pink-slipped 700 people. More layoffs are in the pipeline.
But over here the streets are paved with gold:
In the UK, recruitment in the financial sector rose unexpectedly in the last three months, to its highest level since before the financial crisis began in September 2007, according to a report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and CBI.
Estate agents, steel yourselves for some expert negotiators.
And they wonder why the Brits are obsessed with property investment. It's Gilston Lodge, last on the market in 1958 when it sold for £5,000. Now, this detached six-bedroom house with garage right in the heart of Chelsea is one of the area's hot property's, creating more than a little excitement and expected to fetch in excess of £8.5m. Whoever buys it will need even deeper pockets, though, as it will need a few more million spent on refurbishment. The house has received 50 viewings in three weeks, and will go to sealed bids. Particulars here.
If we'd had our wits better about us we'd have brought you some news before the fact of Design Summit 11, a fascinating Design Council production that featured such names as Jonathan Ive and Kevin McCloud, talking about the role the UK design sector can and must play in restoring growth the economy . However what we can do is bring you this link to a rich library of films from the event.
According to research by EC Harris, here, there is luxury property worth £21bn in the form of 9,000 individual units due to reach the market by the end of the decade. Benefits claimants might be about to find it hard to settle anywhere within the M25, but it's surely good news that the scarcity of super-prime apartments for wealthy overseas buyers is at least being addresses, and no longer will we have to step over homeless oligarchs on our way to work.
Over 5,000 Westminster households will be affected by the changes and for the majority their current rents will be unaffordable. There are a significant range of variables around the impact of the changes including uncertainty about the response of the private rental market but it is likely that a sizeable proportion of these households will need to move with many of them leaving Westminster when the caps affect current claimants during 2012. Moving out of the borough is likely to be problematic for families with children at critical schooling points and elderly and disabled individuals.
The warning is from a council report, quoted by the Guardian here. According to the report, 81% of council tax recipients in the borough are receiving more than the proposed housing benefit cap. Are we about to see a huge change in central London's residential social profile?