SPECIAL FEATURE: London property prices will keep rising

The thing about asset price bubbles is that they’re only bubbles if they burst. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the London property market following the several government schemes launched in the past 18 months. A combination of Funding for Lending and Help to Buy has lent both financial and psychological support to the housing market and prices in the capital have recovered very strongly.

But let’s actually look at the numbers. Mortgage lending has also had a good year. The Council of Mortgage Lenders recently published 2013’s lending figures showing its members granted 268,800 first-time buyer mortgages over the year.

These accounted for 44% of the total of 605,100 offered for house purchases, making it the highest percentage since 2000. Despite that rise however these numbers are still significantly below the levels seen in the years before the financial crisis.

Meanwhile the Land Registry has also just published statistics for 2013. Seasonally adjusted annual national house price growth was 3.5% across the year, bringing the average property price to £247,549 for England and Wales. The number of transactions on the other hand saw a sharp increase, rising 19% to 747,479, their highest level since 2007.

But though these numbers are encouraging and we should be relieved the property market appears to be on the road to recovery, the public reaction to them is overcooked.

Transactions at their peak were over 1.2 million per year. We are still miles off that. The issue this leaves the market with is supply and demand.

The RICS January Residential Market Survey claimed a shortage of homes coming onto the nation’s housing market is seriously hampering growth and pushing prices higher in many parts of the country.

During January, the number of houses coming up for sale across the UK hit its lowest point since July 2012, despite the number of potential buyers continuing to surge ahead in most areas.

This is particularly problematic in London. I’ve seen properties in prime London valued at £7,000 per square foot. It beggars belief when you stop and think about it.

And it’s not just in Mayfair and Chelsea we see prices like this. Even in areas that have only recently “up and come” such as Hackney in East London property values are going through the roof.

The average price in prime central London grew 12.3% to £1,447,894 over 2013. As lenders focused in the capital I have to admit the market seems frothy. But I just can’t see where this is going to stop.

The fundamentals are there and although it seems absurd that prices should keep rising at this breakneck speed, a lot of this is not being driven by lending at all. Foreign cash is still pouring into London’s prime market and we are witnessing the trickle effect of that in the mortgaged property market.

Real people who want and need to live in London are being pushed further from the centre of the city and paying more for their homes.

That in turn is pushing those who lived there further out still. Landlords and property developers are capitalising on this, buying up property in less good condition and either selling it on for a healthy profit just months later or letting it out for an equally healthy sum.

Rents are now in excess of £1,000 a month according to the latest figures from LSL Property Services, and income yields are between 5% and 9% depending on the property type. In an economy where most savings rates are below inflation and companies are still reluctant to pay large dividends it’s understandable that more people are considering property investment as a way to generate income.

Accusations levelled at Help to Buy are equally ill informed. Halifax published its lending figures in early February showing that it turned away 80% of applicants for the scheme because they didn’t meet affordability criteria.

Also interesting is the average property value for its Help to Buy scheme applications - £157,660. Not exactly house price bubble levels despite the scheme being available on house purchases where the property is worth up to £600,000. Even the average amount lent to borrowers in greater London is only £280,000 and only 20% of the borrowers Halifax lent to on the scheme were in London and the South East – four out of ten were from elsewhere across the UK.

Talk of a house price bubble in London is easy to understand given how fast property values are rising. But it is just talk – political scaremongering lead mostly by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in fact, presumably trying to undermine the credibility of the Tories’ economic recovery plan.

Ultimately the price of anything is what someone is prepared to pay. London is a major cosmopolitan city and with a relatively benign government and tax environment. And with property in the capital so scarce, unless the government starts building on a very large scale, the law of supply and demand will mean prices keep rising.