The property market is in limbo: sales are on hold, landlords are struggling, and mortgage searches last month were down 44pc on the previous four-week period, according to the online provider Twenty7Tec.
But some buy-to-let investors are spotting opportunities, and are getting their deals lined up for when the restrictions on purchasing are lifted. The share of buy-to-let mortgage searches on Twenty7Tec saw a small uptick last month. In the capital, prospective investors are “circling”, said Camilla Dell, managing partner at London buying agency Black Brick. “There’s a lot of cash swirling, looking to swoop in,” she said.
While analysts are not anticipating a house price crash, they are forecasting some falls in the short term. The latest survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) suggested sales expectations in the next three months are the lowest ever recorded.
Savills has forecast a short-term price drop of 5-10pc. “You need only look at the rate that lenders have pulled out their mortgage offering,” said James Tucker of Twenty7Tec. Nearly a third of the mortgage deals on offer have been retracted.
For buy-to-let investors, short-term price falls mean long-term yield increases. In London and the South East, high property prices have meant low yields, leading to an exodus of buy-to-let investors to the North, seeking higher returns. But falling prices have already been boosting rental yields.
House prices in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea were 11.1pc down year-on-year in the last three months of 2019, according to estate agency Hamptons International. This meant the borough recorded the second-largest jump in rental yield of all local authorities in the country. Yields climbed 1.5 percentage points in two years, to 4.2pc.
Similarly, property prices in the City of London fell by 1.7pc, which helped boost yields by 1 percentage point over two years to 5.2pc. If price falls continue, London could open up again to domestic landlords who will be able to get higher long-term yields on their investments. This may even be enough to offset the effects of the reductions in tax relief on buy-to-let mortgages which have seriously hit investors’ pockets since their phased introduction began in 2017.
This is particularly the case because rents are unlikely to take the same hit. Rents do not move in line with house prices, said Gráinne Gilmore, head of research at Zoopla.
After the last financial crash, “the rate of decline in rents was more modest than capital value for homes,” said Ms Gilmore. “When house prices dipped into negative territory in 2011, rents were growing at the strongest pace in four years.”
When the sales market is stalling, people are more likely to hold off on purchases and stay in rentals. “When there is uncertainty, the rental market comes into its own,” added Gary Hall, head of lettings at estate agency Knight Frank. It has forecast that house prices will fall by 3pc over the course of 2020, and that London rents will stay constant. There is an opportunity for investors here, said Angus Stewart of the digital buy-to-let broker Property Master, “as long as they’re sufficiently liquid”.
Those looking to invest will find that they have new competition: short-term landlords are being squeezed by the collapse of the travel industry, and there is already an influx of these properties to the long-term lettings market. Another point of competition could be vendors who are unable to sell their homes if there is a downturn, and so may become accidental landlords.
But Mr Hall is bullish. “Last year we had eight applicants to every rental property listing,” he said. He does not anticipate that rental supply will outstrip demand.
So where will be the best places in the country to invest? Hartlepool in County Durham has the highest rental yield of any local authority in the country, according to Hamptons International, at 11.9pc. The average house price is £113,160. Meanwhile, Pendle in Lancashire has recorded the largest jump in yield growth in the last two years, up 1.6 percentage points to 10.1pc.
When it comes to investing, Mr Hall recommends new stock. “We agreed 27 tenancies last week and the majority were new-build,” he said. Tenants feel more comfortable moving into unoccupied properties, he added. Developers with cash flow problems might also be more open to negotiations on sale prices.
But perhaps the most important factor for investors in the wake of the lockdown will be local employment rates, said Aneisha Beveridge, head of research at Hamptons. These will underwrite rents during the coming months. While the biggest cities will be safer bets, the current winner is the local authority of Eden in Cumbria, which currently has an unemployment rate of 1.6pc. The average house price is £198,480, according to Hamptons.