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Five lessons to survive the property crash

Five lessons to survive the property crash

Recessions are inevitable – and in hard times we can learn lessons that could help us survive the housing game in future, says Andrew Stanway.

Western capitalist economies have been going through booms and busts for at least the last 400 years, with an eerie regularity. Each business cycle lasts for about 18 years and during that time property values vary along with all other assets. It’s amazing that few so-called experts have learned much from these centuries of painful cycles. Most of us who are interested in property wrung our hands in the late Nineties wondering why it was that so few lessons had been gleaned from the crash of the late Eighties and early Nineties. But once again, lending institutions, having previously declared themselves chastened by what they’d done only a few years before, were lending irresponsibly, leading us into the current situation like property-addicted lemmings.
So what lessons can we learn from previous bad times, if we’re to stand a chance of being not just older but wiser as we survive this crash? Here are five to bear in mind.

Lesson 1: your home is not a bank
Over many decades, and especially in the last 15 years, most of us came to believe that property was the best investment we could make. Millions of people acted as if property were the only game in town. In The Ups and Downs of the Property Ladder I look at why the British are especially vulnerable to this conviction. But whatever the reason, most of us believed the media hype and rushed headlong into ever more intensive financial dependence on the value of our properties. But a house is first and foremost a home – not an investment vehicle – and when we lose sight of this we set ourselves up for a terrible fall as we delude ourselves we are successful “property investors” – when in fact all boats float on a rising tide. This national hubris led us to believe our home was a kind of piggy bank – which, of course, it is not. That our self-inflicted debts were based on yet more deluded and far more dangerous thinking among bankers and financiers, was the final straw. But then financiers are property owners too and had a personal, albeit perhaps unconscious, vested interest in seeing their own properties escalate in value.

Lesson 2: the property market is not homogenous
The term “property market” is misleading. The market, in reality, isn’t one homogenous entity – it’s a mass of tiny sub-markets that function in very specific ways. In a large town or city these sub-markets have a life of their own and to brand all properties as behaving similarly, whether in a boom or a crash, is foolish, masks the truth, and makes for sloppy thinking. The facts are that even in a severe downturn there are micro-markets that buck the trends. And the same is true of boom times.

Lesson 3: things take longer to get back to normal than they do to crash

When a property market starts to cool there are always early warning signs for those who want to see them. The overly optimistic, fearful or greedy amongst us failed to perceive this writing on the wall and many have ended up paying the price. It’s vital to avoid the “head-in-the-sand” route and to remember that although things go bad quickly they come back very slowly. The property crash of the early Nineties took eight years to return to normal in many areas of the country. Don’t fool yourself into believing that things will get better quickly. Base your personal finances and life-planning in general on the long haul.

Lesson 4: don’t overstretch yourself

Even today, when there are bargains to be had, many people are still over-stretching themselves. But a bargain isn’t a bargain if you can’t afford it. Remember the old developers’ saying, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.” This applies especially now, when there are lots of desperate sellers trying to offload their
properties. It’s vital to be cautious as the truth can get bent to suit distressed circumstances. A BBC survey carried out a few months ago found that more than 80 per cent of people, when asked, said they hoped the value of their home would rise. Yet every time we overpaid for a house in the boom times, we geared up the market, spun it just that little bit faster and created problems for everyone else. For those of us with children trying to buy their first home, this is a horrid truth. Our greed has created a property hell for them. We have a lot to answer for.

Lesson 5: there’s nothing wrong with renting
Although more than 70 per cent of us own our home – half with a mortgage and half outright – that still leaves more than a quarter who rent. Of these, about 11 per cent rent from private landlords and the rest from the council or a housing association in about equal measures. Yet there’s still something of a stigma attached to renting and some people see themselves as second-class citizens if they don’t own their home. In much of Europe the reverse applies with, for example, more than 60 per cent of Germans renting.

Hopefully, this recession will force us to grow up in this regard and to start seeing our dwelling as a “home” rather than a “property”, and to live with the fact that putting a roof over our heads costs money. The way things are today it’s easy to accept that renting makes better financial sense, but it’s time to get building more privately owned rental properties to help prevent the chaos that has resulted from our addiction to ownership.

‘The Ups and Downs of the Property Ladder’, by Andrew Stanway, is out now, published by Stobart Davies.

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