Northern Ireland’s property bust made deeper by size of boom

Republic plays role of leading bad guy in sad tale of North’s economic decline

An Ulster Bank residential market survey for June recorded price rises for the 13th month in a row. Photograph: Alan Betson

An Ulster Bank residential market survey for June recorded price rises for the 13th month in a row. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

Summer and sequels go hand in hand, and currently playing in the North is a very familiar tale of earnest victims, bust businesses, greedy corporate villains and no end of opportunistic speculators.

This epic features an ensemble cast, from young married couples to retirees, teachers and even builders, all seeking the same happy ending (while keeping their fingers crossed that UK interest rates will not suddenly shoot up in the meantime).

It is hard to miss this sequel with the working title NI House Prices – The Next Instalment, because it is now showing in every street, village, town and city across the North.

Latest reviews predict it could be set for a 10-year run because, according to a report by PwC, it is likely to be 2024 before local property prices return to their pre-crisis levels.

The firm says this is in complete contrast to what has happened in the overall UK market, where prices have in general steadied, or, in the exceptional case of London, are currently 32 per cent ahead of their pre-recession highs.

In Scotland average prices are only 4.7 per cent below their peak, while Welsh prices are lagging former record highs by just 3.5 per cent.

Bad state

So why is Northern Ireland in such a bad state?PwC points out that the boom in house prices in the North from 1997 to 2007 was “unmatched by any other UK region”.

It blames the “speculative investment” that flowed North because of the credit boom in the Republic for fuelling the property boom

“When that bubble burst in the Republic there was a corresponding knock-on effect on Northern Ireland, which has seen large and sustained downward movement in house prices since 2007.

“Another contributing factor was that Northern Ireland suffered a deeper recession than the rest of the UK, and the recovery there has been generally slower as well, held back by cuts in public spending, which is disproportionately important to the Northern Irish economy,” PwC concludes.

It warns the “hangover” from the property crash will be a feature of everyday life for most people for some time, and this will slow the overall pace of economic recovery.

But despite this there is also a quiet consensus that there are some signs that the housing market may be “stabilising”.

The department for social development’s latest housing bulletin shows new housing starts, mainly in the private sector, increased by 14 per cent to 1,993, in the first quarter – although house completions also fell by 9 per cent to 1,818 over the same period.

More upbeat

The bulletin details that during the first quarter of 2014 there was a 21 per cent increase on the number of houses sold in the same quarter of 2013.

Will this mean that the next instalment of NI House Prices should be more upbeat?

The local branch of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors appears to think so, and is welcoming with open arms what it describes as a “housing market recovery”.

The institution and Ulster Bank residential market survey for June recorded price rises for the 13th month in a row.

Samuel Dickey, the institution’s Northern Ireland spokesman, believes this is proof a recovery is under way.

Making progress

“The evidence is that transactions and sales increased in the six months to the end of June and that we are steadily making progress away from the bottom of the market towards a more normally functioning property market.”

Brave words in light of the first published report this month from the repossessions taskforce, which details that of people who have taken out mortgages since 2005, 41 per cent are“burdened with low or negative equity”.

The taskforce highlights more than 60 per cent of local borrowers who had taken out a loan since 2005 are technically “mortgage prisoners”, because they cannot improve their position by remortgaging for a better deal or opting to move.

It also warns that not only is the prevalence of negative equity greater in Northern Ireland than in other regions of the UK, but the value is also significantly higher.

Its job is to find possible ways to help people who are in danger of losing their homes before the end of this year: the clock is ticking.

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