Belfast Telegraph

Buying a home still beyond reach for many


Affordability is a big issue for many in Northern Ireland when it comes to buying a property
Affordability is a big issue for many in Northern Ireland when it comes to buying a property

By Samuel Dickey, residential property spokesman, RICS

The latest RICS survey highlights that one fifth of surveyors see affordability issues as the major challenge for the housing market in Northern Ireland.

This is perhaps a surprisingly large number given the other prominent challenges the economy and housing market face.

But it is perhaps also surprising given the fact that Northern Ireland house prices remain something like 40% below their peak levels.

When you look at Northern Ireland compared to other regions of the UK, a higher proportion of surveyors from this part of the world point to affordability as the major challenge than in places like Scotland, the East Midlands, Wales, East Anglia and the West Midlands.

Indeed, the proportion in Northern Ireland is in line with the UK average.

This is despite average Northern Ireland house prices only being about 60% of the average UK price.

The point is that affordability isn't just about the cost of a property.

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Northern Ireland has some of the lowest average house prices in the UK. But affordability also takes into account earnings, and earnings here are lower than in other regions.

Another factor is the challenge of saving for a deposit, particularly if you are living in private rented accommodation. And this is an important point.

Private sector rents in Northern Ireland have risen considerably in recent years - according to an Ulster University report, average private sector rents increased by 2.3% in the first half of 2018 to £612 per month.

When your rental costs make up such a high proportion of your take home pay, saving for a deposit is no easy task.

This is something I know well from my involvement with Co-Ownership, where I am a voluntary board member.

Co-Ownership is the regional provider of shared ownership in Northern Ireland and has accounted in recent years for about 8% of housing transactions in Northern Ireland.

Many of these purchasers are first-time buyers, and Co-Ownership provides them with a route into affordable home ownership.

Often these are people who otherwise don't have access to a deposit because they can't rely on the 'bank of mum and dad', and their monthly outgoings, including rent, are too high to allow them to save.

And whilst the housing market in other parts of the UK appears to be cooling off, therefore helping address affordability challenges, this doesn't appear to the case to the same extent in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland had the fastest rate of growth in mortgage activity in the UK during 2018.

The first-time buyer market, in terms of the number of loans, increased by 9.4% year-on-year, almost five times the rate of growth for the UK as a whole.

In terms of the home-mover market, the rate of growth in Northern Ireland was 6.5%, compared to a UK fall of almost 2%.

Northern Ireland also saw the fastest rate of growth in house prices of all the UK regions in 2018.

More timely data like the monthly RICS survey provides little further comfort.

Surveyors report that prices are still rising, albeit at a lower rate, and that whilst they expect prices to be flat in the near term, they anticipate prices to be higher again in a year's time.

Home ownership remains a very desirable thing for many people in Northern Ireland, but the affordability challenge for many appears here to stay.

Samuel Dickey is the NI residential spokesman for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in Northern Ireland, and is also a partner at estate agents Simon Brien

Belfast Telegraph