An important principle is taught in training first responders to an accident: check those not crying for help first, as those not making noise are probably suffering too much to muster the energy to scream or, even worse, are already dead.
Ignoring your instincts and focusing on those who aren’t speaking up in a crisis can be the most responsible way to act. This leads me to the UK residential market, where a proverbial crime scene is unfolding and one group, London landlords, probably feel like they’ve been robbed in broad daylight and left for dead.
Consider some of the factors they have faced in recent years: reduction of mortgage interest relief; higher stamp duty on second homes; increased regulation on property standards; right-to-rent checks; Brexit reducing tenant demand and capital appreciation; a ban on tenant fees; caps on mortgage deposits; and the imminent removal of Section 21 no-fault evictions. That this barrage of measures has happened under the typically market-friendly Tory government adds a sense of irony to this apparent Greek tragedy. And just when landlords thought this couldn’t get much worse, Covid-19 took centre stage.
Private landlords are worse hit in London because higher property prices lead to a tendency for lower net rental yields and in many cases the removal of interest relief. This means marginal positive net rental yields are likely to have flipped into negative territory – in other words, landlords are effectively paying for tenants to stay in their properties.
Meanwhile, capital appreciation seems to have left the building since the UK voted to leave Europe. According to the Hometrack House Price Index, in the past four years, average London house prices have increased just 2%. When price recovery tried to make a return, the pandemic refused it re-entry!
I think there is a group of private London landlords who are stoically hoping for the metaphorical ambulance to turn up, but if it does come it may arrive too late for many.
These landlords don’t really have a voice. The two big national landlord groups, the National Landlords Association and Residential Landlords Association, merged last year to combine their firepower, but they don’t really cover the group I’m referring to. And having a fireside chat with landlords about how to make their lives easier probably ranks close to the bottom of the government’s long list of priorities.
There is a view that landlords are greedy, well-off creatures feeding off excess rent charged to innocent, hard-working renters. But I believe that’s unfair; the picture is much more complex. Many private landlords rely on property as a proxy for their pension, particularly in London, where the cost of living is the highest in the UK. As a former wealth manager, I can see how poor equity-market performance, low interest rates and manager fees have created a worrying pensions outlook and legitimise the need for a robust pension contingency plan.
A deafening silence seems to have taken hold of London landlords as they seek to focus their resources on life-support mode. One can only help but wonder how many may be carted away before a new era dawns.
Ayesha Ofori is founding director of Axion Property Partners