The Ghost of Negative Equity will stalk the land again – a cautionary mortgage tale from 25 years ago

What was the dumbest thing an Ermine has ever done in personal finance?

I bought a house in 1989. With an endowment mortgage, a 20% deposit and a 10% interest-free loan from a credit card, which I paid back. The how isn’t the mistake, though it had errors. It’s the when. 1989, and early in my working life.

You can’t go wrong with property. everybody needs somewhere to live. Safe as houses

Bollocks, says the Ermine, with feeling

This is a story from a distant front line for first-time buyers in the first half of their working lives. No prediction about house prices is made or implied, because the market can stay irrational for longer than you can stay solvent.  Most of us will only get three quarter-centuries in our lifetimes, and the first 25 years is wasted on learning how to drive the world, from the mewling and puking stage to young adult, ‘cos humans are slow learners with grand ambitions.

Of all the financial asset classes out there, residential property is exceptionally evil, because we buy the asset class in the first half of our working lives, with borrowed money. For the simple reason that we want the byproduct – it gives us somewhere to live.

If you’re over 35 and think Buy To Let when you hear “house” don’t bother reading this. You are much better capitalised than a FTB, you have more experience, you can make your own risk assessment, and quite frankly if it all goes titsup you have only yourself to blame.

The Ermine is the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the Wedding Guest hears, but does not understand. I was once that Wedding-Guest, in 1989 – people did suggest to me that it might be an unwise time to buy, what with all the frenzy of MIRAS[ref]MIRAS is a historical piece of Government fiddling in the housing market being changed where they didn’t tax you on the interest paid on a mortgage. Interest rates and tax rates were much higher in the 1980s than they are now[/ref]. But that’s the trouble with housing, you WANT IT, WANT IT, WANT IT so bad. RENT IS THROWING MONEY AWAY, MUST MUST MUST get on the HOUSING LADDER. So you lose your mind. If this tale is a warning for you, you will not heed it, such is the way. But like the Ancient Mariner, I’ll tell it anyway.

what the housing ladder seems to look like

I’ve told it before in February when my original 25 year mortgage would have been due, but this one has added analysis to show just how badly it could have gone wrong. Imagine, for a moment, some starry-eyed young pup in the pub talking to his mates

I’m going to borrow a shitload of money – five times my gross salary, if you please, and I am going to stick it on the stock market, in a FTSE100 tracker.

Hopefully they’d wrestle him to the ground, or at least ask “are you crazy, man?

Same pub, same bunch of mates, and he goes “I’m going to borrow five times my salary, and I’m going to buy a house

And everybody around the table goes “hey that’s fantastic, congratulations you’re getting on the housing ladder, woot” and high fives him.

Jenn Ashworth
Jenn Ashworth

The Grauniad’s personable Jenn Ashworth tells us that by 31 she’s had 14 addresses. And she’s sick of it. Sorry, dahlink, it’s not that unusual. For an ermine that was

  1. parents (SE london)
  2. Southside (Sth Kensington halls of residence, now demolished)
  3. Earl’s Court shared room three storeys up, gas appliances defective – you lit the oven throwing lighted matches into it
  4. Knightsbridge bedsit sublet from someone who did a runner with three month’s rent. The ermine learns that people steal money
  5. Different and crummier part of Earl’s Court
  6. short stay with parents – 1 hour commute to work, then when I moved to the BBC a 3 hour commute to work. enough to get me out ASAP into
  7. Acton Town house shared with four other guys, deposit stolen by landlord, shower powered off lighting circuit so I had to isolate before getting killed/burnt down.
  8. Southampton student accommodation (I took time out to do an MSc)
  9. Alperton shared with 2
  10. Ealing 2 bedsit infested with black slugs. One month’s rent stolen by landlord
  11. Ipswich digs 1
  12. Ipswich digs 2
  13. first Ipswich house this article is about. This is only the second time I had my own toilet and bathroom 😉

I was in my late 20s then. Having lots of addresses goes with the patch of being young 😉

How did buying a house all go wrong for me?

Thatcher and Nigel Lawson
Thatcher and Nigel Lawson

Let’s cast our mind back to what the world looked like in 1989. Nigel Lawson hadn’t discovered climate change or that money was to be had in denying it but he had discovered money, he was Chancellor. There had been a boom going on ever since the end of Thatcher’s first recession (1980-82), the young Ermine had switched jobs a few times as you do in your twenties and discovered that while London was a fantastic place to be young in I was never going to be able to buy a house unless I got a better job than design engineer for the BBC.

So I left to come to Suffolk and work for The Firm, at the time a premier research facility for a FTSE100 company. Fantastic place to work, the pay was better and houses were cheaper less expensive than in London.

Young ermine to world – what is this Boom and Bust you speak of? I have no experience of that, so it doesn’t happen…

You know how kids are absolutely convinced you can’t see them if they can’t see you? Well, that sort of thought error doesn’t always stop at 11. I graduated in 1982 into Thatcher’s first recession. All I had seen over my working life was an improving economy. I started in the pits of six months of unemployment as the economy slowly crawled from the wreckage, then getting the first real job, all around the gradual upswing was the backdrop of what I expected of the economy. So I rock up in 1989, and house prices are rising, the economy is booming, everybody is feeling chipper.

25 years of high living has taken its toll on our Nige. presumably the Domestic Goddess got her looks from her mother :)
25 years of high living has taken its toll on our Nige. Presumably the Domestic Goddess got her looks from her mother 🙂

That Lawson bloke says he’s going to stop couples getting mortgage interest relief at source. At the time the Ermine was not wise in the ways of the world, so I didn’t join up the fact that this would give everyone Torschlußpanik thus increasing demand for a short time, leading to a ramp in price[ref]short-term Government interference leading to a pulse in demand just before an election. Any connection with Help to Buy is of course specious scuttlebutt and should be ignored. Of course.[/ref].

That sounds incredibly dumb, now. In fairness to my new colleagues, several of them did even highlight that possibly there might be distorting effects due to this policy which might be something to think about. However, in one’s late 20s you’re so flushed with the grand victory of having spent your first 25 years successfully getting a handle on how the world works. And you haven’t had the stuffing knocked out of you by discovering that your map of how the world works has holes, and by itself doesn’t track changes in the world. So you are smarter that everyone else and invincible. The good news for me was I made that class of mistake at the wheel of personal finance, rather than at the wheel of a car…

So I bought that house. With an endowment mortgage, if you please. Single man, no dependants, so the life insurance aspect of the endowment was worth sod all to me, and The Firm’s pension offered death lump sum anyway. A dead young Ermine would have been worth a lot of money to someone.

My parents, bless ’em, had done their bit for my financial enlightenment – although it seems that these days parents don’t bother to share the hows and whys of personal finance mine did.  I knew how mortgages worked and what the difference between and endowment mortgage and a repayment mortgage was. Hell, I even knew what the NAV of an investment trust was and how it could be at a premium or a discount, though I wasn’t to use that knowledge for 20 years. And had been educated in no uncertain terms that an endowment mortgage was a dipstick sort of move. But hey, the LAUTRO saleswoman had pretty green eyes and how can you turn down the promise of a 3x lift on the expected endowment outcome[ref]in those days money halved in value every ten years. So that 3 x lift was pretty much breakeven after 25 years with free investment risk chucked in, but optimism and being a smartass is one of the privilege of the youthful, eh. Boy was I taken for a ride ;)[/ref]? It sounded good to me! That’s the trouble, you can know something but not understand it. You can teach knowledge, but you can’t teach wisdom, because wisdom is integrated knowledge. I had always seen things getting better throughout my working life, so I knew that house prices were always going to be rising relative to wages, and I feared getting left out.

1404_2ITNow some of that knowledge was correct, but not for the reasons I understood. House prices were rising relative to wages because of the increasing entry of women into the workforce since the 1980s. Prior to that, a household typically used the man’s wages to pay the mortgage from, but all of a sudden households had more resources available to them, with two incomes coming into the household. What they did with that is throw it down the toilet of inflating house prices, so houses got dearer relative to wages, and everybody moans how hard it is to have children and afford a house these days, because more of the combined household capacity to do work is focused on paid work outside the home. Don’t shoot the messenger – Elizabeth Warren’s book first highlighted to me exactly why I struggled so hard to raise the cash to buy a house. I was a single man, at a decent job, with a 20% deposit and in interest-free loan of 10%. I was fighting couples with two incomes, and that’s not a fair fight, hence the difficulty.

So I purchased the house, settled in, had all the usual shocking costs you have when you buy your first house because you have no furniture (I bought mine secondhand), you have no tools, you have precious little physical capital. I was paying 6.5% on the low start (ARM) loan[ref]I used the low start loan so I’d have a chance to pay back that interest free credit card. It was the correct use fo an ARM loan – the young ermine got the details right, it was the big picture that I made a hash of[/ref], and paid back my interest free credit card loan in one year, as required. What I didn’t pick up was that there was a shitstorm. Incoming. Take a look at this

the total costs and savings associated with buying a house. £ on the lHS, % on the RHS
the total costs and savings associated with buying a house. 2012 rebased £ on the LHS, % on the RHS. It also explains why the greybeards have all the money…


It covers a period of a little over twenty years, and shows the inflation-adjusted to 2012 prices equity, payments and imputed rent of an ermine’s first house[ref]To track the house value I used the Nationwide house price index for old properties, East Anglia section. The house was a two-up two-down built in 1840, the Nationwide are pretty accurate because scaling the price I bought at forward to 2012 gives pretty much the value Zoopla gives for a similar joint in a similar area. To track inflation I used the January of the year figures from this Guardian spreadsheet. For the Bank rate I took figures from the Bank of England and did the manual calculation to get the yearly interest rates, and assumed a mortgage was 1% more. I estimated rental prices as 4% of the yearly house price, which would fit for now. I moved around the middle of the period, so the second half of this is a simulation.[/ref]

Now every bugger tells you you can’t lose on houses. Take a look at the equity blue line, which shows the difference between the house price tracking the index for that year and what the purchase cost was. For ten long years that line is negative. You can’t lose on houses. Until you do, and then you lose big-time.

In negative equity you cannot move, must not lose your job, and must keep paying the mortgage

Because if you don’t, you get evicted from ‘your’ home, and to add insult to injury, they flog it at a knockdown price, and unlike in the States, they still come after you for the difference. It happened to my neighbours and a few other places in the street. The mortgage company comes along, sticks a notice on your window that this property will be foreclosed on such and such a date, and you’re out on your ear. Oh yeah, and you still have a mahoosive debt that follows you around like a lost dog.

What do all those coloured bars mean?

Although everybody talks about houses as if they were a financial investment and part of your free cash flow, only BTL landlords buy houses as a straight financial investment. The rest of us buy them to avoid paying rent, and give us a place to put all our stuff, watch TV, make love, raise children, all that sort of thing. You can do all that in a rented place too, but since you ‘own’ a house you don’t have to pay rent on the house. Instead you get to pay rent on the money you bought it with. So instead of throwing it away paying it to a landlord you throw it away paying it to a bank.

The red bars represent all the cumulative money I saved through not paying rent to some shyster landlord, estimated at about 4% of the Nationwide adjusted house price and then scaled to 2012 prices by inflation. It is possible these should be adjusted to interest rates, in which case I understate the cumulative benefit of the rent I didn’t pay.

The blue bars represent the cumulative excess that I paid over and above the cumulative amount I would have paid in rent to a landlord[ref]I had to subtract what was already indicated otherwise the overall picture would be wrong. When the blue bars disappear, it will have finally been cheaper in terms of money paid out to have bought, not rented[/ref], because I am paying it in rent to a bank. This is also adjusted to 2012 pounds, like the rent. I am buying a great big wodge of Stuff, so obviously it’s gonna cost me more than if I just rented the usage of it for 25 years. You can see that even after 24 years I’ve actually still paid out more than I would have done if I just rented. This conundrum is basically why you rent when you are poor. It’s cheaper, and that was particularly the case at a time of very high interest rates, of which more later.

The lime green bars are the equity in the house, the same as the blue line, but tossed on the debit or credit side of the ledger as appropriate.  The value of the rent is the value delivered by the asset, and looking at the blue lines which are the excess paid over the value gotten as rent I would estimate break-even in about 25 years. However, since this is an asset that increases in value and is bought with borrowed money I actually broke even in 2001, when the increasing value of the house added to the accumulated rent I hadn’t paid beat out all the money I had paid to the mortgage company. Note in 2001 I don’t own the house as of yet, it’s just that I could theoretically sell up and breathe a sigh of relief that I hadn’t paid more than if I had rented.

Why was that such a big mistake?

I stayed put for 10 years. Now imagine all the shit that can go on in a life.

  • You can lose your job. There was a hell of a recession on in the early 1990s. Look at what would have happened in 1993 – I would have been foreclosed, would have lost £20,000 in 2012 money, would be bankrupt and without a roof over my head. No fun at all.
  • If you buy the house in your early 30s the pitter-patter of tiny feet tends to happen in the next decade. Tragically unromantic, but the years after the first child are high risk years for relationship breakdown. If your house is in negative equity you’re going to take a big hit at a rough time
  • You have to move for work. Now you get to rent your house out and rent another. There are parasitic costs and voids associated with renting a house out

I was single when I bought that house so I avoided 2 but the other two scared me. For a long time. This graph simplifies things so I assume I have a 100% mortgage. I was dumb, but not that dumb. I had a deposit and an interest-free loan from MBNA, to the tune of 30%, but even so I was in negative equity till about 1995. Negative equity kills you fast and kills you good, because of the leveraged way we buy houses.

Was it just an ermine that got this wrong? No, apparently a million other dumbasses had such an awful sense of timing as I did – but this newspaper article is from 1992, so still in radio silence on the Internet, because the WWW started in 1994.

With roughly ten million mortgage holders, that means that more than one in ten people with mortgages are trapped by debt. They are unable to sell till prices go up. They can’t sell and are stuck. [UBS Phillips & Drew]research analyses house price falls and the number of first time buyers, the group most likely to be in trouble because at least 50% of them took out mortgages of more than 95% of the value of their home.

Rachel Kelly,  “A million first-time buyers caught in mortgage debt trap.” Times 24 Apr. 1992: 4. The Times Digital Archive

I had a 30% deposit (ie a 70% LTV). That wouldn’t have helped me in the suckout, though it did shorten the period of negative equity relative to that shown on the chart, by shifting the line up a bit.

So how does that affect Mr Wannabe 2014 house buyer? Houses always go up. Everybody says my house is my pension.

To be honest, I don’t know why everybody says my house is my pension, though RIT has a good take on that subject. It would scare me shitless if I had housing as a large part of a pension, because you need several houses in different areas to get sector diversity, the baby boomers are going to die off in the next 20 years so their houses will be sold and it’s hardly like I’ve seen property as a great wealth store. Everybody else has it as a religion and who am I to criticise other Britons’ religion as long as they leave me be. Fill your boots guys.

If they’d bought a house worth of the FTSE100 on the same leveraged basis and paid their rent with the dividends they would probably be saying the FTSE100 is my pension. It’s buying a long term appreciating asset with leverage and not trading the bugger come what may and not getting marked to market in suckouts that makes houses a good investment – if you stay the course and don’t take those hits in the early days. Look at that chart and note that buying on a high meant I was exposed to the risk of having to sell up and having the house marked to market at a loss for a third of my working life. Safe as houses, guv, safe as houses.

The cyclical rises and falls of the house prices are slower than those of the stock market. Just because it’s a quarter of a century from the last turn of the cycle doesn’t mean it’s all different now, like the mills of God this one grinds exceedingly fine and exceedingly slow… 25 years ago jobs were more stable for the average employee, waiting to pass through the meshing gears of the mill until they turned you out the other side was a realistic option. But look at that 10 year suckout. It’s one of those questions you gotta ask yourself, really…


So what is different this time? It’s not about price, it’s about affordability!

Monevator observes that the house price to earnings ratio is creeping up. Some of the ideas about increasing ratio of two-earner households resonate with Elizabeth Warren’s book about the US situation. So obviously the whole price to earnings metric is hard to make fit these days. The new in word around town is affordability. Don’t worry about the amount of money you are borrowing, that’s just a number, it doesn’t mean anything. Can you afford to pay the mortgage okay?

Now if someone waltzed into a shop selling LED TVs with a credit card and said that, it would be viewed as a personal finance faux pas. Do that for a purchase three orders of magnitude bigger and suddenly we all go hey, that’s cool, don’t look at the price, can you make the repayments?

There is a case that the 3 x single, 2.5 x double income multiples that were the maximum lenders would advance in the past are too conservative now. 25 years ago we were coming off long runs of double-digit interest rates from ’78 onwards. That sort of thing limits the amount of mortgage you can pay off in a 30 or 40 year working life; 1991 was the last time interest rates were in double figures, so for 20 years they have been lower. But the average is closer to 5% than the 0.5% they are now.

I kind of feel the need for Clint again. Take a look at the yellow line, interest rates. Now just like the young ermine didn’t catch on with this whole boom-bust kerfuffle, because he hadn’t seen it, there are no doubt people who are thinking

what are these double-digit interest rates you speak of? I know nothing of such fiscal brutality

Look at the chart. Most of the time it spent at the long-run value of British interest rates of 5 or 6 %. That has a direct bearing on your affordability. The young ermine, though foolish in many ways, had the sense to ask of the mortgage company what would repayments be if interest rates doubles. It’s actually quite easy with an interest-only mortgage which is running alongside an endowment. If the interest rates double, you pay twice as much per month 😉 I figured I could managed that, just. I didn’t expect to be doing that, the very next year. I froze in that place. I didn’t go out much. Then the high interest rates started to depress house prices, and it began to dawn on me that I had made the most stupendous personal finance mistake of my whole life.

It dwarfs the second biggest PF cockup I made, which was a rash two years of major momentum-chasing and trading muppetry in the dotcom boom and bust. I only used ISAs and wasn’t rich enough to fill the first one. I probably destroyed about £7000 worshipping at the altar of Buying High and Selling Low, with a side order of Excessive Churn. I blew about £10,000 in 2012 pounds, but I got something of value in return. Education – it made me ready to learn how to go about things better. There was no bias or scamming in the training course that Mr Market dished out, and more to the point I threw away the money as I earned it. I didn’t borrow it from a mortgage company, and once it was gone it was gone, but I didn’t owe it to anyone.

The stock market has been a lot kinder to me than the housing market, and in a much shorter time, too. True, it delivers a jolly good kicking every so often, there aren’t the slow languorous cycles of the housing market. Perhaps the background radiation of this epic fail remains in my personal finances, because unlike the case for most Britons in my age and ex-income group, my house is not the dominant part of my net-worth, excluding pensions, if I were irrational enough to compute it as part of my financial assets 😉

Interest rates are at historic lows, that’s a good thing, surely?

On interest rates we’re a little off the right-hand side, but interest rates haven’t budged since then. They’re at historic lows. They can’t go any lower, because otherwise the Bank of England would be paying us to borrow money from it. So when you are making the switch from price to earnings (3 x single or 2.5 * double ISTR) you are making a nasty little pact with Mephistopheles.

you shouldn't be strinking deals with this bad boy. He tends to turn up and the most inopportune times
you shouldn’t be striking deals with this bad boy. He tends to turn up and the most inopportune times to call in his dues

You are making a bet that things really are different this time, and that for reasons you can’t explain, unlike over the last 25 years interest rates are going to remain at historic lows of a tenth of their long run average for at least the first 3/4 of your mortgage (19 years of a 25-year mortgage). You can afford for ’em to let rip a bit after that, because inflation will have reduced the value of your debt by about half then anyway, plus in an ideal world you’d have paid off some of the capital too.

You’re also making some other assumptions. That your pay will keep up with inflation, which given the power shift from labour to capital may be unwise. That nothing untoward will befall your employment, or if so, then you will be able to find another job at similar or better pay without moving. Unless you live in London, that may also be unwise. If you do live in London you can’t afford to buy a house if you are a prole, or even one of the 99%. Then there’s the risk of the more personal crap that can get in the way of things – divorce, children dropping the second salary for a while and upping your costs. But hey, it’s affordable…for now

You can see what an interest rate hike did for me. Obviously the heave-ho from 7.5 to 14% raised the payment, but it also made the aggregate payments much higher for a while. Look how fast the cumulative overpayments relative to renting ramped up (the blue bars). They only start to yield to the cumulative imputed rent in 2000 over half-way through my working life, and it is probably only about now that the total amount paid in mortgage costs is less than the total amount I would have paid if I had rented. Of course, I now have a fully paid-up house that has a future income stream associated with it – the rent I don’t have to pay.

The risk of being hit by negative equity is highest at the beginning, when you are young, for the simple reason that you haven’t paid off any of the house yet. The amount of total money sucked out relative to renting is highest in one’s 40s. It’s not a personal finance trajectory that is for the poor, and not one that fits well with the costs of having children in one’s 30s.

I can’t yet work out whether this cost peak is an artifact of having eaten that fall in house prices and the high interest rates early on. The fall in house prices is not reflected in the running cumulative costs, however, except as an effect on imputed rent[ref]Update 22 April – a house just like mine has gone up for rent across the way, so I looked up how much it would cost to rent. The imputed rent assumption is pretty damn close, it’s nice to get a real-life confirmation of the cost-modelling.[/ref]

what do interest rates do to house prices?

George Soros - this bad boy did for the Ermine in '92
George Soros – this bad boy did for the Ermine in ’92 by ejecting the UK from the ERM. Lamont skyrocketed interest rates to try and stay in

They make them fall in real terms or at least reduce the rate of increase relative to inflation. Particularly in the Brave New World of gauging how much you will pay according to affordability, rather than a price/earning ratio. Affordability is inversely proportional to interest rates, so as interest rates go up, prices have to fall to stay affordable. You can see that in the negative equity that I suffered at the start, though this may be correlation with the long drawn out 1990s recession. The interest rate spike was cause by Britain being ejected from the ERM – interest rates were raised to try and stop the pound falling, but the Bank of England lost the fight. That is the trouble with economic variables – they are hard to separate and qualify individually.

Why do governments push home-ownership so hard?

Not all governments do. Not even all British governments did until 1980. When I was at school it was perfectly normal for middle managers to live in a council house. Then Thatcher got in, and it’s been a world of hurt from 1980 onwards. When I look at this I can’t help feeling that it is a rum way to run an economy and seems to do a lot of hurt to a lot of people trying to catch up with the shibboleth that you must own your own home. The huge exposure to risk when you are young, the massive suckout of money in one’s 40s to buy the house compared to the rental option. Is this really worth all the pain? At the moment it is because the rental option is really horrible – there is no useful security of tenure in the UK and the army of amateur landlords seem to be patchers and bodgers when it comes to maintenance. It seems the solution to complaints about the state of the place is to get a less discriminating tenant – it is a landlord’s market.

If the government were interested in the maximum quality of life for the most people, it would stop fiddling about in the housing market and fix the alternative, renting. Most of the house-building in the post-war period was done by councils building council housing

post-war housebuilding
post-war housebuilding (BBC)

and this carried on at a notable rate until it was shut down by Thatcher’s Right To Buy – there was no point in building houses with ratepayers money to flog them off cheap to somebody who was in the right place at the right time. Private enterprise clearly hasn’t picked up the slack, because presumably there is a profit incentive to maximise house prices for new-builds by controlling supply 😉 Or some other reason, but it’s clearly not happening.

Renting in the private sector is miserable. If you favour the tenants too much you get misery for the landlords and then misery for the tenants who don’t have a place, though joy for those who do. If you favour the landlords, as is the general case now, you get misery for the tenants, and drive people towards owner-occupation who perhaps aren’t ready for the financial hit. Owner occupation is much more expensive for the first ten or fifteen years. Calculators like this make me laugh because they are simplistic, assuming a constant interest rate, and constant house price inflation and they also take the equity in the house on the plus side. The only time you get to see the increasing equity in your house is if you downsize. The next time is when your kids sell the house after they’ve come back from the crematorium. Even after 25 years I’m not sure I’m up on the deal yet as far as money spent on buying relative to what I’d have spent on renting is. I do have an expensive asset and I’m done paying rent and mortgage for the foreseeable future, so I’m better off overall. But it was an expensive ride and I took outrageous shedloads of risk. After all, nobody sat me down when quoting for a mortgage and went

Now Mr Ermine, how do you feel about the possibility of losing 33% of the value of this house should you be SOL and lose your job in the first ten years?

Saying yes to that sort of risk that puts you into Highly Adventurous nutcase levels with shares, and yet people become gibbering wrecks if it’s intimated to them that the stock market can do that to you 🙂 Safe as houses, they say, safe as houses… What the hell did the stock market do to get all the bad rap? A financial adviser won’t let you sit down and open your mouth without you taking an attitude to risk test, and yet you can blithely sign up for a mortgage and the only warning you get is

Your home may be repossessed if you do not keep up repayments on your mortgage.

No shit, Sherlock. No mention of the risk, eh?

You are about to take the sort of risk that put a million buyers at risk in within living memory – the Bank of England interest rate is at historic lows and could increase tenfold without drifting out of the long run average. Have you thought about what that would do to your repayments, and have you had a word with Clint about it?

Nary a word that this might happen

Lindsay Cook Money Editor. "Coming to grips with negative equity." Times  24 Oct. 1992: 25
Lindsay Cook Money Editor. “Coming to grips with negative equity.” Times 24 Oct. 1992: 25

Housing is, however, not just about money. The excess cost of buying is probably worth it to get rid of AST tenancies, horrible landlords, one month eviction periods, shitty house maintenance and all the other hurt that often comes with amateur BTL landlords. Fixing the rental market probably means building decent social housing, enough to compete down rental prices and set standards, and relieve the pressure on the owner-occupier market. Owner-occupation is much less suitable for a world of shorter-duration or less secure jobs. I don’t know if Thatcher was right in her time but that world is long gone now.

Of timescale-blindness

We are scale-blind to extremely short timescales. That much is clear when you try and swat a fly, or watch a sparrow land on a blackthorn bush without impaling itself, as it makes micro-adjustments to its flight path to avoid the might spines. Listen to this whitethroat at normal speed – it sounds pretty scratchy and nasty to me

Now listen to what that presumably sounds like to a real whitethroat, which can hear finer temporal detail than us. All I have done is slowed it by 8 times

That’s still coarse on the sort of timescale that high-frequency trading works. You can’t stay on top of that. The effect happens at long time scales too, we just don’t see things that change over decades as much as we see them if they change day to day, which means that we become increasingly blind to groundswells in finance that have a longer period than a working life. Hence this article, it is a distant report from a receding event horizon. It happened, and it’ll happen again. What makes this worse is that the WWW started in 1994, so for the Internet generation this history is not accessible. I used my local Library’s newspaper search facility to research some of this, and it is uncanny how the themes from 1988/9 seem to be repeating themselves now, and how certain pathologies associated with mortgages seems to be evergreen. Such as stupid berks taking money out of their home equity in the good times to pump up their lifestyle only to come over all surprised when it all goes titsup in crashes. Life has rainy days in it. Save up for them.

Should I not buy then?

Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent

John Maynard Keynes

Search me guv. London, for a start, is a different place. I’m not in that league. I left London 25 years ago because I was too poor to live there. You’re competing against foreign money treating London real estate as a reserve currency, and there’s a lot more of the rest of the world’s 1% than there are Londoners. It’s not a fair fight. I could earn enough as a single man to fight the DINKY couples but the 1% are way out there, sometimes you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. For most people London falls into the latter category.

Elsewhere, you buy a specific house in a specific part of the UK, subject to local conditions. I personally wouldn’t buy right now, but then I haven’t lived with AST tenacies and scummy BTL landlords[ref]I’m sure there are some decent landlords. It’s just that I never ran into them and from what I hear most tenants don’t either. OTOH I’ve heard from some landlords about some seriously chavvy tenants. Shame that so much money changes hands and both parties seem to be pissed off with the deal[/ref] for a long time. I can see how that makes people prepared to pay over the odds. Maybe it really is different this time.

I learned something writing this and analysing the costs – in particular that when you buy a house with a mortgage you commit to ongoing higher outgoings for over twenty years – that’s real money you have to earn and pay out. It’s true that the break-even point was 10 years in my case, but my spending was still higher than it would have been renting to 20 years. The break-even point is brought forward by the nominal value of the house, which is only realised when you die or partially on downsizing.

I didn’t have any idea when I started down the mortgage track that this was the case. I earned enough and was lucky enough to dodge the negative equity bullet to get away with it, but it could easily have gone a different way, and then the ermine would not have been retired. Safe as houses – think of those million people in negative equity in the early 1990s. I was started down this track of thinking by Paul Claireaux’s blog post on House Prices Now – he has some other charts of interest there, and a far better grounding in the financial technicalities, where I’ve just lived it. His summary?

What I conclude – is that  (in broad terms) UK house prices have gone into outer space!

There is a general message that when buying investments one should take valuation into account. That is doubly the case if you are going to buy it leveraged – and a house is one of the few assets Joe Public buys on margin. Negative Equity is what happens when you get that wrong, and being foreclosed, going bankrupt and having the debt chase you is what happens when you get that wrong and lose the ability to pay the mortgage. Only you can say if getting away from those crappy landlords is worth the risk.