Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Estate Agents Aren’t Having a Great Time in Britain

Updated on
  • Gap widens between home values and wages, hurting deal volumes
  • Weak demand in prime central London is now spreading outward

Britain’s largest property brokers are cutting jobs, closing branches and raising capital even as homes sell for record amounts. While some companies have blamed Brexit and tax hikes for a drop in transactions, high values have put off many other buyers.

Demand for housing dropped to a six-month low in February, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The widening gap between home values and wages means brokers including Countrywide Plc and Foxtons Group Plc are closing fewer deals while being undercut on fees by online companies.

“It’s handy to blame this downturn on Brexit and property tax changes, but prices were overstretched relative to incomes prior to these changes,” JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Tim Leckie said by phone.

U.K. property values have been rising for five years after the government stoked demand by introducing programs such as Help to Buy. Prices for first-time buyers reached 5.3 times average earnings in the final quarter of 2016, just short of the 5.4 times ratio at the market’s peak in 2007, according to Nationwide Building Society. In London, the ratio was 10.1 times earnings at the end of last year, down from 10.3 in the third quarter -- the highest since at least 1983.

Countrywide, the country’s largest broker, shuttered 200 branches last year, while LSL Property Services Plc cut 21 outlets in the six months through December. The real estate industry as a whole lost 6,000 jobs in the past three quarters, according to Office for National Statistics data published last month.

No Catalyst

“We can’t see a catalyst for the market improving,” Countrywide Chief Executive Officer Alison Platt said on a March 9 call with reporters. The London-based company raised about 38 million pounds ($47 million) in a share sale earlier this month, which it plans to use to cut debt and improve its digital operation.

Foxtons, a London-focused broker, has fallen 43 percent in London trading since Britain voted on June 23 to leave the European Union. Pretax profit fell 54 percent to 18.8 million pounds last year as property sales dropped by more than a quarter, the company announced on March 8.

In January, brokerage outlets had an average of 425 prospective buyers on their books and 38 properties for sale, according to a survey of members published by NAEA Propertymark, a lobby group for estate agents. On average, each branch completed eight deals during the month, unchanged from a year earlier, the report showed.

Unrealistic Expectations

“The main reason estate agents are having a hard time is due to a shortage of stock to sell,” while “the sellers’ price expectations are unrealistic,” said Anthony Codling, an analyst at Jefferies International.

To be sure, successive tax hikes have hurt demand for the most expensive homes. Prices in London’s best districts fell 6.6 percent in the year through February, according to a report published earlier this month by broker Knight Frank.

There are now signs that less glamorous parts of the capital, which are less susceptible to the tax changes, are starting to weaken. “I feel property in Putney is overvalued and likely to drop in the next few years,” Douglas Olizar, a broker at JC Francis & Partners, wrote in the RICS report. The company is based in the west London district.

Average home prices in Greater London fell in six of the past 12 months, according to the LSL Property Services/Acadata House Price Index published on March 13. The number of homes for sale in outer London that have had their prices cut increased by 50 percent in February, Heidi Richardson, a small and mid-cap analyst at UBS Group AG., wrote in a March 17 note to clients.

Price Drop

“Next month’s data will probably show the first annual drop in average London house prices for almost six years,” Peter Williams, chairman of Acadata, said by email. That follows the introduction of a tax hike on second-home purchases last year which came on top of an increase for all luxury homes in December 2014.

Transactions in the U.K. capital last year fell to about half of the long-term average of 150,000, Peel Hunt analysts including Gavin Jago wrote in a March 10 note. “While volumes are unlikely to remain at these levels indefinitely, we don’t expect a return to the levels seen between 1996 and 2006 anytime soon.”

Home sales across England declined 21 percent in November from a year earlier, according to Land Registry data published Tuesday.

As well as contending with fewer deals, brokers are having to compete with new digital brokers such as Purplebricks Group Plc, which charge lower fees than traditional estate agents. These companies are now a “key structural headwind” for Countrywide and its bricks-and-mortar rivals, said Richardson. UBS cut its rating on Countrywide shares to sell earlier on March 15.

Countrywide shares have declined 58 percent in the past year and this month hit the lowest since the company’s initial public offering in 2013. Countrywide said that transaction volumes will decline further this year and announced a plan to bolster its digital business.

The company had introduced digital sales in about a quarter of its branches by the end of 2016 and it plans to increase that to about 50 percent by June, according to a March 9 statement. This move is a recognition by the firm that it’s losing ground to online brokers, Richardson said.

(Adds transaction data in fourth-from-bottom paragraph.)
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