Foundations hold firm despite latest blow to housing market

The dreaded credit crunch has claimed its first major Edinburgh victim in the shape of New Town estate agent Stewart Saunders. So, asks business reporter Michael Blackley, just how worried should home owners be?

'SAFE as houses' is a phrase that epitomises the optimism and confidence that has built up in the UK property market in the past decade or so. And here in Edinburgh, for sellers at least, there has been even more reason to be cheerful, following almost a decade of rocketing house prices.

But over the course of the last year, signs of unrest have begun to emerge among the Capital's homeowners.

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The long-standing growth in sales slowed substantially in 2007. There just were not as many buyers, which led to less competition, and, ultimately, lower rates of house price growth.

In the early part of last year, it looked like there may be a brief storm in store for the Capital's housing market. But by the end of the year, with the economy in the UK and abroad coming under intense pressure in the wake of the credit crunch and Northern Rock crisis, serious storm clouds appeared to have gathered.

So when it was announced this week that New Town estate agent Stewart Saunders had been plunged into liquidation, many ran for cover.

After all, if a renowned estate agent that has plied its trade in the city for more than 30 years can't hack the current conditions, what does it mean for the rest of us?

Liquidator Tom Maclennan of Tenon Recovery has no doubt the slump in demand for new-build properties, a sector Stewart Saunders specialised in, led to its demise. He revealed the company's sales were down 30 per cent in the second half of 2007, compared to the pre-credit crunch first half. And since the turn of the year turnover plummeted even faster.

"It had existed for 32 years," Mr Maclennan said, when trying to emphasise that this was not a company with a history of financial troubles. "It never had huge profits but it did have a solvent balance sheet. It was the level of turnover drop in recent times that had the effect."

He said Stewart Saunders took a severe hit because of its focus on selling new-build flats; a sector that tends to be dominated by first-time buyers and those on lower incomes.

It is those trying to get on to the property market who are finding things most difficult at the moment. Six months ago you could get whatever you wanted for a mortgage, but now the market is "lender-driven" rather than borrower-driven, says Mr Maclennan. And because lenders are being more cautious about who they give credit to, there are fewer first-time buyers.

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Developers in the Capital are increasingly focusing on building property for the upper end of the market so that they get away from those problems. Those with high incomes will have no difficulty getting their hands on the money they need.

Everywhere that new development happens in the city centre the buzzword seems to be "luxury". You have Quartermile apartments selling for seven-figure sums, Ravelston Terrace, St Vincent Place. If you want a new-build property in Edinburgh these days you should probably make sure you've climbed the career ladder first.

So what does this mean for the rest of the market? Should those who have recently bought a home be worried about whether it might lose them money? Probably not, according to property experts.

The Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre (ESPC) will soon release statistics for the first quarter of 2008 and they will most likely show things are getting quieter in the Capital's property markets.

In the last quarter of 2007, there were nearly 500 fewer sales than in the same period the year before. That amounts to around 16 per cent less activity.

David Marshall, a business analyst at the ESPC, concedes that price growth has fallen to around 1.3 per cent after a period of significant cooling.

But while that is far slower than in recent years, it is not critical and is still above the 0.63 per cent and 1.06 per cent growth seen in 1991 and 1992 respectively – our last period of economic turmoil.

"We have been seeing ten per cent growth and above in recent years but nobody could have expected those levels to continue," said Mr Marshall. "There always had to be a cooling period."

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Despite the slow start to the year, and the demise of Stewart Saunders, those in the industry still predict prices will rise by two to three per cent in 2008. Although Mr Marshall warns that in some areas – those that have seen values rise significantly in recent years – prices may dip slightly.

FORMER Hearts chairman Leslie Deans, who runs estate agent Leslie Deans & Co, admits nobody is immune from the performance of the financial markets, but said his five offices in the Lothians had seen an increase in enquiries in the past month, a sign that markets were still healthy.

He says: "To me a slump means that when something was worth 300,000 one day, the next day it is 200,000. There is absolutely no evidence of that at all. It just will not happen in Edinburgh."

In many respects, consumer panic caused the Northern Rock crisis. It was customers withdrawing their accounts that crippled it. Too much talk about a property price crash could stop people buying and create a similar effect.

It seems likely though that property prices in Edinburgh will continue to climb, although at a much slower rate.

Those who have recently bought can rest assured that the market always experiences peaks and troughs. Those selling now will have benefited from years of price inflation.

Current conditions should not detract from the long-held view that as an investment, property in Edinburgh remains as safe as houses.