High-priced homes give fits to young Brits

Rachel Richards lied about her salary to buy hers. Anna Lofthouse borrowed heavily from her family. Rachel and Jonathan Lisher simply couldn't afford one.

Across southern England, particularly in and around London, young professionals with respectable jobs and good incomes are finding it harder to buy a home. Britain is the epicenter of a real estate boom - and perhaps a bubble - with the fastest-rising housing prices in the world.

In London, the average price paid by first-time buyers is now close to £200,000, or $330,000 - more than three times what it was 10 years ago, according to Halifax, a mortgage lender. Yet average salaries are well below £40,000 ($67,000).

"Even in dual-income households, key workers such as nurses and teachers can only afford to start buying their own home in very limited parts of London," says Steve Wilcox, professor of housing policy at the University of York and author of a recent report entitled "Can work - can't buy."

Last year, British housing prices surged 25 percent and are set to grow by more than 10 percent this year, according to Nationwide Building Society. By contrast, the US market rose 6.9 percent in 2002. London is now more expensive than New York when it comes to buying a midtown, two-bedroom apartment, according to a recent study by The Economist.

The causes for the price boom are myriad. Demand for housing is higher than ever as family breakups and longer- living retirees mean more and more people live on their own; the lowest interest rates in 50 years have made home loans cheaper; many people now buy second properties to rent out; and anecdotal evidence points to an influx of wealthy foreigners, many from Eastern Europe, buying up large chunks of London real estate.

Britain is not the only European country experiencing a price boom. Geneva has reported its worst housing shortage ever. And Spanish housing prices have doubled in the past seven years.

Yet Britain has a higher proportion of homeowners than most European countries - and less space to put them. Britain is a densely populated island, particularly in the south, and tough conservation rules make it hard to find land for new dwellings.

The problem has become so chronic that many experts are warning of a crisis in public services as modestly paid teachers, nurses, and police officers are forced to renounce jobs in the greater London area because they can't afford to live there.

"People, our people - nurses, teachers, public sector workers, ordinary hardworking families in high-demand areas - are being priced out of their own communities," thundered deputy prime minister John Prescott recently.

Take the Lishers. Rachel is a doctor in a busy London hospital, Jonathan a teacher in a school north of the city. But even with their double income, the amount they could borrow is not nearly enough to afford a starter home.

"We are going to have move out of London," says Rachel. "The fact is that although I'm a full-time doctor and Jon's a full-time teacher, we just really can't afford to get what we need. There are stacks of people in this situation."

Yet despite spiraling prices, banks are reluctant to break strict rules governing how much they may lend to homebuyers. Many are mindful of the housing-price collapse of 12 years ago that resulted in a huge number of defaults.

"Building societies are cautious," says Mr. Wilcox. "As rates have fallen, they have not relaxed lending policies to reflect the fact that people can pay more. Because of this, an increasing proportion of the population are finding themselves unable to take out mortgages."

Ms. Lofthouse, a former teacher who now works in education publishing, was fortunate to have relatives willing to top off her bank loan.

"It was only through family help that I was able to afford to buy," she says. "And even then, with prices being so high, I kept on having to look further and further out" of central London.

The number of people taking their first step onto the housing ladder has now fallen to a record low. First-time buyers accounted for just 13 percent of sales in August, from a recent average of 25 percent, according to the National Association of Estate Agents.

According to Halifax, first-time buyers are now much older than in the past, with an average age of 33.

Rachel Richards was one first-time buyer who was almost priced out of the market. A teacher from Guildford, a town south of London, she was shocked to discover that having worked for six years and lived at home until the age of 30, she still couldn't afford to buy a home on her salary.

"I basically had to lie through my teeth about my salary" to the home-loans company, she says. "If I hadn't gone self-certification [and overstated my income], I couldn't have afforded to buy."

The government has finally taken notice of the problem. It promises to create new dwellings in the southeast, to lend money to key workers to enable them to buy homes, and is planning to move thousands of government workers away from the southeast to ease the pressure in the overcrowded region.

One bank has offered to lend much higher sums to young people if their parents cosign the loan. The new move prompted groans from all those parents who fear having to subsidize their grown children for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the press is full of doomsday predictions that a crash is just around the corner. The International Monetary Fund recently warned that the market could collapse if interest rates rise soon. Roger Bootle, a British economist, predicts a 20-percent price drop in the next three years.

"Property has become over valued in relation to earnings," says Mr. Bootle. "It's just the bubble transferred from the stock market to the housing market. People thought they could make money by just sitting at home doing nothing. They are going to get quite a shock."

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