Why are house prices rising around the world?

Originally written as a column for insidehousing.co.uk

News that house prices are rising at their fastest rate since 2004 highlights both the perverse effects of the pandemic and long-term problems with affordability.

Average prices across the UK rose by 13.2 per cent in the year to June according to the official UK House Price Index  with Wales and the North of England leading the way.

While a low level of transactions suggests a need for some caution in interpretation, the same pattern has emerged in other house price surveys of double digit inflation led by regions outside London and the South East.

That confounds expectations at the start of the pandemic of recession about a declining market. The stamp duty holiday announced last Summer looks like an expensive mistake that has just helped fuel house price inflation.

In normal circumstances a bust might well follow the boom but continued support for the market will come from the estimated £180 billion in savings  that households have built up during the pandemic and the wealth gap  between housing haves and have-nots seems set to widen still further.

There is evidence of the same pattern emerging in housing markets around the world: annual house price growth across the 38 richest nations has more than doubled during the pandemic to hit 9.4 per cent, according to the OECD.

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The man who collects houses

I’d never heard of Ken Griffin before a week in which the hedge fund billionaire bought the most expensive home ever sold in the United States and then snapped up (as you do) what is thought to be the priciest home sold in Britain for a decade.

I use the words ‘houses’ and ‘home’ in a loose sense, of course. Because we are talking about penthouses, apartments and condos too. And because, despite spending $238m on a four-storey penthouse in a new skyscraper in New York and £95m on a London house near Buckingham Palace, it’s hard to see how he will spend much time living in either of them.

kenneth_griffin

Griffin’s Citadel hedge fund is actually based in Chicago, where he already has two more homes. The most expensive ever sold in the city, a $59m four-storey penthouse, offers a place to crash after day at the office. Fitting it out could cost another $25m but if he needs somewhere in the meantime he also owns a whole floor of the Waldorf Astoria plus a two-storey penthouse in another skyscraper.

For weekends or holidays he can fly down to Florida, the state where he was born and has acquired a $230m portfolio of land and property in Palm Beach near President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. One property (which cost $15m) will apparently be used as a guest house while some of the four others could be demolished to make way for a gargantuan beach house. That’s almost forgetting the $60m penthouse in Miami that he seemingly never moved into and has now put back on the market.

If he fancies a change of scene, he can nip over to Hawaii, where he bought one property for $11m in 2009 only to buy a second for $17m three years later.

I’m labouring the point here but it’s worth it on a few different levels, most obviously for what it reveals about the astonishing lives of the ultra-rich but also for what this extreme case says about our attitudes to housing and property and about what has happened since the financial crisis.

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