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The EU's most prosperous countries have the highest numbers of rented housing

publication date: Oct 7, 2011
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John Grimes, MD of Drummonds Property RentalsIn the EU the most prosperous countries have the highest numbers of rented housing. This statement is based on reports circulating as we re-evaluate the way we live today and face more fall out from the ongoing financial crisis.

The world’s most prosperous nation,according to Professor Andrew Oswald ofThe University of Warwick, is Switzerland,which has the highest number of renters – two thirds – in the western world. This was reported in The Times by longterm renter Ed Smith. Ed lists Romania, Ireland and Greece (96, 77 and 73 per cent respectively) as countries with the highest percentage of owner-occupiers in the EU. Recent events in Greece may enforce the feeling that Switzerland has got it right. The UK is about 70 per cent, France 58 per cent and Germany 46 per cent. Does this look like a pattern?

Such figures are not exact, but they are corroborated in a new paper by Andrew Heywood on behalf of The Smith Institute. This report, ‘The End of the Affair’ concludes that the decline in home ownership in this country is set to continue and is only a correction of a recent phenomenon. According to the report, in 1918 home ownership stood at 23 per cent with the private rented sector at 76 per cent but by 2003 home ownership was 70.9 per cent. This rapid growth was supported by the policies of successive governments but the consequences of such
policies are only now becoming apparent.

The cycle of boom and bust in housing has admittedly been good for some, but is it worth the misery foisted on others through the threat of negative equity; has it reinforced the notion of a North South divide? As Heywood’s report says there is a clear need to increase the supply of new housing but the policies of right to buy and mortgage tax relief are unlikely to be repeated given the debt levels inherited by this government. The effects of the reducing value of individual equity held by homeowners in the UK are far reaching, begging a sea change in thinking; change in the public perception of the way to have the dream home and, it seems, this may be occurring.

The private rented sector may be waking up to the opportunities to invest in longterm provision of housing as property prices fall and rental demand rises. I read that rents were reaching record levels, that may be so in London but in the real world, I don’t think so. Rents were higher at the beginning of the 21st century and are only just getting back to those levels. What has held back the rental sector is the fall in returns as house prices shot up. If returns improve, experienced landlords and new investors will invest and bring forward a supply of homes.

Renting ought to be the thinking person’s tenure of choice. Back to Ed Smith in The Times. He lists Freedom (avoiding a mortgage millstone), Choice (to move as you want), Less Hassle (the landlord will fix the house) No Fear (of negative equity), together with the general move in society towards more mobility and less clutter. It is easy to think that the previous entry ticket to dinner party conversation of how much your house was worth is as outmoded as wearing designer labels but this goes deeper than mere fashion. There are better places to use your money than in repaying loans – even if it gives you the right to say you “own your own house” – if you have an interest only mortgage then you’re just paying rent to your lender anyway. If you have a Shorthold Tenancy you may be more secure and at least free from the worry of negative equity or repossession, an issue that could follow you for the rest of your life. Vibrant successful economies rely on a mobile young population eager to prove that there are advances to be made in life and the way we live; necessity is the mother of invention is it not?

Professor Oswald argues that renting makes the national economy more flexible and better placed to deal with change, “Economies thrive better when they have large rental markets. Because homeownership tends to ossify things, it can have bad effects on unemployment. Selling a home and moving is expensive. Hence owner occupiers are less mobile than renters and more vulnerable to economic downturns in their region”.

The private rented sector can be an important part of the solution to our current ills. Britain is not a unique case when it comes to housing tenure. The Smith Institute Report underlines the fact that government policy has a key role to play and now is the time for the housing market and the financial sector to look to the future and become innovative.