There is no doubt, private landlords operating in the residential letting sector have taken a real beating over the last 18 months or so.
Negative media coverage and what appears to be a regulatory tirade and tax grab by the government has the average landlord (and 90% of those in the UK own under 3 rental properties) feeling like 21st Century pariahs.
Landlords have never been much revered by society, and have perhaps seen are on a par with, or even below, used car sales persons, journalists and politicians?
But the resurgence of renting in the UK following the abolition of protected rents, in the 1990s and 2000s, changed the landlord demographic completely.
Out went the rich landed-gentry absentee landlord and in came the middle class investor; the buy-to-let saver, the movers and shakers, the strivers and the pensioner saving for his or her retirement. This was to be achieved by owning one, two or several rentals, when the alternatives; banks and building societies, which were paying paltry interest, stocks and shares were volatile and risky, and pension schemes saw one crisis after another.
The result was a boom in rental property ownership at a time when demand for renting sored. On the one had quantitative easing and low interest rates put property asset prices beyond the reach of many young people, and job mobility meant that they preferred to rent anyway. At the same time, local authorities stopped building council housing, even as many were being sold off, transferring the responsibility of housing thousands of erstwhile social tenants and families to the private sector.
Housing charities often highlight the amount of money government spends on housing social tenants in the private sector, but they fail to point out that this is money that would otherwise have been spent by councils, and perhaps to an even greater degree.
There have been several consequences to this sequence:
- The buy-to-let boom had been such that the government and the Bank of England became concerned about the amount of money out on buy-to-let loans, and the effect of this should there be another 2008 style slow-down (crash). This led to a plethora of legislation to tackle rouge landlords, legislation that affects all landlords, a crackdown on buy-to-let mortgage availability and a more punitive tax regime for landlords.
- The government came under increasing pressure to do something about the “housing crisis”; the way a minority of rouge landlords were treating mainly social tenants, and the inability of the young to get onto the housing ladder.
- The government, financial institutions and large property developers became aware of the huge potential of the growth of residential renting in the UK and started to invest in large developments of rental housing, all to be professionally managed US style, following substantial government incentives.
The result is that confusion reigns for many landlords and agents in the UK residential private rented sector (PRS), with pressure groups from all sides impacting on them, and a rental property market that has seen seismic change over the last 20 years.
Despite all of this, the UK rental market (PRS) is still growing (albeit unequally) despite the changes.
Many would have expected a large decrease in the number of rental properties on the market after the tax changes, namely the reduced mortgage interest rate relief and increase stamp duty on second homes. But recent research shows that new rental listings in November 2016 rose by around 7 per cent, a similar figure to October. Although significant regional variations are evident, London saw a roughly 1 per cent decline, four other major UK cities are said to have experienced triple-digit increases, while others recorded falls.
However, despite all the above hurdles for buy-to-let landlords to contend with in 2017, there are still more challenges to come. One of these is the controversial announcement in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement about a ban on letting agents’ fees for tenants, planned for introduction in 2017, but with so much going on in Parliament and the need for a full consultation (set for March) this may not happen too soon.
The details are still to be decided, but ostensibly letting agents will not be allowed to charge fees to tenants covering administration charges, which may include referencing or credit and immigration checks etc., the costs of which are likely to be transferred to landlords.
Apart from the impact of this on letting agents, where more landlords may try to defer these extra costs by doing more of their tenancy management themselves, there is likely to be an attempt to recoup at least some of the extra the cost by increasing the rents.
The Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) says that almost half of UK landlords, when questioned, said they would move to self-management “if their profits were being squeezed”, despite claims from some quarters that letting agents not only save landlords almost £2000 per year, they make their lives much less stressful.
The profits squeeze is already on the cards for those landlords with large mortgages, and especially for high and higher rate taxpayers, after April this year, when the new (mortgage interest) tax regime comes into force. It has been estimated that some 400,000 landlords could be pushed up into a higher tax bracket.
Another considerable threat on the horizon for many buy-to-let landlords, particularly as a large proportion operate with older low energy efficient properties, is new legislation due to come into effect in April 2018, which will make it unlawful to let rented property with a poor energy efficiency rating.
Rental properties, from April 2018, will all need to have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) with an E rating or better. Figures published by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) indicate that there are less than 0.1 per cent of UK rental properties with an A rating, 35.5 per cent in the D category and nearly 8 per cent of the total (about 432,000) in bands F and G. The cost to landlords of bringing these latter categories up to standard is likely to be considerable
Research carried out by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) indicates that the number of UK households in the PRS rose from 2.3m in 2001 to 5.4m in 2014. RICS is predicting that by 2025 this figure could increase by around 1.8m.
On the rent front, Savills has predicted that by 2021 rents will have risen by just short of one fifth – almost 20%. That is 6 per cent age points faster than their prediction on house price rises, at 13 percent, over this same period.
Changes mean higher rents, lower initial tax take
Landlord bashing has been a particularly harsh over the past couple of years, but given the need for rental housing in the UK there is a certain irony in that the stamp duty land tax take (receipts) has been downgraded by the Office of Budget Responsibility due to fewer residential transactions taking place. The Laffer effect, the inverted U curve which shows that beyond a certain point, tax increases actually reduce total take revenue, appears to be at work here.
As we go into 2017, landlords are likely to be more concerned about costs and the additional services they are paying for. It could certainly lead to a downturn in the demand for agents’ services and more competition between agents. Internet-based agencies that provide a basic service at a lower cost may gain market share?
With the tightening of landlords’ profit margins will come pressure on landlords to raise rents. Belvoir Lettings (BLV), which operates a network of 300 franchised offices across the UK, has forecasted that rents will rise by 15 per cent in the next three years.
Estate agents Savills is making similar predictions, that rents will rise 19 per cent on average by 2021; this they argue will be faster than house price rises over the same period, which it forecasts will rise by 13 per cent. In London Savills thinks rents will rise by nearly 25 per cent over that period.
Will Government (the Chancellor) change its mind on its dealings with small-scale landlords?
A housing white paper is due for publication in late January, and there has been some petty high profile calls for some of the new taxes on landlords to be rolled back. These have come from parties and MPs within the government itself. Four Conservative peers registered their disappointment that the new chancellor, Philip Hammond, did not address the stamp duty issue in the Autumn Statement, and others have called for a re-thing on the mortgage tax relief issue.
However, with stamp duty land tax and other landlord tax receipts forecasts by the OBR to increase considerably during the course of this Government, it may be hard to convince the Treasury?
Tom Entwistle, Editor