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COVID set to stall 10-year rise in first-time buyer growth

28th September 2020

  • First-time buyers [FTBs] are set to lose their share-of-sales stronghold by the end of 2020 and into 2021, overtaken by increased movement by existing homeowners, spurred by COVID

  • A driving force for sales over the last decade, FTB demand and their ability to purchase property is starting to be impacted by COVID-19, the recession, and reduced availability of higher loan to value mortgages

  • Weaker demand amongst FTBs correlates directly with when lenders started to withdraw high loan-to-value mortgage products in early June

  • Regionally, FTB and homeowner demand has diverged the most in the South East [48.5%], Scotland [46.4%], and the South West [44%] since the start of the year

  • As demand from FTBs shifts downwards from a mid-May peak, demand from existing homeowners is holding steady at 37% above pre-Covid levels - stimulating more supply which is coming to market at higher prices

  • Demand overall has cooled slightly, but remains 30% above pre-COVID levels (2020 Q1); the recent tightening of lockdown restrictions is also set to support demand in the near term

  • Meanwhile, house prices are up 2.6% year on year, up from 1% a year ago, with sales agreed running 3% above those achieved in 2019


Monday 28th September 2020, London: First-time buyers are set to be overtaken by existing homeowners as the largest buyer demographic as COVID drives a shift in the profile of home buyers. These are the latest findings in the monthly House Price Index by Zoopla, the UK’s leading property portal.


First-time buyers start to lag

First-time buyers have been the driving force of the housing market for the last decade - supported by Help-to-Buy and greater competition amongst lenders in the 90%+ loan to value [LTV] mortgage market. At the same time, the proportion of sales by existing homeowners has declined.


However, Covid-led market uncertainty combined with the recession and a reliance on higher loan to value mortgages to fund purchases is starting to impact the scale of first-time buyer demand and, moreover, their ability to purchase a home.

Latest figures from Zoopla show that despite a spike in demand amongst first-time buyers when the English housing market reopened after a 50 day closure on 13th May, demand has trended downwards over the last two months and is now back in line with pre-COVID levels. First-time buyer demand is set to weaken further over the rest of 2020 and into 2021 [see Figure 1].  

Figure 1: Estimated share of first-time buyer sales in 2021

Source: Zoopla Research 

An equity advantage

The remainder of 2020 and the start of 2021 are set to witness a reversal of the first-time buyer market dominance with a greater share of moves by existing home-owners who tend to move less often.


The search for space and the once in a lifetime re-valuation of what a home is worth in the wake of COVID means demand from existing homeowners shows no sign of weakening and remains 37% higher than pre-COVID levels and 53% higher than this time last year.


A large portion of existing home owners have either no mortgage or smaller loans so affordability is less of a barrier to movement. This is especially true for households looking to trade out of cities to more rural areas with lower values and better value for money. Existing owners are older - 75% of homeowners over the age of 45 while over half of owners have no mortgage at all meaning 2021 could also give way to an increased volume of cash-only purchases.


The lockdown measures introduced in March unlocked latent demand for housing.  We believe that a second spike in new cases coupled with the Government’s recently announced tightening of restrictions will support demand for housing in the near term. Those in a more secure financial position - such as homeowners with good levels of equity and little to no mortgage - will be galvanised into action.

Figure 2: Trends in first-time buyer and home owner demand across 2020 

N.B. A home move in this context is defined as an existing homeowner

Source: Zoopla Research


A regional divergence

On a regional basis, the relative strength of first-time buyer demand is not uniform. This reflects the underlying profile of buyers and the level of reliance on higher loan to value (LTV) mortgages, particularly at or above 90% LTV. In 2019 around a fifth of all mortgages for home purchase were at this level. Reduced availability of mortgages at or over 90% LTV – as lenders meet increased demand at mid to lower LTVs – is a primary factor behind weakening demand.  


Figures show that in September 2020 compared to Q1, demand amongst first-time buyers has grown the least in London (1.8%), Yorkshire and the Humber (+4.8%), and the North West (9.7%). By contrast, Scotland (+83.5%), the East (+66.2%) and the South East (+65.8%) have all registered the highest increases of demand amongst homeowners.


90% LTV lending is most accessible in housing markets with average or below average house prices where loan to income limits do not exclude a high proportion of prospective buyers. The strongest growth in recent years has been in regional markets outside of southern England, and we expect first-time buyer demand to be more affected here.

London, as ever, tells its own unique story. As a higher priced market, 90% LTV lending is limited to those on high incomes or those with larger deposits - signalling a new subset of affluent first-time buyer. But as our figures show, London is not immune to the effects of reduced LTV lending. Weaker first-time buyer demand in London will also reflect that more first-time buyers are looking outside the capital for their first home - factoring in less commuting and more flexibility in working from home - and moreover, most likely, the need for a smaller deposit.


Figure 3: First time buyer and homeowner demand across UK regions

Source: Zoopla Research


2020: A transaction deficit

As the market continues its recovery following the impact of COVID-19 and the 50 day market closure in England, the strength of demand has seen new sales agreed outperforming the same period in 2019 by +3%. However, it’s unlikely that 2020 will recover the sales lost to the market hiatus due to the three to four month lag time between sales agreed and legal completions and, ultimately, we expect sales to run 15% below 2019 levels by the year end.


With demand currently tracking at 39% above this same period last year, the first quarter of 2021 is expected to deliver a windfall for the market, as sales agreed reach completion, and mortgage lenders and conveyancers make headway with the unprecedented backlog of applications.


Furthermore, the uptick in buyers is releasing more stock into the market and sales inventory is 10% above levels of availability 12 months prior. Greater supply increases choice, diluting competition for stock and regulating rate of house price growth.


Figure 4: A supply and demand imbalance across UK property 

Source: Zoopla Research


A broad based recovery

House prices growth continues on an upward annual trajectory of +2.6% as demand outpaces supply. At a region and country level, the annual rate of growth ranges from +1.7% in the North East to +3.3% in the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, and Wales. Nottingham and Manchester and recording price inflation of over 4% per annum.

Commenting on the latest UK House Price Index, Richard Donnell, Research and Insight Director, Zoopla, said: “Housing market conditions remain strong as new restrictions are introduced to control the spread of COVID.  These changes are likely to continue to support housing demand in the near term as the importance of the home grows. However, the housing market will not remain immune to the impacts of weaker economic growth and rising unemployment. 

“A change in the mix of buyers is supporting market conditions with sustained demand from equity rich existing owners seeking more space and a change in location. In contrast, first-time buyer demand is weakening. FTBs have been a driving force of housing sales over the last decade. They remain a key buyer group but lower availability of higher loan to value mortgages and increased movement by existing home-owners means a shift in the mix of home buyers into 2021.”



- Ends -

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