When houses start to earn more than workers

house keys©iStock.com/BrianAJackson

The rate at which house prices are rising in parts of the UK means more homes in more areas are earning as much as - and sometimes more than - their owners make in wages.

Figures just released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that house prices across the UK have reached an average of £287,000 - and that they've risen by around 7.0% in the past 12 months.

And while wages have started to rise again, there are already warnings that the growth we've seen in recent months is likely to slow again next year.

Doing nothing, earning thousands

Going by the ONS house price index, the average house in the UK earned just over £20,000 in the 12 months to October 2015. By comparison, their Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, released in November, stated that the median UK wage for the year ending April 2015 was £27,500.

Looking at the averages, then, houses aren't quite beating us in terms of how much they're earning just yet - but these general figures hide a lot of detail.

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In March, for example, the monthly house price data released by the Halifax showed that in the previous two years, homes in 73 of 384 UK local authority districts had gone up in value by more than the average take home pay.

Unsurprisingly the majority of the areas where homes were earning more on average than a full time worker were in the east and south east of England, including the capital; eight London boroughs featured in the top 10 areas where gains in house prices outstripped earnings.

The biggest gap was in Hammersmith and Fulham, where homes earned almost four times the average take home pay.

Continuing trends

At present, no one living north of Birmingham has to worry that they're being out-earned by their accommodation - but if the estate agents are to be believed, this could well change over the next 10 years.

The National Association of Estate Agents and the Association of Residential Letting Agents say house prices across the UK will rise by 50%, and pretty much double in London, in the next decade - which will mean a UK-wide average of £419,000, and prices in London of around £931,000, by 2025.

Among the factors cited for the rather dramatic prediction are tighter lending restrictions, a lack of housing, and low growth in wages.

Just one small part of the problem is that the population is growing older. Once it might have been the case that we could expect empty nesters and retirees to downsize into smaller homes - but as lifespans increase, there just aren't enough suitable properties available.

That's keeping some older people in much needed family sized homes - and then there are those who may once have considered downsizing but have changed their minds.

Affordable, apparently

Help to buy
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The Government have recently announced a doubling of the housing budget, to £2 billion a year, in order to support the construction of 400,000 new homes across England by 2020.

And in October, David Cameron told the Conservative Party Conference that he was committed to the building of more affordable homes across the UK.

The "starter homes" programme will give 200,000 first time buyers under the age of 40 a 20% discount on the price of a house or flat worth up to £250,000 outside London, and up to £450,000 inside the capital.

The scheme has been criticised on several fronts - perhaps most obviously for the eye-wateringly high definition of "affordable".

Shelter's Campbell Rob says homes meeting that definition "will be built at the expense of the genuinely affordable homes this country desperately needs".

So just how affordable are they?

Someone with a perfect credit history might be able to get a mortgage for four and a half times their salary - but outside London that would still mean having to earn almost £56,000 a year, nearly twice the UK average.

A couple without children, each earning the average, might be able to manage it - but if they're on the National Living Wage, that would mean working 135 hours a week between them.

To put it in a more realistic context, Shelter say that a family earning average wages - just under £49,000 - will be unable to afford a starter home in more than half of the UK's local authorities.

Wages rising, but-

In April this year, the Resolution Foundation suggested that earnings were growing by about 2.5%, buoyed in part by zero and even negative inflation.

And when the National Living Wage comes into effect next April, it'll give an estimated 2.5 million people a little more in their pay packets - but it's certainly not going to raise their incomes enough to make "affordable housing" any more affordable to them.

Indeed, while it's good that the lowest earners are being given a much needed pay rise, it's still not enough to be considered a real living wage - and any benefit felt could be negated by the return to positive inflation.

It's not just low earners that'll be affected: there are warnings that it could affect future wage growth for all of us. Having just turned positive again - at 0.1% - the predictions are that inflation will continue to rise well into the new year.

If that happens, and if productivity doesn't increase "significantly", then, the Resolution Foundation say, pay growth could dip to below 1% by the end of next year.

So who benefits?

Let's look back at those averages again, then.

Across the UK, houses have risen in value by 7% this year, and the expectation is that this trend will continue. This year, that increase amounted to an average of £20,000 across the UK - but next year it'll be higher.

Average wages, meanwhile, are £27,500 and rising at a slower rate - and that rate is widely expected to drop again.

It's quite possible, then, that it won't be long before average UK house price increases catch up with average earnings.

And while the areas where houses are earning more than workers are going to grab the headlines, even less impressive earners could well be out of reach before long.

Say we live in an area where houses are earning only half the average salary per year, and we're in the position where we can get a mortgage for four times our salary; the houses we can just about afford now will be completely out of our range next year.

As for those with mortgages already: how much their house is earning doesn't really make much difference to the people living in it, unless they're planning to sell.

We might be able to use our homes as security, but in most cases we can't use the increasing value of the bricks and mortar around us in any practical way.

It's difficult to see the benefit for most of us then, and all the more pressing that there's a much more comprehensive approach to fixing the housing market for all - including renters, first time buyers and downsizers - and not just for those who can probably already afford to buy.

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