Vibrancy in housing is welcome, but a new bubble is not

Morning View
Morning View

The news that property prices have dipped in the Republic is a development that should be watched closely north of the border.

The island of Ireland suffered one of the worst house price crashes in economic history, with prices plunging at least 50 per cent and in many places — including parts of Northern Ireland — more than 60 per cent.

The property bubble, which peaked in 2006-07, was economically disastrous, because its bursting brought down individuals and businesses (and almost brought down banks).

Among the worst hit were young people who borrowed eight plus times their income to get on a housing ladder that, they were told by almost everyone, was a sure bet investment.

The bottom of the housing market was reached a year or two ago, with Dublin and Belfast leading the recovery. The Irish capital saw sharp, even alarming, rises last year that suggested that perhaps the bubble was re-inflating.

It was good that the bottom of the market had been reached, and seen to be reached, because it gave people confidence to buy and sell houses, a fundamental economic activity. Modest rises also gave some welcome relief to those homeowners who remain in deep negative equity.

But policy makers, both financial and legislative, should not lose sight of the fact that for everyone who gains from house price rises, someone else loses — typically young would-be buyers who find themselves priced out.

The Republic’s Central Bank is worried about the house price rises and is moving to dampen them.

We cannot do the same in Northern Ireland because our central bank is the Bank of England, which will not decide UK policy based on the needs of Northern Ireland.

But the Stormont Executive should do what it can to monitor prices and bank lending and help to inform people that while homeownership is a healthy aspiration, it isn’t a route to riches.