We were all sitting there in late October last year, staring at our TV and Computer screens and seeing report after report of bad news coming out of the International Banking and Property sectors.
The sub-prime mortgage balloon had burst and brought major chaos in the financial markets, firstly in the US, and then rapidly followed by similar collapses in the UK, Germany and the Far East.
Bad news seems to breed bad news, even if there is little linkage between each reported event, and the mainstream popular media in particular feeds and thrives on it.
I am certainly not trying to play down what happened. I have been involved in the Property and Construction World for over thirty years; firstly training as an Architect in the early seventies and then later on working in the Construction Products Manufacturing Industry throughout the "boom and bust" downturn cycles of the eighties and early nineties. So I have seen confidence evaporate before, although admittedly perhaps not this quickly.
However, I am also long enough in the tooth to remember that during each "collapse" we had the doom-merchants warning us that it would never, ever, be the same buoyant investment vehicle again, only to see the property market subsequently rise up, refreshed and even more vigorous than before.
So, I am predicting, without hesitation, that the property market will not only survive this fall but will re-emerge, renewed and very much alive, and perhaps a lot quicker than many of the current generation of "experts" are now telling us.
Property prices are driven by two major factors; firstly the supply of the product against the demand, and secondly the ability of the purchaser to finance the acquisition - in particular the availability of mortgage loan finance.
Remember also that the UK economy is so closely tied to a positive continuous growth model in property prices (which guarantees the income returns for the major part of the UK Pension Fund Industry) that it is this factor more than any other which will, before too long, ensure that the property market is made to thrive again, and the money market makers know this only too well.
The underlying supply of housing in the UK will never meet all the demand pressures built into the system - increasing numbers of single households, limits on available building land, growing population densities and labour-force immigration. As for the supply of finance, in the dark days after the Crash, the number of new mortgage approvals hit a record low of around only 5,000 in November 2008. However, recent Council of Mortgage Lenders predictions estimate that this is likely to have risen to over 30,000 in January 2009. Interest rates are at their lowest ever, and look likely to stay there for some time.
The other piece of "bad news" being fed into the mind-set of potential overseas property buyers was the so-called "exchange rate crisis". Whilst it is true that at virtual parity against the Euro, Sterling seemed to have lost 30% of its purchasing power in 18 months. However, in more recent days it has re-climbed to around 1.14, and the "smart money" is forecasting it will settle back to around 1.20 once the true market exposure position of the European Banks to their currently unacknowledged bad debt portfolio becomes clearer.
It may seem slightly paradoxical but the fall of Sterling versus the Euro exchange rate has actually opened up an unexpected "window" of opportunity for UK investors looking to secure a bargain and a good medium term return, in a relatively stable marketplace.
Let me explain that comment further. France has always had a far less volatile property market than the UK. The rises were not so spectacular, but the falls are always far less dramatic. Owning a property in France for a non-national is a simple process, with good legal protection via their Notaire Registration procedures. The costs of owning an investment property in France, ie not your principal residence, are also low. France has one of the lowest rates of "annual property taxes" of anywhere in the Western World. Admittedly, in the big cities Tax Fonciere can be high but in the Countryside owning a property - as a second home and thus except from "Tax d'Habitation" - can be less than a quarter of that of a similar UK Property. So, the financial outgoings of owning property in France will not make much of an impact, even with a weakening exchange rate.
But the real opportunity at the moment is very surprising, and as I said earlier almost paradoxical. I was at a meeting the other day with Trevor Leggett , Owner of Leggett Immobilier, the largest British owned estate agency in France -
Trevor was telling us that there are a significant number of British Ex-Pats at the moment who, often because of changes in their domestic and family situations (divorces, bereavements etc - rather than disenchantment with France), are now very keen to return to the UK. Many of these vendors had set their selling prices when the Euro was at around 1.4 against Sterling . ie for their asking price of 280,000 Euros they were planning on having 200,000 Pounds to spend on a property back in the UK. So, when the exchange rate dropped, to let's say 1.10, rather than be "greedy" and try and pocket the additional "windfall bonus" they mostly have taken the view that as they were only expecting 200,000 pounds they can afford to reduce their asking price to say 220,000 Euros and still be no worse off. Indeed the 200,000 pound house they were looking at is now valued at around 185,000 pounds anyway! This has incredible potential for UK buyers who can act quickly. For a wise buyer or investor, that same 220,000 Euro property can be bought for 200,000 pounds. (the same sterling cash sum as it would have cost 18 months ago at 280,000 Euros) The benefit for the purchaser is that they will have bought a "Euro" priced property for around 30% under market value !! Indeed Trevor confirmed that the average price drop, across the whole of his site, is around 20% - with bargains now being actively encouraged by vendors at 30, 40 and even 50% off previous asking prices. This is certainly the time to buy, and with the right advice and back-up as to the location and condition of the property and it's potential income yield, UK investors should be seriously looking at buying property now here in South West France.
As an example, a completely renovated Town House on the Historic Old Plateau of Angouleme is now currently on the market at around 170,000 pounds. Rental potential is very strong, either for the local permanent executive professional market or the highly lucrative holiday let and festival visitor sector. It is estimated that you could expect around 700 pounds per month, averaged across the year - as a permanent let - with up to 800 pounds a week in high season as a holiday let.