Record London rents lure overseas landlords to house market

General views of London luxury homes. (Bloomberg pic)

LONDON: The UK’s struggle to secure a favourable Brexit deal may be giving Prime Minister Theresa May a headache, but it’s making London’s battered buy-to-let market attractive overseas again.

Foreign-based landlords owned 12% of the homes rented out in the capital at the end of the first half, up from 7% last year, according to a report by Hamptons International. A falling pound has made it cheaper for overseas investors to buy homes using their local currencies, and many have been lured by a red-hot rental market that’s still at record levels.

“I was convinced rents would drop as people fled the UK after the Brexit vote — in fact, everyone was expecting Armageddon,” said Agus Marcos Blanco, a 39-year-old pharmacist in Barcelona who shelved plans to purchase a London property immediately after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Now, with rents having stayed buoyant, he’s looking for a buy-to-let investment in the UK capital.

It’s not an entirely rosy picture for foreign landlords. By some measures, growth in the rental market has cooled or even declined. According to the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, rents in the capital slipped 0.3% in July from a year earlier.

Falling home values could easily wipe out any rental yields earned by landlords, as Britain’s housing market grapples with the impact of Brexit and rising interest rates. UK home prices fell 0.5% in August from a month ago, the biggest monthly drop since 2012, Nationwide Building Society said Friday.

Still, the jump in foreign interest is a boon for London’s real estate market as many domestic buyers have turned away after being priced out.

The imbalance between supply and demand in London has pushed average rents to 1,615 pounds (US$2,100) a month, according to Homelet, the UK’s largest tenant-referencing company. That’s the highest since it began collating the data in 2011 and 72% above the country-wide average of 937 pounds per month.

Juan Guerrero, head of foreign-exchange trading at Banca March SA in Madrid, estimates the pound could bounce back as much as 15% against the euro if the UK negotiates a successful EU divorce deal. A home worth the London average of 483,000 pounds costs a European buyer 537,500 euros at the current exchange rate, and would be worth around 70,000 euros more after such a rebound.

While the pound has rallied in recent days as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit has appeared to diminish, some forecasts have the UK currency sliding toward levels versus the euro last seen in 2009. That would mean rental returns would be worth less when converted back to a landlord’s own currency.

Marcos Blanco, who has bid an undisclosed amount for a two-bedroom apartment in Bow, East London, is undeterred by the prospect of a further drop in sterling. “I think all the negative news has been factored in, and the only way is up,” he said. “Time will tell.”