Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Dubai house prices to top UK property prices in 2008?

Indeed, the divergence in outlook between the UK and UAE property sectors for 2008 could hardly be more vivid. In the UAE, high economic growth rates fuelled by a five-year surge in oil and gas prices is being inflated further by a currency and interest rate regime pegged to the US dollar; and as the Fed cuts rates in the US home loans will also cost less in the emirates.

For local property this means cheap finance is available to buyers whose only alternative is to pay inflated annual rents. One study put the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment at Dhs10,000 per month compared with Dhs7,500 to buy.

In this atmosphere further increases in house prices look inevitable, with 10-20% appearing a conservative estimate for 2008. And at the same time the UAE mortgage sector is only just really opening for business. EFG Hermes estimates the local mortgage market is presently worth a tiny Dhs16bn and could grow 10-fold over the next five years; and the availability of finance will definitely be a factor in local house prices.

Falling mortgage costs
There is indeed mounting pressure on Emirates mortgage providers to lower their interest rates. Currently market rates stand around 7.5% whereas the newest market entrant Commercial Bank of Dubai offers risk-assessed home loans from a little over 5% to customers with the best credit profiles.

Market competition among the 23 lenders should mean that local home loan rates go lower this year, with US interest rates set to fall further and the dirham's peg to the dollar still firmly in place.

By contrast in the UK a 10-year housing bubble has just burst courtesy of the credit crunch that started last August, and caused the first run on a UK bank for more than a century. Mortgage conditions are now tougher for borrowers, rates have risen and transactions have fallen steeply. House price have been falling for the past four months.

UK boom over
Many economists have pointed out that on any valuation technique UK house prices have become overvalued by anything from 20-50%. In a market correction it is normal for prices to move to an over-correction before reverting to the long term average.

This is the main reason for expecting the gap between UAE and UK house prices to close in 2008: prices stand to fall sharply in the UK while in the UAE house prices still have a lot of upside.

However, there is one final factor that will close the gap: currency devaluation in the UK. The pound sterling has been riding high against the US dollar - due to the well known problems of the US economy - and has therefore made dirham-denominated property cheap in the UK and UK property that much more valuable in dirham terms.

Now that the UK economy faces a series of challenges not unlike those in the US and the pound sterling has fallen in value below two dollars to the pound. HSBC predicts a decline to 1.75 over the next 15 months as the pound devalues to offset the impact of a UK slowdown or recession.

Devaluation bonus
For UK owners of UAE property that will provide a nice gain in value in sterling terms. But at the same time the price differential between UK and UAE real estate will be eroded in dirham terms.

For instance, take the Dhs5.7m price of a five-bedroom villa in New Dubai. To obtain a house of similar size in the UK Home Counties might cost around Dhs9m today. Now factor in a 10% rise in Dubai prices to Dhs6.3m and a 20% decline in UK house prices bringing the comparable home to Dhs7.2m. Then adjust for a fall in the value of the pound sterling and you have cheaper homes in the UK than the emirates.

This is a remarkable phenomenon: When Dubai house sales to foreigners first started in spring 2002 prices were at around a quarter of comparable UK prices in the Home Counties. A little more than five years later and the tables are set to turn.