An introduction to planning permission

If you are ever considering being a buy-to-let landlord it is likely you will envision at some point making changes to your property in order to enhance its value. Depending on whether you wish to alter, you may need to obtain planning permission. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to go as far as to say that knowing about planning permission is an essential part of any buy-to-let landlord.

In 1948 the right to carry out property development was nationalized. In other words, landowners’ right to build and alter buildings, or to use land or buildings for a different purpose, was taken away by the government. Since that date, anyone wishing to carry out development needs permission to do so.

Permission is given mainly by the local planning authority for the area, which in most cases is the district, borough or city council (collectively referred to as ‘district’ councils). In addition, local government was charged with preparing plans for their areas showing where various kinds of buildings could and could not be built. Thus, the modern comprehensive planning system was born. The system is now overseen by Department of Communities and Local Government in England; the Scottish Government; the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland.

The planning system was introduced so that property development could be controlled in the public interest. Previously, buildings could be built anywhere, or they could be demolished, and land and buildings could be used for any purpose the owner chose. This was thought to be inefficient and sometimes had harmful consequences. The idea behind the planning system is that new buildings and uses are controlled to ensure:

that incompatible uses are not sited together;
the preservation of important buildings and areas;
the conservation of the countryside and natural environment;
the prevention of urban sprawl;
that the appearance and layout of new development is compatible with existing development;
that resources are not wasted;
that infrastructure can be provided efficiently;
that people’s enjoyment of their properties is protected;
highway safety;
co-ordinated provision of new housing and employment facilities.

However, the planning system is not coercive. It relies on landowners wanting to undertake development. An owner does not have to use land in a particular way just because it is allocated for that use or development. Similarly, even when permission is given, the owner is not compelled to act on it. The system is only concerned with what can be built. It does not deal with how it is built. Structural stability, health and safety, sanitation and so on are dealt with under separate legislation and regulations.

Fundamental to the planning system is planning policy. As well as allocating sites and areas for certain types of development, council development plans contain guidance and standards for buildings and uses, relating to matters such as design, layout, density, garden space, privacy, noise, highway safety, size and mix of buildings, parking and many other issues. This guidance, and standards, is known as planning policy and can be set out in a range of development plan documents. There is a preparation process that development plans must go through and public consultation and opportunities for public comment are built into the procedures.

In addition to local policies, the governments of the UK publish national planning policy documents. Inevitably, these are more broad-brush in nature. Their function is not only to guide decisions on individual development proposals but also to give direction to the development plans drawn up by local authorities. The government indicates what should be taken into account when preparing local plans and, in some areas, the thrust of what they should say. When seeking permission for development, planning law requires the body responsible for making the decision to do so in accordance with formally drawn up local planning policy, unless there are sound reasons for coming to a different conclusion. Therefore, planning policies are the prime consideration in whether planning permission will be given.

Permission is needed for development; consequently there is an application process for seeking that permission. Two types of planning application can be made. First, there are ‘full’ or ‘detailed’ applications. These show all aspects of the proposal and are specific about precisely what would be built, what alterations would be made or what use would be made of land or buildings. Second, there are outline applications. These are made to establish, in principle, whether a building can be built, leaving some or all details of the scheme to be determined subsequently. Outline applications can only be made for buildings not for changes of use, including conversions. The details of the building and site layout are called ‘reserved matters’, because they are reserved from the outline application. Another type of application is then made for the approval of reserved matters within the scope of the original outline permission. Once they have been approved, the outline and reserved matters together are the equivalent of a full planning permission.

Although planning permission is supposed to be obtained for development before it takes place, inevitably building work and changes of use happen without the necessary consent. In these circumstances, an application can be made for permission after the event. This is generally referred to as ‘retrospective’ planning permission.

There are various other applications which can be made after planning permission has been granted. Conditions are attached to permissions and there is a procedure for applying to remove or vary conditions. In certain circumstances, this type of application can be used to make changes to the design or layout of an approved scheme. There is a separate procedure for making very minor changes to a planning permission, called a non-material amendment. One condition attached to a planning permission is a time limit within which to begin the development permitted; this is usually three years for full planning permission (five years in Northern Ireland and Wales). Applications to extend the duration of planning permission are often referred to as ‘renewals’ although they are, technically, new applications.

Of course, not all planning applications are successful and the system includes an appeals process. Appeals are made to central government bodies: the Planning Inspectorate in England and Wales, and the Planning Appeals Commission in Northern Ireland.

The appeals system in Scotland is a little different. Appeals against decisions taken by council officers are decided by a group of elected councillors. Appeals against decisions taken by the council’s planning committee are made to the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals.

Appeals can be made when a council refuses permission, fails to make a decision within set time periods, or grants planning permission subject to conditions which the applicant wishes to vary or remove.

Appeals provide the opportunity for the merits of a proposed development to be considered by an independent inspector (reporter in Scotland, commissioner in Northern Ireland), free of local politics. Appeal decisions, and the interpretations they contain, are supposed to be taken into account by councils when deciding planning applications. Thus the appeals system is intended to keep a check on councils and to provide some consistency in decisions between councils.

A quick summary of what mediation entails

Mediation is a voluntary process in which the people involved in a dispute agree to sit down together with a neutral third party – the mediator – and discuss their mutual problem. They then work together, seeking a solution to the problem with which they can all live. Most often there are two people involved in a dispute, but there is no limit to the number that can be involved, or to who can attend a mediation to help resolve the dispute. While the mediator facilitates this process, the solutions that the people in the dispute come up with are entirely their own.

Mediation is voluntary because if someone absolutely does not want to attend a mediation, trying to force them to do so is unlikely to help in reaching resolution. You may have all kinds of misgivings about the party or parties with whom you are in dispute as you go into mediation, but essentially you must want to at least try to solve the problem. Mediation cannot work in any other way.

Generally, as the first step in the mediation process one party will contact the mediator expressing his or her desire to explore the options for mediation. If the dispute has reached a point where the parties are no longer in communication, most mediators are happy to speak to each person individually and confidentially, and to handle all contact in setting up the meeting between them if that facilitates the process. What the mediator cannot do is to force or coerce the other party to attend. All he or she can do is to talk to them and to explain the principles and processes of mediation, taking care to answer all their questions. Once the parties agree in principle to mediation, and before they’ve even sat down with the mediator, they are showing a willingness to resolve the dispute.

Mediation’s emphasis is on moving forward – not on looking back. Your dispute has got to where it is now and, however it got there, focusing on that part of the problem usually does not help anyone come to a resolution. Mediation’s purpose is to focus on the future and to progress on new terms with which everybody can live.

When you go to court, the focus is always on the past: who has been at fault, who has broken a contract, who has done something wrong, who has done what to whom. At the end of the court process a decision is handed down by the judge which attributes blame and prescribes a remedy. The court generally makes no attempt to give direction on how the parties should proceed in the future, and certainly does not want to involve itself in any ongoing supervisory role. This can be particularly difficult if the parties have to remain in any sort of relationship with each other such as in family cases or in cases involving relatives or work colleagues.

Mediation’s focus is on how to move forward and this is achieved by directing attention on how to solve the problem. It can also contain agreed terms for the future conduct of the relationship, if that is what the participants want.

Disputes in any context tend to generate a lot of bad feeling and high levels of stress. Have you ever been in a dispute with anyone? Most of us have. No matter how small the argument, feeling angry, unheard and misunderstood does not feel good, even if you are convinced that you are 100% in the right. Relationships of all kinds can be heavily damaged by dispute. The longer people remain in dispute with each other, the more they look for evidence to support their point of view in the argument and they therefore focus on the dispute. They fixate on this and focus all their energy on it to the extent that finding a workable and amicable solution that helps find a way out could not be further from their thoughts.

When people are in conflict, stress levels can rise sharply, and this is not healthy for anyone on either side of a dispute. Relationships outside the argument can also suffer when someone is very angry for such a very long time. When an amicable, acceptable resolution is reached, stress levels immediately drop and people feel much more positive and much lighter. A weight is lifted from their shoulders and the time and energy they once focused on the argument can now be used for things that are helpful and enjoyable to them.

Mediation is entirely confidential. This is another very important point and must be strictly observed by the mediator and by all parties to the dispute. Anything that is said or done in a mediation cannot be revealed to outside parties either during or after the mediation.

Mediation is also ‘without prejudice’. If your mediation is one of the few that is unsuccessful, and the decision is taken to proceed to court, whatever was said in the mediation may not be relied on in court by either party without the express permission of the party that made the statement. This means that if something new comes to light in an unsuccessful mediation, this information cannot be brought into the legal arena. Neither can the mediator be brought into the legal arena as a witness, save on the orders of a Judge.

The description of the mediation process as without prejudice means that anything said during the mediation cannot then be used as evidence in any legal proceedings which are being considered or already started. This allows parties to talk openly about options for agreement. Parties are able to suggest new and creative possibilities for agreement without jeopardising their chance to go (or to go back) to court if an agreement isn’t reached. A mutually agreeable outcome is often one which could not have been reached in court.

With the exception of family mediations, where some records must be kept, the mediator destroys all notes and information relating to the meeting apart from the agreements to mediate and the record of the attendees at the meeting. This further protects the confidentiality of all who attend as there is then no danger of any information falling into the wrong hands.

The voluntary and non-binding nature of mediation means that parties are not compelled to reach an agreement and options for an agreement can be discussed without binding themselves to a particular outcome. There is no consequence on the parties if they are unable to agree (other than financial loss where the mediation is self-funded). Mediated agreements are only binding if both parties wish them to be.

During a mediation, while the mediator assists and facilitates the process, the parties are responsible for generating options for agreement and the terms of any settlement reached. The mediator does not offer their opinion on the merits of either party’s case or seek to determine or impose any outcome. They do not make suggestions or recommend proposals for agreement (but may pass offers between the parties if requested to do so). Any agreement reached must be mutually acceptable to all parties and will have been created by them.

It is integral to the mediation process that parties are able to make informed choices, about what to propose by way of agreement and whether to reach a settlement. Mediators encourage parties to explore their positions so that any agreement reached can reflect their needs and interests. Mediators also encourage parties to consider the likely alternatives to reaching a mediated agreement to objectively assess any offer on the table. When a dispute involves legal rights and entitlements, parties should seek legal advice before commencing mediation. Parties may have a legal adviser present during the mediation (or available on the telephone), or be given the opportunity at the end of the mediation to consult a legal adviser before reaching a legally binding agreement.

Mediation invites parties to widen the potential options for agreement and explore new possibilities and ideas. Mediated settlements can be reached where direct negotiations have failed by getting the right people in the same room and breaking down barriers to communication. The time spent by a mediator encouraging parties to explore their own needs, as well as those of the other party, enables participants in mediation to make practical proposals. Such offers may have added-value as they may have huge significance to one party but can be provided with minimal inconvenience to the other. It may involve looking at previously unconsidered options and widening the options for agreement.

The Property Ombudsman offers free, impartial and independent service for the resolution of unresolved disputes between consumers and property agents. The scheme has been providing consumers and property agents with an alternative dispute resolution service for 27 years. A member agent signed up with The Property Ombudsman is obliged to adhere to a code of practice which consumers can take confidence from.

Reasons for investing in properties

A lot of mediation cases result from disputes between landlords who want to maximise their bottom dollar and spend as little as possible, and tenants who feel they are being pushed to do the landlord’s job of upkeeping properties because the landlords are not responsive enough. What makes someone want to invest in property in the first place if they are not prepared to invest time and money into maintaining it?

Cash Flow: Whether you buy with all cash or use today’s favorable financing with a low mortgage payment, positive monthly cash flow occurs when the monthly rent is greater than the monthly expense. This gives you a monthly income from your property investment.

Appreciation: Appreciation is the increase in the property’s value, which generally occurs over time and can also be increased by an investor who adds value to the property through repairs and/or enhancements. This is a great way to create equity in the property.

Depreciation: Even with an increase in the property’s value, the government allows owners a tax deduction on their property over its life span. This annual deduction is called depreciation which you can start taking when you have owned the property for at least one year. By taking advantage of depreciation, the cash flow you receive is protected so that you receive some or all of it tax free. If you are an investor with an income from another source such as a regular job, it can also protect all or some of that income from state and/or federal income taxes. Talk to an accountant to completely understand the full benefits of depreciation.

Tax Benefits: In addition to depreciation, an investor can usually claim the interest portion of his monthly mortgage payment as a tax deduction.

Leverage: Leverage is a very powerful reason for investing in property. If an investor uses 100% cash to acquire a house worth $100,000, and the house increases in value by $5,000 in one year, then the investor makes a return of 5% (assuming no other costs in this case). However, if the investor obtains 80% financing, only $20,000 cash would be required at the closing table, and a bank or other lender would loan the remaining $80,000 to acquire the property. Assuming the same $5,000 increase in value, the investor’s cash contribution of $20,000 would yield a 25% return on investment ($5,000 increase in value divided by the $20,000 investment) in the same one year period of time.

Using the above example, if the investor is able to net even a conservative cash flow of $200 per month, this will result in an additional $2,400 per year added to the increased appreciation. The return for the year would now be $7,400 ($5,000 appreciation plus $2,400 cash flow) and the return on investment would now be 37% ($7,400 divided by $20,000). Even if the property value remained stable with no appreciation, there would still be a positive return of the $2,400 in cash flow with a return on investment of 12%.

Considering these benefits in addition to the low interest rates for financing, you can see how easy it is to accumulate wealth and become a successful investor.

Other Reasons Why People Invest in property
Now let’s look at other reasons why people invest in property. First, let me ask you a very simple, yet provocative question: Why would you invest in property? Understanding the answer or answers to this question will help you along your investment career. Following are the most common answers I have heard during the course of my property career:

Freedom: Frankly, this is why most people start investing in property. They get star struck with the idea of riches that would give them the freedom to stop working for someone else. They may have a great job that they absolutely love that pays the bills, but they still want to achieve long-term freedom. They can see that by buying and holding cash flow properties over time (and sacrificing and delaying gratification), in five, ten or twenty years, they can have a pile of monthly cash flow and have gained the freedom they desire.

Control: Some investors I speak with want property in order to gain some degree of control over their financial lives because, let’s face it; we have zero control in financial investments outside of property investing. If you invest in the stock market or money market funds, you have no control over the return you will make. With property, there are things that you can do to control your return on investment as shown above.

Alternatives: Some investors will admit that property is nothing more than a portion of their overall investment portfolio. Perhaps they have divided their portfolio to include mutual funds, stocks, property, etc. Or they may be looking to achieve higher returns from their cash through active management.

Job Escape: A few investors look at property investing as a career, or a chance to own their own company. Others may look at property as a means to eventually replace the job or career they currently hate. Creating Value or Thrill of the Hunt: Many investors love the thrill of the hunt, chasing down a deal or cashing in on their last remodel. They pursue that addictive feeling and are always looking for the next rush or opportunity to turn an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.

Options: After many years of property investing, I have come to realize that in the end people love investing in property because it has given them so many more options. They have the options to keep working their current job, to buy property as a full time career, to have the time and money to travel, etc. The more they invest, the more option doors are opened.

The Real Reason to Invest in property
People fall hard for the sexy pitch of earning freedom. Frankly, freedom is good but I think what people really want is options. That is why they keep working so hard to find the next deal, to find the next investor, and to keep building their growing portfolio. Some might think freedom and options are the same things. But freedom is more sustained while options are more temporary. But to me, freedom means that a person can stop doing something while options mean a person can do other things. I can tell you firsthand that having options is better than having freedom. I would say you get freedom first and then you build or acquire options.

Before you take the plunge in investing in property

Many potential investors are asking whether, given current market conditions, it is the right time to invest in property development. This is because property prices are falling in many parts of the United Kingdom and people are beginning to worry about the ‘credit crunch’ and the effect this will have on their family finances. To be able to answer this question it is important to understand the relationship between the UK economy and the housing market, consider short- and long-term trends and undertake a full assessment of market conditions. It is also important to consider possible benefits for investors of the current market position, especially in terms of the availability of bargain properties such as repossessions and failed buy-to-let investment properties. Once you have considered these issues you can then ask whether it is prudent to invest in property development at this time.

If you are thinking about investing in property development you need to have a thorough understanding of current and future economic and market conditions, and understand how they relate to the housing market. As we have seen in the United States, when the economy expands, lenders tend to extend too much credit and consumers are happy to accept this credit, usually because they have confidence in the housing market. This results in many people taking out larger mortgages than they can realistically afford, and leads to much greater borrowing on credit cards and hire purchase agreements. However, when economic conditions worsen, excessive borrowing means that people are unable to meet their payments, confidence in the housing market slumps, property prices begin to fall and homes are repossessed.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that the UK housing market will follow the US market, but on a two-year time lag. Experts fear that many homeowners in the United Kingdom who have overstretched their borrowing will suffer as a similar credit crunch begins and inflation rises. Indeed, recent figures indicate that the number of repossessions in the United Kingdom reached 27,100 in 2007, up from 22,400 in 2006 according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML), and experts fear that this figure will rise to more than 45,000 in 2008. This has prompted the UK Government to begin talks with mortgage lenders to try to avert the crises and deal more favourably with homeowners who find themselves in arrears and facing repossession.

Some experts, however, think that the media in particular are over-emphasizing the financial problems being faced by the United Kingdom and that, in doing so, they are making a bad economic situation worse. Financial crises are always big news and the media has had some spectacular financial stories to report recently, including problems with rogue traders and bank collapses. Some people believe that this type of scaremongering could lead to people reducing their spending and saving money, which means that less money is spent and large amounts of money are removed from the economy. This can help to increase the likelihood of a recession and a property market crash.

One view is that buyers are being manipulated by stories in the media that do not reflect reality. This is because the media need to tell a story, but they also need to entertain, which often leads to a concentration of personal stories that do not reflect what is happening in reality. However, despite stories in the media not always reflecting reality, the media do have considerable influence on the public. Indeed, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found in a recent survey that 23 out of 200 surveyors cited media gloom as having an impact on confidence in their local property market. If people are new to a particular market, such as property development, it is understandable that they will take note of the media when making investment decisions. However, you should balance this information with your own research.

The economy in the United Kingdom is suffering, and there is potential for a property market crash, but this does not mean that property development is not still a viable investment opportunity, as long as careful decisions are made backed up by thorough personal research.

If you are thinking about investing in property development, it is important to monitor inflation and interest rates carefully to make the most of your investment. At this present time, the UK inflation rate is well above the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target and above average for the European Union as a whole. Inflation determines the real return on any investment that you make and can have a major impact on the value of your investment in the future. This is of particular importance when viewing property investment as a long-term strategy. Therefore, you need to make sure that if you decide to invest in property development, your plans are not at the mercy of inflation and any future rises that may occur.

In the United Kingdom the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) measures changes in the prices of selected household goods and uses this to determine the rate of inflation. For more information about the CPI and for up-to-date figures, visit www.statistics.gov.uk.

When economic growth is strong more money chases fewer goods and services, which pushes up prices and leads to higher inflation, which is what we have seen over the past few years in the United Kingdom. When this occurs, interest rates are used to keep growth broadly in line with its long-run trend of around 2.5 per cent each year.

This is one of the reasons why interest rates rose in 2006 and 2007. Higher interest rates tend to discourage borrowing and encourage saving, which should slow the economy. Lower rates encourage borrowing and should have the opposite effect. This is one reason why we have seen the recent cuts in interest rates. Movements in interest rates affect the overall level of demand in the economy and so can have a powerful influence on the inflation rate. Although higher inflation rates tend to be good for borrowers and bad for investors, you need to consider this link between inflation and interest rates when making your investment. If you intend to take out a mortgage on a property, the real value of your mortgage could be reduced considerably in times of high inflation, so this could work in your favour, but only if interest rates are favourable. Therefore, if you have cash to invest it may not be prudent to invest all of it in property by buying outright when inflation is high. Instead, you could decide to borrow on the property, or you could look to other types of investment.

When doing this you need to consider the trends and prospects of other types of investment. Other assets, such as shares, can produce better returns than the property market, but this type of investment is much more volatile. In general, bonds and high-interest savings accounts will not provide as good a return as property has done over the last 35 years, but, in general, they are much safer options. If you are interested in other types of investment, you should seek the advice of an independent financial advisor.

To gain a better understanding of the trends and prospects of the housing market it is useful to look at how the market has performed in the past. Two useful house price surveys are produced by the Halifax and the Nationwide Building Society. The Halifax House Price Index was first produced in 1983. It shows that since then house prices have increased by 8 per cent a year, while inflation has increased by 4.5 per cent a year. The Nationwide house price survey began in 1973 and in that time house prices have increased by an average of 9 per cent a year. This compares to an average rate of inflation of 7 per cent a year over the same period. These figures show that house prices have beaten inflation over the last 25–35 years, and that therefore buying property has represented a good long-term investment.

Where investors can lose out is when they view their investment as a short-term strategy during times of market uncertainly. For example, in the five years from 1990 to 1995 house prices fell by around 10 per cent. Short-term investors who spent large amounts of money on properties and then tried to sell them lost out considerably during this time because prices were falling so quickly. However, in the 13 years since 1995 house prices have more than trebled in many parts of the United Kingdom. This means that, during this period, short-term property development strategies did prove to be very lucrative. Even people who bought properties that they sold on without doing any work were able to make a profit as prices were rising so quickly.

Currently we are experiencing another drop in the market. Therefore, there will be less opportunity for short-term developers to make a profit, whereas long-term developers can buy properties cheaply and keep hold of them until prices begin to rise again. If you are only interested in short-term development you must be very careful in your property choices if you are not to lose money on your investment.

Opinion is divided about whether we will experience a property market crash. Experts have predicted that house prices will fall over the next two years anywhere between 5 and 40 per cent. As we have seen above, short- and long-term fluctuations in the housing market have always occurred and it is inevitable that an adjustment to the housing market will take place after the boom of the last decade. House prices have more than trebled in certain parts of the United Kingdom over that time and it is impossible to sustain this type of growth.

In March 2008 the Halifax reported that house prices fell by 2.5 per cent, which is the biggest single drop since the property market crashed in 1992. However, these figures do not reflect the whole story, as this kind of drop is not occurring in all parts of the United Kingdom. Indeed, house prices are still rising in some areas, such as parts of London, the East Midlands and parts of the South West. However, as a potential investor you must be aware of the types of property that are rapidly losing their value and the areas that are dropping at a higher rate than others.

For example, over the past decade buy-to-let investment has become very popular for part-time, amateur investors. Unfortunately, many of these people felt that it would be an easy way to make a large profit without putting in the required amount of work, again fuelled by over-the-top success stories reported in the media. This has led to investors making inappropriate decisions about when, where and what to buy, and many have paid too high a price for a property that is difficult to let. Many of these investors are now getting the jitters, again due to media reports about a property crash. They, along with other buy-to-let investors, are trying to sell their properties. This has led to a number of similar properties appearing on the market at the same time, which has pushed prices down further and made the properties harder to sell. Although this is unfortunate for the people trying to sell, it creates more opportunities for potential buyers who can negotiate considerable price reductions. However, you must understand why the venture has failed in the past and make sure that you don’t make similar mistakes. This involves undertaking a careful assessment of the current and future rental market in the area.

With all the current and potential financial problems we are experiencing in the United Kingdom such as rising inflation, the increasing costs of mortgages and credit, and the rising cost of food and fuel, you are bound to be asking whether the present time is really the time to invest in property development. Investing in property development can no longer be viewed as an easy way to make a quick profit, especially given current market conditions. However, it can be a lucrative and fulfilling venture if you are prepared to put in the required work and conduct all the necessary research. The property market is facing uncertainly over the next few years, but wise investors and full-time professionals who are in for the long haul know that property investment is safe and secure if they treat it with the respect it deserves. As long as you are careful, do your research and make wise decisions, then the time can still be right to invest in property development. Indeed, recent movements in the market, fuelled in part by the media scare stories mentioned above, has meant that there are more bargains available, if you know where to look and know how to compete with other property developers.

At the moment it is a buyer’s market and there are plenty of bargains available. You need to undertake a careful assessment of your present and future finances when you think about investing in property development. It is important to consider these in terms of the amount you can afford to borrow, the interest rates you will have to pay and how these may rise or fall in the future. As the housing market begins to slow down, how will this affect your financial investment, over both the short and the long term? You must make sure that you do not put your family and your home at risk through unwise investment choices.

Short- and long-term trends need to be taken into account when you consider your investment strategy. Although short-term strategies may still work in areas where property prices are rising, they will not work in areas where prices are falling. You must bare this is mind when developing your investment strategy.

In conclusion, to invest successfully in property you must understand the relationship between the UK economy and the housing market, consider short- and long-term trends and undertake a full assessment of market conditions. While present market conditions may not be so favourable for property developers who wish to renovate and refurbish to sell on, there is still plenty of potential for developers who see their investment as a long-term strategy. If you are hoping to invest in property development, there are a number of different strategies that you can adopt, depending on your family circumstances and finances, your skills, the property market and the area in which you live.

Building a Property Portfolio? Some considerations

The overall demand for private rented property is now stronger than ever, with the mortgage market restricted for purchasers and house price inflation, particularly in the south east, creating the need for high deposits which people cannot find. Lending has become far more stringent, owing to the onset of the credit crunch and the banks unwillingness to loan money, particularly to property investors. Essentially, accessing finance has become a big issue. The banks favour those with large cash deposits. This is the same in the buy-to-let sector as for domestic mortgages.

However, if finance can be arranged then the yields that one can expect from buy-to-let properties are high by comparison, currently standing at 6%. Of course, this depends on where the property is located. See overleaf for a table indicating the best buy to let areas in the UK. A yield is a portfolio’s annual rental income as a percentage of total value. The reason is that demand for private rented property is high, particularly as first time buyers cannot get a toehold in the market. They are instead turning to the private rental sector. Therefore, investing in property, for the longer term, as opposed to investing for short-term gain, is still a viable option.

Rental returns on buy-to-let are biggest in regional centres like Southampton, Manchester and Nottingham – where one in four homes are now privately rented. Property investors are looking way beyond London and identifying regions where yields are almost three times as high as in the capital. Cities offering the greatest yields – rental income measured against the property cost – include Southampton, Blackpool, Nottingham and Hull.

The latest data on buy-to-let returns, from lender HSBC, also shows the proportion of property in each area already owned by landlords. And in many of the top-yielding areas private landlords already own one in four properties, or more. Southampton, with rental yields of 8.73pc, currently tops the list for rental returns. Manchester, Nottingham, Blackpool and Hull complete the top five locations with the best rental yield at 7.98pc, 7.67pc and 7.47pc respectively.

In all of those areas, except Hull, private landlords already own one in five properties, or more. These areas also offer the characteristics that make for excellent buy-to-let investment, the experts say: relatively low house prices coupled with strong demand for rental property from large student and young professional populations.

The lowest yields were registered in areas such as London where recent price rises have been large and rapid, outpacing the growth in rents. In London in particular, there is a higher proportion of rental property than elsewhere, with 38pc of property in Westminster, for example, being privately rented.

Rental yields
Investment properties which are rented out receive an income from tenants. In order to calculate the gross rental yield the annual rental income is divided by the purchase price of the property (annual rent÷price) × 100 = Gross rental yield).

So, if the property was purchased for £75,000 (total) and the rent received is £450 per month the yield would be: £5400 (annual rent) ÷ £75,000 × 100 which equals an annual yield of 7.2. This is a very respectable return on your capital. Of course if you are a landlord then you will want to factor in the costs of being a landlord, such as maintenance, insurance, loan costs, empty periods etc.

Capital yields
If and when a property increases with time, this is known as capital growth. A simple example is if you buy a property for £75,000 and it increases by 25% there will be a capital appreciation of £18,750. It is a rule of thumb that low price properties might produce a high rental yield and low capital growth and vice-versa, although this is not always the case. Again, each case differs and many factors will play a part but as long as you know what you want then you should be safe with your investment.

If you are interested in averages, landlords receive £678 in rent each month as a national average. However, as always, averages don’t give the whole picture. Landlords in London and the South East collect the highest rents, with £1,079 and £816 respectively. In the west Midland rents average £678 and in East Anglia £676. Approximately 60% of this is spent on borrowing and management costs, leaving landlords with a healthy 40% profit on average.

With buy-to-let mortgage rates so cheap (at the moment) now is the time to expand your portfolio releasing equity and raising deposits to buy new properties. However, when expanding your portfolio it is important to be realistic and ensure that you invest in properties that can be sold on easily, as there may come a time when you need to get your hands on the capital that you have tied up. As with everything, property is a good investment as long as it is managed well.

Too many would-be landlords buy property and neglect it which has a negative impact on the environment and also a negative impact on the investment as a whole. A run down property will decrease in value and the possibility of renting it out for a full market rent will also diminish.

What kind of property is suitable for letting? Obviously there are a number of different markets when it comes to people who rent. There are those who are less affluent, young and single, in need of a sharing situation, but more likely to require more intensive management than older more mature (perhaps professional) people who can afford a higher rent but require more for their money. The type of property you have, its location, its condition, will very much determine the rent levels that you can charge and the clients that you will attract. The type of rent that a landlord might expect to achieve will be around ten per cent of the value of the freehold of the property, (or long leasehold in the case of flats). The eventual profit will be determined by the level of any existing mortgage and other outgoings.

If you are renting a flat it could be that it is in a mansion block or other flatted block and the service charge will need to be added to the rent. When letting a property it is necessary to consider profit after mortgage payments and likely tax bill plus other outgoings such as insurance and agents fees (if any).

Why moving house is stressful and how to manage it

A recent study found that over two thirds of adults would put moving house at the top of the stress list. The whole process of shifting from one property to property can cause stress levels to rise, catastrophically in some, and at least to some degree in others. It is not unsurprising of course. Imagine having to pack up all the items in your fridge, placing them carefully so they are not damaged in transit, then transporting them to be transferred in a different fridge elsewhere. The process of moving house is similar to that, but on a greater level. It may even involve transporting the fridge itself! The whole process of bundling your life’s possessions into little boxes and hauling them elsewhere to unpack can be a physically exhausting process.

Some people liken the whole process to military boot camp. You do physical tasks, for what seems like a menial purpose over and over again. Lift box. Put box in removals van. Lift next box. You could at least look at the positive side of things. In the whole process of moving house you could unearth a few lost items that you had forgotten about. Moving house involves excavating behind the settee, behind cupboards and may reunite you with old treasures.

Is it fair to say though, that the physical side of moving house is only the tip of the iceberg? The actual day is only one in the long run of things, a chain that starts with viewings, making offers, mortgage agreements in principle, conveyancing, exchange of deeds. Along the way there are various conversations to be had with estate agents, solicitors, the other party. All that increased workload has to be factored in the working day and fitted in somehow among the demands of work, because normal life can’t stop just because you are moving house … and in the midst of all that there is the constant thought of wondering if you made the right choice. But the most important trigger of stress could be said to be – amidst all that has been mentioned – the threat of a sale falling through. All the work and planning for moving house could be for nothing, and could be wiped out with a single phone call. Why do sales fall through? It could be your finances not adding up. It could be that the seller is in a chain and further up there has been some complication which has fallen back on you. Or it could be something as fickle as the seller trying to extract more money from you, using improving market conditions as an excuse. Or the seller may simply have decided not to move.

Of the above reasons, only one is within your control. When you commit to a purchase, your time and energies are placed in one basket, but this commitment to the buyer is not necessarily reciprocal. It is a bit like buying a lottery ticket with your last pound, and hoping the results will work in your favour. And the prolonged process of trying to live under that kind of umbrella can evoke underlying stress.

Moving house is also not just about moving properties. For some, it is also about a change of lifestyle especially if you are relocating from city to country or vice versa. A change in locations especially across cities may mean changes in relationships, your helpful neighbours in London may find it hard to make it to Bedford. Moving house may also mean moving jobs. The transitions between two different sets of lifestyles, and having to straddle between them for a few months, can similarly be difficult. And if you are moving into a property that needs renovating, there are more obstacles to life in the road ahead.

No wonder moving house causes stress. On one hand, it is the culmination of one process that started with looking for a new home. On the other hand, it is the start of a new stress process of a new lifestyle. And the actual move itself can be stressful.

But there are things you can do to alleviate the stress. You can never eliminate stress completely, but the sense that you have done all you can for the things within your control can give you some stability and peace of mind throughout the process. Get your agreement in principle in order before you make an offer. Make a list of moving companies in your area and services in the area you are moving to. And when you are looking for properties, choose an agent registered with The Property Ombudsman. This ensures that you have some avenue for redress in event of a complaint. You may not need it, but the feeling of being in control may help reduce the stress normally associated with moving.

Increasing numbers of buy to lets by cash buyers

According to Countrywide, nearly two thirds of the properties purchased by landlords were made using cash buyers. This is in contrast to the other third, which were completed using arranged mortgages. The value of properties purchased for the purpose of buy to lets totalled £31.5 billion, and of these, those made using cash payments accounted for a staggering£21.0 billion.

What can we glean from these financial statistics? The first we can deduce from the smaller percentage share is that some landlords are leveraging their existing properties in order to expand their portfolios. The one third of properties purchased are to have been based on buy to let mortgages, where perhaps an existing mortgaged property is remortgaged to release equity that goes towards a second property intended for lease. It reflects the thinking that buy to let is increasingly seen as a better investment than traditional bank investments. And while buyers are aware that a fall in house prices may result again in the future, they seem to be banking on the annual percentage gain to negate that loss.

Slightly more worryingly is the fact that two thirds of purchases were made outright with cash buyers. This highlights the fact that landlords are increasingly getting richer through the housing market, increasing their financial wealth considerably enough to afford such purchases in cash. And it points towards a worrying trend where those who have capital find it easier to accumulate even more capital, while thousands of young buyers are increasingly priced out, and have to resort to one of the following options:

Commuting to work in an area where salaries are higher and living in an area where the house prices are lower; this commute length is likely to increase as the property prices and rents increase;

Paying high rental rates and not being able to save for a deposit towards a house until significantly later in life, or not at all;

Having to make do with a lower standard of rental housing, to be able to afford to live in a particular area;

The figure of two thirds of landlord purchases by cash surpassed the three in five figure in 2011. In 2007, this figure was only two in five. In other words, the proportion of landlords buying in cash has increased by 26% in ten years, from 40% in 2007.

A favourable location for outright buy to lets is in the North of England and Scotland. While that may be good news for home owners, in that it drives house prices up as well as rentals, tellingly, the majority of purchases made are not made by people within the area, but by landlords outside of it. And this cannot be good news for the people who live in these regions. The ideal scenario for most people is to work in an area where salaries are higher, to have an income that outstrips living costs such as rentals or mortgages. But with landlords buying in Northern England and Scotland, turning it into an investment hotspot, the people in the area are trapped in a cycle of comparatively lower salaries and high prices.

Nearly four out of every five homes in the North East of England were bought by outright cash buyers, an astounding figure.

The trend was however reversed in the capital. It can be surmised that property prices in London were too high for many outright cash purchases. Landlords buying in London were the most likely to use a mortgage and London was the only region where statistically, two out of five purchases were cash-backed, well under the national average. Of course, this suggests that in some areas the proportion of outright cash buyers was even higher.

What inferences can we draw from the data? The first is that investment properties are on the rise. For estate agents, a registration with The Ombudsman Property Service is a sign that you work within a framework of established rules and regulations, which may be the distinguishing factor in determining if landlords choose to entrust their properties to you to manage or not.

Young professionals seeking to rent a property should choose one managed by a landlord or agent signed up to The Ombudsman Property Service. This means they are obliged to work to professional standards. You may get the offer of a cheaper rental property from a private landlord, on fairly informal terms, but accepting this may mean you have no means of redress when disputes arise.

The news that rental costs are increasing are not good. What can young professionals do in order to get on the property ladder? No one wants to be committed to a lifetime of renting, if they could help it, because while the ability to move from place to place and lead a bohemian lifestyle may seem idyllic in your twenties, having no roof over your head when you’re in your sixties is hardly a thrilling nomadic existence. And when you can see it coming from the vantage point of your forties and fifties, these thoughts will continually prey on your mind.

A recent report suggested young professionals could give up certain luxuries in order to accumulate enough capital to form a substantial deposit. The deposit for a London property is approaching £80,000 or £90,000. Taking the average annual salary of £26,000, minus rent, the average person would be in their forties by the time they got a foothold on the ladder. The report suggests that a foothold might be more quickly established if nights out, takeaway sandwiches and coffees were forgone, among other expensive luxuries like cigarettes. But it would be difficult to live a life that seems devoid of any entertainment, even though it may be a sacrifice the first time buyer may have to make.

The difficulty with reconciling what one wants from life with what one can afford is one of the difficulties we all have to overcome. Young people have aspirations of how they would like their lives to turn out, and aspirations of lifestyle that they have to manage. But perhaps the notion of doing without luxuries for a few years is a step too far, and those that have their eyes on the gulf between house prices and salaries have decided they cannot bridge the gap, or commit to closing the gap, and have decided to enjoy life and all its luxuries while they can.

The divergence between salaries and house prices has also inadvertently fuelled another trend. This trend is the currency of hope. Young professionals, unfortunately, are increasingly seeking an outlying factor to help them expand their savings enough to meet their dream property. An outlier is an event that lies outside traditional empirical data, what might call a one-off that defies evidence. An example of an outlier might be a lottery windfall. There is no past evidence that points towards a future win, but when it happens suddenly a sudden restructuring of the status quo results. Another outlier is perhaps an inheritance; a sudden unexpected sum of money would help make up the gap for a deposit. First time buyers are relying also on parental help. But there is also an increasing number of young professionals who are turning towards reality television, singing competitions and all kinds of sudden fame in the hope that it would suddenly lift them out of the existing situation, and provide some additional financial boost into their dream one.

Are others relying on property as their hope?