The Help to Buy Scheme1 has increased home ownership and housing supply. However, many of those using the scheme would have been able to buy a home anyway, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The scheme was introduced by, what is now, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (the Department) in April 2013 to increase both home ownership and boost housing supply, by helping people to get mortgages and thereby, create more new-build homes.
However, as the scheme is demand led, and all eligible applicants are given equity loans, the Department did not set itself targets for either of these measures. The scheme is the Department’s largest housing initiative by value.
Homes England delivers the scheme. By December 2018, it had made around 211,000 loans amounting to £11.7 billion. Between the start of the scheme in April 2013 and September 2018, 38% of all new-build property sales have been supported by loans through the scheme, which is around 4% of all housing purchases during this time.
According to the Department’s own independent research, 37% of households would not have been able to buy any property without the scheme. The NAO estimates this has resulted in around 78,000 additional sales of new-build homes as of December 2018. Around 81% of all buyers supported by the scheme have been first-time buyers.
The Department’s independent research also found that around three-fifths of buyers could have bought a property without the support of Help to Buy, but not necessarily a property they wanted. Almost a third of all buyers (65,000 households) could have purchased a property they wanted without the scheme.
Around 4% of the 211,000 buyers who had used the scheme by December 2018 had household incomes over £100,000. In the Department’s opinion these transactions are an acceptable consequence of designing the scheme to be widely available.
Take-up has been low in less affordable areas where the ratio of house prices to average earnings is higher. To address the initial low London take-up, the government increased the maximum loan in the region to 40% of the property value. This improved London take-up from 12%, between the start of the scheme and December 2015, to 26% of new-build sales, between January 2016 and September 2018, but it is still lower than the rest of England (46% of new-build sales over the same period).
The NAO’s analysis has found that buyers who have used the scheme have paid less than 1% more than they might have paid for a similar new-build property bought without the support of the scheme. The NAO’s estimate of the premium is significantly less than other estimates, which range between 5% and 20%, as these do not compare similar properties and so do not accurately assess any premium paid by those using the scheme. However, new-build properties typically cost around 15-20% more than an equivalent ‘second-hand’ property (termed the new-build premium) and some buyers who want to sell their property soon after they purchase it might find they are in negative equity.
The scheme has supported five of the largest developers in England to increase the overall number of properties they sell year on year, thereby contributing to increases in their annual profits, which have all increased since the scheme’s start. These five developers sold between 36% and 48% of their properties with the support of the scheme in 2018.
By 2023, the net amount loaned through the scheme is forecast to peak at around £25 billion in cash terms. The Department expects to recover its investment by 2031-32 and make a positive return overall and redemptions are running ahead of expectations. However, the NAO report highlights that the Department’s investment is exposed to significant market risk as it is sensitive to house-price changes and the timing of buyers repaying loans. There is also an opportunity cost in tying up this money in the scheme for a considerable period, rendering it unavailable for other housing schemes or departmental priorities.
There is less need for the scheme now that higher loan-to-value mortgages are more available, and the Department plans to end the scheme in 2023. Nevertheless, there is concern across the housing sector that the end of the scheme will result in a drop in new developments and sales. In the meantime, there will be a new scheme from April 2021 restricted to first-time buyers with lower regional limits on the maximum purchase price.
The NAO recommends that since the Department has not undertaken a detailed assessment of the impact of the scheme on the wider housing market, it should expand the scope of its next evaluation to examine such wider effects, including a potential influence on the new-build premium, and identify lessons learned for any future interventions.