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Builders fear housing supply will dry up as new builds remain unsold

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Builders need to complete and sell each phase of a development to finance the next phase

Builders need to complete and sell each phase of a development to finance the next phase

Bloomberg

Builders need to complete and sell each phase of a development to finance the next phase

Representatives of some of the country's most active housebuilders met for a regular catch-up to discuss industry issues earlier in the week and, according to people with knowledge of the meeting, they nearly all had one observation in common: a distinct slowdown in the length of time it is taking to sell the average family home around the country.

Many of the housebuilders present complained that the queues of buyers at new housing estates have disappeared and that newly-built units are still sitting idle long after they would have expected them to sell.

In a country in the midst of a housing crisis, where families are crying out to buy their own homes and where house prices may not be rising as fast as they were but are certainly still holding up well, that observation would seem to make little sense.

So what is going on?

Top of the agenda at the housebuilders' meeting, it is understood, was the impending announcement the following day by the Central Bank about its rules for mortgage borrowing. Cynics of course would expect the country's housebuilders to say whatever they could against the strict - and, according to most economists and banking experts, very necessary -mortgage rules that limit borrowers to a 3.5 times multiple of their salary and a demand that they save substantial deposits.

But even the housebuilders would not have been overly surprised when, the following day, Gabriel Makhlouf, Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, said that in order to ensure the stability of the banking system that the rules around borrowing for mortgages would remain as they are.

As a group, the builders are always careful to at least publicly express support for the general principle of these rules. Not least, presumably, because a decade ago many of them were at the very sharp end of an imploding economy that had no such rules and that was suffering the terrible consequences of runaway borrowing.

But the Central Bank rules - specifically their current impact on the sale of brand-new homes to families on average wages - was nevertheless a very hot topic at the meeting, it is understood.

An analysis by the Construction Industry Federation - seen by the Sunday Independent - has found that between 5pc and 7pc of recently built new homes are right now unsold. That in itself may not seem overly surprising but also contained within the survey is a trend that presents a major concern for the housebuilders: the survey found that close to 20pc of newly built homes in housing developments are currently unsold after six months, with as many as 7pc still unsold a year after completion.

This suggests that of the 21,000 housing units that are expected to be built in the country, as many as 1,500 of these could remain unsold after six months, with quite a few unsold after a year.

The housebuilders are, of course, pointing the finger squarely at the Central Bank rules. They say that it has become impossible for average-income families on combined salaries of between €40,000 and over €90,000 to save the deposit they require to buy one of these empty new homes. This, they say, has led to a situation whereby even though people are crying out for new homes to be built, the people for whom they are being built do not have the financial wherewithal to buy the available house.

They want tweaks to the rules that, for example, allow rent to be counted towards a savings record and further exemptions for borrowers with a proven ability to pay. The fact that most of us know people in this exact situation suggests that this is not merely a convenient argument by the builders against the Central Bank rules.

Ask the builders could they not drop the price of these homes to allow prospective buyers make a purchase and they say that this is impossible, listing everything from land prices to the burden of increased regulation as the reason why this is the case. That's an argument for another day.

So what's the upshot? Well, according to the builders, this slowdown in the pace at which they can sell their stock of new homes will impact the future supply of new homes directly and therefore mean that the 33,000 new homes a year that it is estimated that are needed to fix the housing supply crisis will remain a pipe dream.

Housebuilders tend to build in phases and use the proceeds from one phase of houses to finance the next. This is particularly important in a market where financing for housebuilding is hard to come by. But if a builder cannot sell all the homes in one phase it can be difficult to convince the bank to finance the next phase.

For example, this newspaper is aware of one development of about 350 units that is being built over up to seven phases. Phase four has been built but nine homes remain vacant. This means there is now a doubt over whether phase five will proceed because the finance to build it may not be made available.

Of course, if it doesn't proceed then the people who really lose out are the families who are desperately looking to get out of the rental nightmare and into their own homes while being told this can only happen if the supply of houses increases. The nightmare may have longer to run yet.

Sunday Indo Business