Germany: After years of rising prices, apartments and houses are becoming cheaper again in many major cities. The reason is higher borrowing costs for investors and homeowners. But this is not necessarily good news for renters.
For a long time, real estate prices in many major German cities seemed to know only one direction: up. But the boom of recent years is over for the time being. In the first quarter of this year, prices for residential real estate fell by 6.8 percent compared with the same quarter a year earlier, according to the Federal Statistical Office; in the last quarter of 2022, the figure was 3.4 percent. This is the sharpest price decline in 23 years. By the end of June, inflation-adjusted prices are expected to be as much as 20 percent lower than in mid-2022, according to the German Real Estate Price Index (Greix) database.
Nevertheless, for many wage earners, the dream of owning a home will remain just that, a dream. Housing prices may be falling, but the cost of borrowing has risen sharply. In 2021, a ten-year mortgage could be obtained at one percent interest; by February 2023, the rate was already 3.6 percent. For people buying or building houses, this can mean additional costs of several hundred euros per month. According to the Bundesbank, the demand for real estate loans from private individuals fell by about half in April compared to the same month last year. Additionally, fewer homes are being built because, in addition to loans, building materials have also become more expensive. According to the Ifo Institute at the University of Munich, only 275,000 new homes will be built this year, 234,000 next year and a mere 200,000 in 2025.
Higher borrowing costs are a consequence of the European Central Bank’s (ECB) monetary policy. To fight inflation, it has now raised the key interest rate in the eurozone, where de facto negative interest rates still prevailed until 2021, to four percent. Eurozone inflation fell to 5.5 percent in June, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, but core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food prices, rose slightly to 5.4 percent. Given this stubborn inflation, a quick return to lower interest rates seems unlikely.
The development of real estate prices in Germany varies greatly from region to region. In many economically weak regions, especially in parts of eastern Germany where the population is shrinking, real estate prices have been falling for some time. What is new is that, for the first time in many years, prices are also falling in the booming metropolitan regions, where investors and homeowners have benefited for years from sharply rising prices and where rents have also become increasingly expensive. According to the economists who compile the so-called Greix Index for real estate, Berlin has seen the highest increases in value for apartment owners since 2000, with cumulative inflation-adjusted gains of 160 percent, followed by Munich and Frankfurt. In the mid-2000s, a square meter in downtown Berlin cost 1700 euros. Now, the same area – in the same part of town – costs an average of 7600 euros. In general, the price differences between popular and less popular districts have also increased dramatically. Some districts have seen particularly dramatic increases in value, such as Hamburg-Eppendorf (240 percent since 2000) and Berlin-Kreuzberg (more than 180 percent). That’s over for now: even in Hamburg, Berlin, and Frankfurt, the value of so-called concrete gold is falling. But rents are not following suit. In the second half of 2022, asking rents in the major cities of Berlin, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart rose by an average of 6.3 percent.
The Bundesbank warned as early as the beginning of 2022 that real estate in major German cities was overvalued by up to 40 percent. Two main factors contributed to this: The German economic model, based on export surpluses, ensured a good economy by international standards – at the expense of deficit countries – while the weakness of the euro meant that the Federal Republic was seen as a “safe haven,” attracting foreign capital that was invested in, among other things, real estate in major cities. And the years of expansionary monetary policy pursued by the central banks of the U.S. and the EU created a liquidity bubble that drove up the prices not only of real estate, but also of stocks and securities worldwide – right up to the absurd speculation in virtual currencies such as bitcoin.
Both factors are no longer present. The period of very high German export surpluses had already come to an end in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and rising protectionism. Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, higher energy prices have also weighed on the German trade balance. And persistent inflation, fed by multiple sources, has forced central banks to raise key interest rates, causing financial difficulties for some banks, especially in the U.S., exacerbating the debt crisis in poor countries, and putting pressure on real estate markets.
The higher interest rates are not only a burden on the business of investors who want to generate returns by renting out apartments, but also on anyone who finances their own apartment or house with a long-term loan. If more and more borrowers default on their debts, prices will continue to fall and the lending banks will suffer losses, turning the bursting of a real estate bubble into an economic crisis, especially as declining construction activity also weakens the economy.
However, many market analysts continue to believe that the decline in housing prices is a temporary phenomenon and that it will not lead to a full-blown crisis and recession – at least if there are no further sharp increases in key interest rates. In Germany, it is common to take out long-term fixed-rate mortgages. Many people who took out their loans in recent years will therefore continue to pay the favorable interest rates of the past for years to come.
However, for the first time in three years, there was a significant increase in foreclosures in the first half of 2023. Between January and the end of June, properties across Germany with a total sales value of €1.96 billion went under the hammer, compared to just €1.66 billion in foreclosures in the same period last year.
In the UK, on the other hand, where lending rates are adjusted to the key interest rate more quickly than in Germany, an economic crisis emanating from the real estate sector is already brewing: With annual inflation at more than eight percent in May, the Bank of England raised the key interest rate to five percent, while a third of the 28 million British households have to pay off real estate loans. According to the renowned British economic research institute NIESR, 1.2 million households will have exhausted their financial reserves by the end of the year as a result of soaring borrowing costs. However, falling real estate prices in the UK are also accompanied by a continued rise in rents, as many landlords pass on higher borrowing costs to their tenants.
Originally published in jungle world on 07/06/23