How the stamp duty holiday is pushing up house prices

Stamp duty is an awful tax and should be replaced by something better. But its temporary removal is driving up house prices, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

An irritated tweet from a reader. He lives in Scotland, had just bought a house and, thanks to Scotland not slashing stamp duty on house purchases in the same way as England had (no tax is payable on purchases up to a price of £500,000 in England vs £250,000 in Scotland), he said, just paid tens of thousands more to get his house than he would have had he been in the UK. I can see how that would be totally maddening.

But here’s the question – had he really paid more than he would have in the rest of the UK? I suspect not. Because, in the end, houses sell for as much as buyers are able to pay – and if they aren’t paying stamp duty, they can pay more in total for the house itself.

It might be buyers that have to actually hand over the stamp duty cash to the state, but it is the seller who tends to be affected by its level. When stamp duty goes up they sell for less; when stamp duty goes down they sell for more. This is not an exact science, but it is not hard to see in the numbers either.

The stamp duty cut came into effect in July. By the second week of August, the papers were reporting exactly what you would have expected: there was, as The Times put it, a “surge in the number of homebuyers, leading to bidding wars and the number of homes being sold over the asking price reaching record levels.”

There was a 45% rise in first-time buyers, and various estate agencies reported inquiries up by 30%-40%. The number of buy to let investors looking rose by 28% and of second home buyers by 22%.

You can see this same kind of dynamic working in the Help to Buy scheme as well. State attempts to subsidise the house purchases of the young simply push up the total amount they are able to pay – and do pay. Most research suggests that Help to Buy purchasers end up paying 5% to 8% more than ordinary buyers of new-build houses, something that has long allowed builders to keep their prices up while maintaining their glorious record of delivering generally shoddy products. Nice.

I think stamp duty is an awful tax. It gums up the housing market, it penalises those without well-off parents (if you need to pay a deposit and your stamp in cash saved out of earned income, you have an awful lot of saving to do); and it should be replaced by CGT on primary homes. But that doesn’t mean removing it will always make the final price of a house cheaper than keeping it.

Recommended

What are the best ways of raising more money in tax?
Economy

What are the best ways of raising more money in tax?

Given that whoever wins next week's election will be going on a massive spending spree, we're going to need to raise at least some of that money throu…
5 Dec 2019
What are the biggest mistakes investors make when it comes to tax?
Investment strategy

What are the biggest mistakes investors make when it comes to tax?

The tax implications of an investment are something we rarely consider until after the event. That could prove to be an expensive mistake, says Domini…
27 Nov 2019
Looking for income? Buy these three solid property funds
Investment trusts

Looking for income? Buy these three solid property funds

Apparent high-yielding bargains often turn out to be value traps. But these three property funds look like solid buys for income investors.
23 Nov 2020
Properties for sale for around £1.5m
Houses for sale

Properties for sale for around £1.5m

From a Grade II-listed house with a wild-swimming pool in West Sussex, to a converted train station in Hampshire and a thatched cottage on the River W…
20 Nov 2020

Most Popular

Jim Mellon: the world is on the brink of three major revolutions
Share tips

Jim Mellon: the world is on the brink of three major revolutions

Jim Mellon has been giving MoneyWeek’s readers lucrative ideas ever since our very first issue. He tells Merryn Somerset Webb how he sees the next 20 …
5 Nov 2020
Share tips of the week
Share tips

Share tips of the week

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
6 Nov 2020
November 2020 update: how the MoneyWeek investment trust portfolio has fared
Investment trust model portfolio

November 2020 update: how the MoneyWeek investment trust portfolio has fared

How have our favourite investment trusts been doing? And what would we change?
6 Nov 2020