Sunday Business Post- Banks fiddle while house buyers burn their fingers

03:55, 1 March 2015 by Tina-Marie O'Neill

The banking inquiry: it’s been five years and an interim string of austere budgets in the making – almost enough time to allow the public to collectively move on and get on with the business of cleaning up after the party. It’s now entering its tenth week of hearings before the Oireachtas Committee. So far, the show trial has amounted to a mixed-bag series of opining, contrite, critical, patronising and smug, expert number-cruncher and academic appearances punctuated with colourful, adverse soundbites from experts such as Professor Bill Black, a former director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention in the US, dumbfounded by Ireland’s “insane” own-goal decision to bail out German banks, etc.

The coming ‘Nexus Phase’ gets under way next month, as the first tranche of witnesses from Nama and the relevant banks face ‘tough’ questions from the committee. Expect plenty of finger-pointing, blocking, shielding and snarky outbursts. And to what end? It’s unlikely any one individual or institution will be found solely responsible for causing such a calamitous breakdown of our banking system.

It was collective negligence, stupidity, fast-cash fuelled ADHD and one-upmanship and ultimately, it’s too late to go back on our government’s decision and climb off the bailout crucifix. The banks have since locked their doors, long after the horse bolted, with stricter lending criteria and mortgage loan caps. The property sector is still a mess, with a dearth of supply in key urban areas making panic-stricken house buyers once again stretch themselves by fighting over the same slim pickings. Rents are skyrocketing, and landlords ponder a mass exodus of the market amid fears of rent controls.

Fear again raises its ugly head, motivating would-be property buyers to settle for less and further away from their ideal location because paying a monthly mortgage is cheaper than paying rent.

So it’s likely that Dublin house buyers were somewhat relieved with last week’s CSO house price index, which showed a drop in Dublin house prices by 2.1 per cent in January (admittedly, one of the quietest months of the year for residential transactions).

Some of that fall could be a result of the end of the capital gains tax waiver in December combined with the Central Bank’s 20 per cent deposit ruling. Dublin apartment buyers were not so fortunate as prices for that property type increased by 0.9 per cent in January.

Outside Dublin, residential property prices are almost 42 per cent lower than their highest, madcap levels in 2007, but they have been steadily rising and are likely to continue to this year. Understandably, peak prices are used as a gauge. Nonetheless, it’s a gauge, not a target; and a steady and stable property sector should be our main objective.

Pat Davitt, chief executive of Ipav, the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, said that the new Central Bank rules are likely to increase demand for rental, that “should keep the market attractive to investors. However, the individual investor is likely to be outmanoeuvred by the vulture fund investors who, through Nama, are getting exclusive access to some of the best value properties in the country”.