Weaker demand for houses? Mortgage approval fall suggests consumers will tighten their belts

Jasper Jolly
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The number of mortgage approvals dipped for the first time since May (Source: Getty)

The number of mortgages approved in the UK declined in February for the first time since August while the amount of debt taken on by consumers continued to rise.

The total number of mortgage approvals fell to 125,622, down by almost 3,000 from the month before, according to the Bank of England.

Approvals for house purchases fell to 68,315, down from 69,114, while remortgaging activity also fell.

Read more: A fifth of Londoners think house prices will fall because of Brexit

The fall in mortgage approvals corroborates recent figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) which showed demand peaking.

Andrew McPhillips, chief economist at Yorkshire Building Society said the data suggest the UK faces a "cooler period in terms of house purchases".

He said: “This fall in purchase activity is not necessarily directly attributable to Brexit concerns. Prices have continued to outpace wage growth which has worsened the affordability situation for many.

"The indirect Brexit impact of inflation now picking up is that household finances are being squeezed making it less likely that people will want to commit to an expensive house move.”

However, the build-up of consumer credit continued, with £196bn now owed in total by UK households.

The growth of consumer debt has accelerated over the last year, with the rate of increase holding above a 10.5 per cent annual rate since May.

The fast rate of growth in consumer debt levels is being closely watched by the Bank of England, with concerns it may be unsustainable. The last time consumer debt grew at such a fast pace was 2005, before the global financial crisis.

Read more: Here are the cities where house prices are rising faster than in London

Strong consumer spending in the second half of the year sustained the UK economy and actually caused GDP growth to accelerate. The performance confounded many economists who expected consumer spending to fall following the EU referendum.

However, with inflation rising sharply as a result of the devaluation of sterling in the last six months consumer spending is expected to come under pressure.

The belt-tightening could also lead to a decline in lending for house purchases and consumer credit.

Net consumer credit growth dipped slightly to £1.4bn during the month of February, although the longer-term trend stayed relatively flat.

Howard Archer, chief UK and Eurozone economist at IHS Markit, said: “The February slowdown in mortgage approvals reported by the Bank of England reinforces our suspicion that housing market activity and prices will come under increasing pressure over the coming months from weakening fundamentals and softer consumer confidence.”

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