Northampton: Britain’s capital of negative equity

On the estate itself, serried ranks of smart new townhouses and apartments radiate from a central square slowly filling the vast site on the western fringes of the town. With their sash windows, iron railings and awards for environmental friendliness, they are designed for the aspirational; people moving to Northampton which, as Upton Square’s website puts it, “combines a rich heritage with all the energy of one of the fastest growing towns in the UK”.

One who embraced the developers’ vision was Fiona Greatrix. She and her family became the first people to move into the showpiece estate, co-designed by the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for the Built Environment nearly four years ago.

“It is a lovely place. We were here before any of this was built,” she says cutting something of a solitary figure among the cul de sacs in the quiet of a workday morning as she pushes her three-year-old daughter, Ruby, on the swing in the spotlessly clean park.

The only problem is that though much of the development is still unfinished, the future has already caught up with the Greatrix family and many of their neighbours. Their five-bedroom, end-of-terrace townhouse which they bought for £270,000 in 2005 was recently valued at just £230,000 with a recommendation by the estate agent to be prepared to drop more if necessary.

“We have decided to stay put for now. We wanted to sell to get our son into a particular school. Luckily he got in anyway. But we still need to move so that our daughter can go to the middle school,” she said.

Neighbours recently accepted £199,000 for their home while others have chosen to rent instead. “We are just going to ride it out until things get better ? it can’t get any worse,” concluded the 36-year mother of two.

But the Greatrix family is far from alone in adjusting to life under water in this corner of the East Midlands. According to figures from Fitch Ratings, Northampton enjoys the dubious honour of being the negative equity capital of Britain. For nearly one-in-six homeowners here, the amount they owe on their mortgage has fallen below the value of their property.

Negative equity, which during the boom years was buried along with big hair and mobile phones the size of breeze blocks, is back. By the time the market reaches the bottom, it is estimated that 23 per cent of all borrowers could be trapped. In Northampton, nearly a quarter of mortgages by value are already in the red. And a disproportionate number of those affected are middle-class homeowners with higher borrowings. The average discrepancy between the current market price and the amount owed in the town stands at £8,665.

Close to the M1 and half way between London and Birmingham Northampton has long been poised to reverse the decline of its traditional leather and shoemaking industries. It was designated a new town in 1968 and the population nearly doubled to 200,000 in the two decades up to 1980.

New employers such as American Express and Nationwide have arrived, the local college has transformed into a university and the town ? despite failing in a bid to become a Millennium city ? was on the up, becoming the centre of “motor sports valley” ? a hub for hi-tech, high performance, auto engineering. But both financial services and Formula 1 are now in the doldrums and by March of this year, 70 people were being made redundant each day across the county.

The local Citizens Advice Bureau recently reported a tripling of inquiries about jobseekers allowance while the number of people seeking information about mortgage arrears has more than doubled compared to the previous year. But there remain bold plans for Northampton and the surrounding area to keep growing. Designated a Government expansion zone, it has built more than 10,000 new homes since 2000 ? a figure which is anticipated to rise to nearly 50,000 by 2021. By then, if everything goes according to plan, the population will have grown by another 100,000. The local development agency is charged with creating a further 50,000 jobs.

David Wright, the chief executive of Northamptonshire Enterprises, believes the town’s dynamic growth has made it vulnerable to short-term fluctuations in the economy. “A lot of people have taken the opportunity for new housing in the area and, with the economic conditions we have at the moment, they will find a reduction in the value of their properties. But that equity will return and this remains a good place for investment ? in employment, housing and leisure ? for the long-term future,” he said.

Just when that equity will return was a subject being considered by Andy and Jenny Waterhouse. Their two-bed, town-centre terrace is worth £20,000 less than they paid for it. Until the market rises, hopes of a bigger home ? somewhere with a “garage, a driveway and a garden” ? and of starting a family must remain on hold. “You do feel a bit trapped,” admitted Mr Waterhouse, 30, an engineer. ” You can’t get a mortgage without a deposit and you can’t get a deposit unless you sell your house for more than you paid for it.”

Keith Hayhoe, a senior negotiator with estate agents Harrison Murray, said some prices had fallen dramatically particularly in the city centre factory conversions where “huge apartments with superb finishes” on the market for between £150,000 and £200,000 as recently as three years ago were now going for between £120,000 and £140,000. Northampton shared in the housing bubble early in the decade with prices doubling between 2001 and 2003, he said. But by April last year the town was already reporting a 4.5 per cent decline ? one of the steepest in the country. Yet having sold more houses in the last four weeks than the previous six months, he was feeling upbeat. “It is exactly the same in Northampton as it is anywhere else,” he said. “If you bought a property in the last year or two you will have some negative equity. But it is not doom and gloom.”

Jason Hunt, 31, a studio manager would not agree. He was forced to sell his property at the end of a relationship five years ago and has been renting ever since. But despite the recent falls, prices are still too high to get back on the ladder. “Times are hard for people like me,” he said. “My rent keeps going up while mortgages are coming down. It feels like we renters are being penalised to keep mortgages low.”

Another person considering a new purchase was council worker Karen Lucey, 45, who was perusing one of the myriad estate agents windows in the town’s busy market place. As a long-established homeowner she was in the happy position of looking for a new investment opportunity.

“It is awful for people to be in negative equity,” she said, though the blame for their predicament should be evenly shared. “It is a mixture. People are greedy. The estate agents want to push things up by as much as they can and the banks have not been very sensible. They have gone from one extreme to the other.”

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