10 November 2011

British Second Homes in Europe

Every week, the Spectator’s Barometer column presents facts which illuminate the previous week’s news. On 5 November this item appeared:
A place in the sun
HM Revenue and Customs announced a 200-strong team of officials who will track down income from undeclared overseas properties. Where should they look?

                     Source: Savills
I thought this was interesting for reasons which will become apparent later. However, although the numbers of second homes were presented to the nearest thousand, it seemed unlikely that they would be the same in two pairs out of five countries. Was the answer to be found on the Savills website?

Savills Estate Agents has a much-respected research department, and the views of its Director of Residential Research, Yolande Barnes, are often reported in the press. Among the publications listed on their website, is a Market snapshot UK second homes overseas, 2009. This reported an online survey of 1200 UK overseas second home owners that Savills International Research had conducted with HomeAway.co.uk. The numbers supporting the Spectator’s table are on page 3, specifically an estimate that there are “almost 430,000 UK households in possession of overseas properties” and a percentage breakdown of their location referencing the Survey of English Housing.

However, in 2011, HomeAway.co.uk and Savills Research conducted a ‘survey [published as UK second homes abroad Spotlight Autumn 2011] of almost 1,700 UK holiday home owners from a cross-section of the market, who have invested overseas over the last decade and currently let their properties to tourists’. The relevant data on the Number of UK households that own overseas properties were provided in Figure 1, and the locations in Figure 3. It appears that there are now about 475,000 such properties, so, with the location data extracted from the column graphic, a replacement for the Spectator table can be provided:

which supports the conclusion on the cover of the survey: ‘Enduring appeal France has retained its popularity with buyers’. The numbers don’t look intrinsically unreliable, either. The Savills report also shows that the number of overseas second homes more than doubled between 200 and 2008, but that the purchase rate has fallen recently to much lower levels.

So, currently the total number of properties in Europe is not far off 370,000. The number of properties in those countries which are not (or not yet) members of the EU (Norway, Switzerland, Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia) is likely to be small, with the possible exception of Turkey. A conservative estimate of UK residents’ ownership of EU properties might be about 350,000.

However, it should be noted that the Savills survey identified properties which are let to tourists. In fact its collaborator, HomeAway.co.uk, describes itself as ‘the UK's no.1 holiday rentals website with over 250,000 properties worldwide’. Not everyone who has a second home lets it commercially. Instead they may well keep it for their own use, and perhaps that of family and friends. While such people are not of much interest to the new HMRC team described by the Spectator, they certainly own properties. At a guess, and probably an underestimate, one could assume there are 150,000 of them, making 500,000 UK-owned properties in the EU as a whole.

Many of these properties are likely to be owned by couples, and since most people’s priority in early adult life is to establish themselves in a first home in the UK, second homes are likely to be acquired later on. Second home owners are also likely to be from the higher socio-economic levels, A to C1. At this point, some key electoral facts of life need to be considered, bearing in mind that the overall turnout at the 2010 election was 65%.

On this basis, one can safely conclude that the likelihood of second home owners turning out to vote is higher than average. So what would happen if there were a referendum on the UK leaving the EU? In the referendum on AV in May 2011, just over 20 million votes were cast with an overall turnout of 42.2%, higher than expected, but boosted by turnouts of over 50% in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Perhaps for an EU referendum the turnout would be as high as 65%, as in the 1975 referendum on remaining in the EEC, so about 30 million votes. It seems highly likely that the EU second home owners and their family members would vote, amounting, at two votes per property, to about 1 million.

Furthermore, every British citizen who has been registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years but is now resident abroad is eligible to vote in UK Parliamentary (general) elections, European Parliamentary elections and referendums in the UK. According to C4News Factcheck in April 2010: ‘There are 748,010 Brits living in the EU, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s official statistics office’, and 133,678 of them were living in France. However, at the time of Sarkozy’s visit to the UK in 2008, the Independent reported that ‘There are 250,000 British people living in France, mostly middle-aged, retired and living in rural areas’. In 2006, IPPR, in a report, Brits Abroad, estimated that there were more than 5.5 million British nationals living overseas permanently, 1.5 million in the EU excluding Ireland. In 2010 they updated the first of these figures to 5.6 million, - as they want £15 for the full new report, we will have to make do with the older 1.5 million estimate.

So a high turnout of those with UK second homes in the EU, combined with a lesser turnout of British nationals in the EU, might be the source of as many as 2 million votes in 30 million, or say 7% of the votes cast.

No doubt there are turkeys who think there is something to be said for Christmas, and others who wouldn’t turn out to vote for its abolition. But these 2 million votes are unlikely to be cast in favour of leaving the EU. If nothing else, it could be to the financial disadvantage of these voters: for example: UK pensions are not uprated for pensioners outside the EU; EU countries cannot levy property taxes on non-resident citizens of other EU nations while exempting their own nationals. Additionally, spending time in a European country, and travelling there more often than most people (38% haven’t taken a foreign holiday in the last three years - data in a previous post) would probably lead to an outlook which would rather see the UK as part of Europe, rather than isolated.

It’s worth looking at a recent ICM opinion poll (21/23 October) on staying or leaving the EU. Overall, 40% would probably or definitely vote to stay in, 49% probably or definitely vote to leave, 10% didn’t know (DK).

Interestingly, the two groups with the highest propensity to turn out and vote, the over 65s and the ABs, have sharply divergent views on leaving the EU. The C1s and 35-64s, also groups who tend to vote more than the younger and lower levels, are substantially in favour of leaving. Both are large segments of the electorate as the pie charts show. It would be very interesting to know whether the expansion of overseas second home ownership in the 2000s extended to the C1 group or whether it was confined to the ABs. It would require about 5% of the electorate to change their opinion to produce a referendum in favour of staying in, say about 1.5 million voters, fewer than the EU first and second home contingent arrived at above.  (Presumably the 1003 people in the ICM survey were all resident in the UK).

Should there ever be a referendum (and assuming there is an EU which remains worth voting about) the ‘Stay’ campaigners would do well to convince the EU property owners of the need to play safe. Similarly, the ‘Leave’ campaign might want to consider how to provide reassurance that the status quo of property ownership in Europe won’t change for the worse.

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