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Durham University

Research & business

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Trading Places: The Complex Economy of Housing Markets

A research project of the Department of Geography.


This programme of research is being carried out by Professor Susan J. Smith. It is funded by the ESRC professorial fellowships scheme.

Part of the work builds on earlier projects including: The anatomy of a housing boom; Owner occupied housing for health; Health, life insurance and financial inclusion; and a Review of flexible mortgages. It also incorporates the ongoing study: 'Banking on housing; spending the home'.

All this work recognises the increasing salience of a particular style of owner occupation: of a housing market that is financed by mortgage lending, underwritten by private insurance, and forms the asset base for welfare. Such home ownership is positioned between macro-economic and micro-sociological affairs. And this means that housing wealth - the largest, most widely dispersed, class of assets - links households cash economy directly into the world's financial markets. This is what the fellowship seeks to explore.


i) To provide a 'microstructural' account of how (some) housing markets work; to show how homes are used (amongst many other things) to accumulate wealth.

This part of the work is concerned with how homes are bought and sold: with the act of ‘trading places’; and in particular with the question of price. How prices are negotiated as housing markets boom and slump has a bearing on the medium and long term sustainability of home ownership, and on processes of inclusion and exclusion from the market sector. While there is a place for econometrics in addressing this, one aim of the fellowship is to develop qualitative understandings of how these markets are made, perhaps as a preface to changing the way they are modelled.

ii) To weigh up the financial risks and benefits of participating in home ownership.

The fellowship also addresses the changing nature and use of the wealth which accumulates or is dispersed as homes are bought, sold and borrowed against. This part of the work considers owned homes as ‘trade-in’ places; it charts the growing ease with which housing equity can - using mortgage finance as an interface - be spent on other things. This process links households’ accounts (their savings, spending and debt) to the world of international finance, fundamentally altering the suite of risks to which home buyers are exposed. My research is about the costs and benefits of this process.

iii) To speculate on the character and future of the complex array of markets which are anchored on residential property.

The fellowship aims to describe and account for the many different kinds of market associated with housing. It is concerned with the way local housing markets have developed and with why they might differ. It explores the different styles of financial market associated with home purchase, and considers the opportunities available for hedging housing risk.

One reason why all this is worth doing is that, in housing studies, there is scope for genuine dialogue linking economics with other approaches to social research. This creates all kinds of opportunities not just for understanding how (housing) markets work, but also for appreciating how to harness them for positive and imaginative ends.


This is a mixed methods project. The programme of work draws on a variety of qualitative and quantitative data sources and experiments with a range of research methods. It aims, in particular, to build a longitudinal perspective into existing qualitative work on housing market behaviours. It aspires also to build an archive of ideas from the experiences of key players in some of the world's main housing (and related financial) markets.


This project is ongoing. It has a capacity building element as well as an original research focus; I therefore welcome enquiries from potential PhD students (see the list of topics posted in the departmental site) or from researchers who would like to link a postdoctoral fellowship application to this programme of work.

The following papers may be of interest. Please email if you cannot download them.

Smith, S. J. (2005) Banking on Housing? Speculating on the role and relevance of housing wealth in Britain. Joseph Rowntree Foundation Inquiry into Managing Risk and Sustainable Home Ownership in the Medium Term

Smith, S. J. (2005) ‘States, markets and an ethic of care’ Political Geography 24: 1-20

Smith, S. J. (2005) ‘Income and housing wealth: reflections on their substitutability’ WPEG conference paper

Smith, S. J. (2005) Risky business? The challenge of residential mortgage markets. Housing Finance International 19: 3-8

Smith, S. J., Munro, M. and Christie (2006) Performing (housing) markets. Urban Studies 43: 81-98

Smith S. J. (in press) ‘Owner occupation: living with a hybrid of money and materials’ Environment and Planning A

Smith, S. J. and Searle, B. A. (2006) Dematerialising money: the ebb and flow of wealth between housing and other things. Under review.

Smith, S. J. (2006) Home ownership: managing a risky business? In J. Doling and M. Elsinga (eds) Home ownership: getting in, getting from, getting out, Part II (Delft, IOS Press)


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