The housing ladder has become almost two rungs shorter since the financial crisis because of house price rises and restrictions on mortgage lending.
UK owner-occupiers now move 2.75 times on average, including their first step on to the housing ladder.
“We’re going to have a different model around home ownership and moving up the housing ladder, brought on by the credit crunch,” said Lucian Cook, director of residential research at Savills.
“Unless we establish a trend of greater downsizing, with more wealth moving between the generations, it’s going to be tricky for any but the most affluent sectors of society to move so often.”
First-time buyer activity was falling even before the financial crisis, as price rises outstripped growth in wages.
But the housing ladder has also shortened because it has become harder to get a mortgage since the Mortgage Market Review of 2014 introduced stricter conditions on affordability, Mr Cook said.
Buyers used to move several times in their early years of home ownership before settling into a relatively large home, often for several decades.
The early 2000s were a heyday of “trading up” to a bigger house. Strong price growth made it easy to build up equity in a home: in 2003 and 2004 more than one in 10 mortgaged owner-occupiers moved house each year, Savills found. Now the number is one in 23.
“People are getting on the housing ladder later and then they are looking to extend rather than trade up,” Mr Cook said.
“You get ‘mortgage prisoners’ who have not generated [enough] equity in their home to enable them to move up the ladder.”
In 2014-15, the average age of English first-time buyers was 33, up from 31 a decade earlier, according to the English Housing Survey.
Savills says this later start means that some first-time buyers are beginning their years of home ownership with small family houses, skipping the apartment stage altogether.
The best hope for more housing mobility may be downsizing by older homeowners shifting to smaller properties, but “there is nothing to suggest people are doing this more often”, Mr Cook said. Downsizers make up about 7 per cent of all moves among owner-occupiers.
“The pressure to downsize has changed: historically it was all about making sure you were not exposed to inheritance tax liabilities, but that pressure is pretty much gone,” said Mr Cook, referring to a decision by chancellor George Osborne to take most family homes out of the inheritance tax net.
“Now it’s about freeing equity to help your children on to the housing ladder.”
Overall, annual housing transactions are still 25 per cent lower than the 1.65m average for the 10 years before the crisis, Savills data show.
Especially few houses are changing hands in areas such as Wales and the North, although house price inflation has been lower there.