Property: Home truths: February

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The Independent Culture
TRYING to pin down exactly what is happening in the housing market at a given moment is as difficult a task as trying to predict which way a jelly will wobble. So soft and formless is this market, cast in the mould of the recession, that every time someone says it is about to perk up, it simply sags a little bit more.

However, housebuyers and sellers should take note that we may at last have reached a very important moment. There is suddenly a tension in the marketplace. During January, for the first time in many months, there was a surge in the number of people out looking at houses.

The buzz was everywhere. First of all the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors announced that about 40 per cent of estate agents who responded to its survey for the national market report for the last quarter of last year, said that prices had stabilised. Even those operating in the recession-hit South-east talked of 'surprising interest', 'activity' and 'green shoots' in the way that people do when spring is in the air.

Then the London estate agents Winkworth, which has started keeping statistics in order to chart the course of the market more accurately, announced an extraordinary about-turn in the ratio of househunters to sellers. It found that during January the number of new applicants looking for properties doubled across the capital and that in some offices it actually tripled. As a consequence the number of viewings of properties rose by 55 per cent.

Unfortunately, all this window-shopping doesn't mean that people are actually buying. The Winkworth figures show that during January the number of people who went any further and put their houses on the market dropped by 1percent.

We have all seen January hopes dissolve in the February cold before. It may just be another of those fleeting moments when it seems that things were changing for the better. But friends of mine who have been trying to sell their house for three years, have suddenly received two offers in the last fortnight. It might be worth seizing the moment while it is there.

THE ENGLISH love-affair with decrepit French farmhouses has not led to a return interest from the French in our comely English country houses. Until now, that is . . . Back in 1988, about 78 per cent of English country house buyers were English and only 22per cent came from abroad.

Today, according to Knight Frank & Rutley, the picture is entirely reversed. Nearly two-thirds of those hunting for the perfect weekend retreat are now European buyers, principally the French and the Dutch. I expect to see Une annee dans le Wiltshire on the bestseller list across the Channel shortly.

THE HIDDEN costs of owning a home, which you never think of when you buy, are great indeed: all those leaking roofs, blocked gutters, windows to be repainted and (speaking personally here) avocado bathrooms to be dealt with. No one spoke more lyrically on such matters of home maintenance than Ernest Cantle, former director general of the National Home Improvement Council.

He was the man who could tell you how many gallons of rainwater pelted on to your roof each year; how the summer sun fried your woodwork and the winter cold froze it; and how the best way to check the condition of the exterior of your house was to pop up to your next-door neighbour's bedroom and survey it through a pair of binoculars.

Now he has retired and the NHIC has ceased trading, hit by the fall in subscription rates from members who were builders operating in the field of home improvements. Since nearly 500,000 builders have lost their jobs during the recession, the closure of these kinds of trade associations is hardly surprising.

But the home improvement industry needs a voice, particularly at a time when the effects of repossessions and negative equity must be leading to an increased deterioration in the condition of the country's housing stock. And the year ahead is likely to bring yet another cut in government grants for the provision of basic facilities in unfit dwellings (for which there are already waiting lists of up to two years). Somebody should bang the drum if the NHIC cannot be there to do it.

IT SEEMS unlikely to me that many British home-buyers would want to buy properties in South Africa at the moment. Nevertheless, a relocation agency called International Travellers Service has linked up with an estate agent in Cape Town to smooth the passage for those who do.

The boast that you can buy a house with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, double staff quarters and a large swimming pool for pounds 550,000 does, however, lack a certain measure of political sensitivity. Trips to private game lodges and reserves, gold and diamond mines, are also arranged to order. And who is the estate agent in Cape Town? It is none other than the former Surrey and England opening batsman, John Edrich.

(Photograph omitted)

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