...just tell them how much you've made on your house in the latest mini-boom. But what happens if you failed to move or buy?
Few legal stimulants can generate as much instant passion as a good house-price debate. Announce that your modest home is now worth twice as much as you paid for it and you are guaranteed to engender seething resentment and prickling jealousy among those of your friends who haven't been so lucky.

If you are truly warped, you can even use a website to draw up a graph comparing the value of your house with a similar property anywhere else in the country (www.upmystreet.com). But be warned: don't do it if you live in Rotherham because the line would point depressingly downwards; house prices here dropped 10 per cent in 1998. For those who bought in parts of London in 1995 and 1996, however, this gives the opportunity to be unbearably smug. The value of homes in certain parts of the capital have risen by more than 20 per cent in a year. (I plead guilty on this one - since 1996 I have made pounds 70,000 on a flat bought for pounds 107,000. Go on, just hate me.)

So there has been a boom, but it's been patchy. According to economists at the Nationwide Building Society, Islington in north London came out as the top "hotspot" last year with growth of 29 per cent. The "new Labour" factor accounts for part of the rise but the area is also closely linked geographically and financially to the City and banks' bonuses were good at the start of 1997 and 1998, which created an influx of cash buyers. Ealing in west London came second in 1998 with a 23 per cent rise. Part of the boom there is down to the "BBC factor" - extra workers were relocated to nearby White City from central London last year. And it's not only London owners who have benefited. Other areas of the south east also saw double digit rises and the price trend across the country is still upwards.

This might sound depressing if you haven't bought a house yet or are thinking of moving. The truth is you have missed the big rises but now is still a good time to start looking because mortgages haven't been this cheap since England won the World Cup. You can get a standard deal at 6.95 per cent annual interest (mortgage rates were 8.95 per cent last July) and lenders are falling over themselves to attract first time buyers with even lower rates. Bargain loans also mean new buyers will be able to buy a bigger house for their money, which offsets some of the huge rises.

Don't listen to people who tell you to hang on until later in the year or until 2000 for even cheaper mortgages: "We expect rates to go down by another 0.5 per cent in 1999, maybe in June," says Martin Ellis, economist at the Halifax. That's not earth-shattering and you will offset 1999 price rises if you start house-hunting now. Overall, homes are expected to sell for 3 to 6 per cent more by the end of the year.

This is a national average and doesn't take account of local pockets. But things are likely to slow down even in the overheated London market, according to Hugh Dunsmore Hardy of the National Association of Estate Agents: "The London property market is geared to the financial markets - they paid out big bonuses and these are not so large now, so buying power is reduced. London does attract investors from abroad and overseas investors are not as bullish as they were a few years ago."

If you want to make money, be flexible about where you live so you stand a chance of finding the next "hotspot" before prices shoot up. The experts' tip is to follow the new jobs. Alex Bannister, who analyses house prices at Nationwide Building Society, cites the example of booming Cambridge. The town is known as "silicon fen" because of the number of hi-tech jobs clustered in the area: "Fifteen or 20 years' ago Cambridge was a university town and not much else. Now it is 'silicon fen' and once a centre of excellence builds up everyone moves there and it bids up prices." Homes in the area sell within three weeks (the national average is 11 weeks).

You may have missed the bargains in Cambridge but other areas to watch outside London are those where banks and insurers set up giant call centres. These firms pick areas where property and labour is cheap. Leeds, Glasgow and Norwich are well-established call centre locations and last year the Prudential set up its new Egg telephone bank in Derby. Other firms are likely to follow once there is a trained workforce, with a knock-on effect for shops, services and house prices.

Don't expect a grotty area to transform overnight just because prices have risen. If you have bought in an "up and coming" area in the hope of seeing it improve, you may have a long wait. Hackney in east London has seen huge price rises in the last year because of its proximity to Islington. "Prices are still half or two thirds of those in Islington," says Alex Bannister. "It is going to take a long time for it to change, but Islington was the Hackney of its day 20 years ago." And just think how smug you'll be when your millionaire neighbours in E9 are pop stars or prime ministers.

Isabel Berwick is personal finance editor of the 'Independent on Sunday'.


Growth in property prices in 1998, by area source: Nationwide BS


Islington 29%

Ealing 23%

Newport (Gwent) 23%

Kingston Upon Thames 22%

Richmond Upon Thames 22%


Rotherham -10%

Hull -3%

The Highlands -2%

Great Yarmouth -2%

East Ayrshire -1.8%