News: Buyers lose out in the property search lottery

Credit-card spending falls again; leading fund manager slashes tracker charges; more pressure on workers contracted out of state second pension
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The Independent Online

More than 1.5 million housing transactions take place in the UK every year, the OFT reports. Given the scale of these deals, it believes that more accessible and more fairly priced information should be made available on factors that could affect the value of a property. These might include, for example, proposed new roads or other developments.

Solicitors, specialist conveyancers and property- search firms that unearth this information on behalf of homebuyers usually go direct to local authorities. However, an OFT investigation found that the cost of searching council records varied hugely - between £55 and £269. Access to vital information was often restricted, leading to delays that could jeopardise house purchases.

As a result, the watchdog has recommended that local authorities be forced to change the way they provide data. It also wants to see government guidance for councils to determine how search prices should be set.

From 2007, the searches will become part of the compulsory sellers' packs applying to all domestic property sales.

"Buyers must have all the relevant information that might affect their choice of property," said Sir John Vickers, chairman of the OFT.

Separately, the watchdog announced it was to set up a team of "scambusters" targeting companies and individuals who use bogus prize draws, prize promotions linked to premium-rate telephone lines, and miracle health cures to rip off consumers.

Companies found guilty of malpractice could be forced to cease trading.

Cardholders cut back

Consumers' monthly spending on credit cards has fallen for the second time this year. Borrowers paid back £146m more than they took out on cards in August, figures from the British Bankers' Association (BBA) show.

The fall in credit card spending follows an initial dip in April - when we paid back £40m more than we spent. This marked what appeared to be the end of an upward trend that had lasted uninterrupted for 11 years.

However, as credit card spending is being reined in, the debts racked up on overdrafts and personal loans have soared. Last month, the amounts borrowed in this way rose by £842m - nearly three times the figure for July.

David Dooks, director of statistics at the BBA, said it was too early to tell if the fall in credit card spending was directly linked to a hike in the sums borrowed on overdrafts or personal loans. The picture is blurred because consumers might consolidate their debts into one, more manageable loan.

But Mr Dooks said: "Since the beginning of this year, we have noticed a distinctly cautious attitude to borrowing from consumers."

Boost for investors

The cost of investing in tracker funds, which mirror stock market movements, looks set to fall after one of the biggest fund managers slashed its annual charges to just 0.1 per cent.

Fidelity said it had cut the fee for its tracker fund to try to tempt savers back into shares.

Trackers simply follow indices like the FTSE 100, buying shares according to the way the index moves. Costs are low in comparison with funds where managers pick a range of shares.

Yet the charges paid by investors in tracker funds can vary enormously. For example, Virgin and Nation- wide both charge 1 per cent a year; Axa and Scottish Widows, 0.5 per cent; and M&G and F&C, 0.3 per cent. In April, it was revealed that UK investors spend nearly £40m a year on unnecessary fees to buy index-tracking funds.

S2P rebate row

The debate on whether or not to "contract out" of the state second pension (S2P) took another tortuous twist after a government review of the rebate was criticised as inadequate.

During the past month, both the City regulator, the Financial Services Authority, and the consumer body Which? have warned that millions of workers who moved the secondary part of their state pension into a private fund will have lost out by doing so in the long term.

A higher annual government rebate for those who have contracted out of the S2P would help to rectify the problem, Which? recently suggested.

But proposals from the Government Actuary's Department (GAD) last week dismayed pensions companies and specialists. For younger workers, the GAD recommended reducing the rebate by 5 per cent. This prompted criticism from the insurer Prudential; a spokesman said the revised rebate might "not provide a sufficient incentive" for people to remain contracted out.

Workers have had the option to contract out since the late 1980s, and in doing so have helped to reduce the state's future pensions liability. However, private pension funds have since been hit by poor stock market performance.

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