Revealed: the truth behind the housing market scare stories

Gregor Watt finds out what the real deal is for homeowners and potential buyers
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The Independent Online

The stream of bad news coming out of the housing market has grown into a torrent in recent weeks, with stories of falling house prices, withdrawn mortgage rates and warnings about payment shocks.

This week, even Prime Minister Gordon Brown felt he had to defend the state of the UK's housing market.

Halifax, the country's largest mortgage lender, announced that house prices fell by 2.5 per cent between February and March, which prompted the PM to concede that "there are difficulties in the housing market" but that a 2.5 per cent drop "is containable".

To help you separate fact from fiction, we reveal the truth behind the assumptions that could cost you money in a falling market.

All the best mortgage deals have vanished

Nationwide recently announced it was restricting its best rates to people with more than 20 per cent deposit but it is not true to say that there are no competitive deals available.

"For borrowers with either a large deposit or a good amount of equity in their home there are still competitive deals available," says Denise Harvey, a mortgage analyst with independent financial comparison service Moneyfacts

West Bromwich Building Society is currently offering 4.99 per cent fixed for two years, for loans up to 75 per cent of a property's value, although there is an arrangement fee of £1,999 to contend with. And Abbey is offering a one-year discounted variable rate of 5.24 per cent with a maximum loan to value of 75 per cent and a fee of £499.

And even for borrowers with less equity in their homes there are still some good deals available. For those with a 5 per cent deposit there are competitive deals available. The Cheshire Building Society is offering a three-year fixed rate of 5.49 per cent, with a fee of £899.

One thing that has changed, however, is the speed with which these rates are being withdrawn and to take advantage of the best rates borrowers have to be prepared to move quickly.

"If borrowers are looking to re-mortgage or move they should be in as good a position as possible. When they are in a position to submit an application they should have everything more or less 100 per cent perfect," says Harvey.

Don't buy now

For first-time buyers struggling to get on the housing ladder falling house prices are very welcome. However, unless prices start to fall at a consistently fast rate the decision to wait could be a false economy, warns Melanie Bien, of mortgage broker Savills Private Finance.

She says that unless you are living with parents, the amount that a prospective buyer pays out in rent, particularly in parts of the South-east, can offset any decrease in the purchase price of a house.

Someone paying £800-a-month rent, for example, would pay an extra £4,000 by delaying a purchase for five months.

"While you would have been paying a mortgage if you had bought instead of renting, you will still want to make sure you end up in front once the difference is deducted from the potential fall in property values," adds Bien. "First-time buyers would be better off making their decision based on affordability and finding a suitable property."

Andy Pratt, chief operating officer of mortgage broker Alexander Hall, says prospective buyers should talk to a mortgage broker and work out how their rent compares with the cost of buying. Buyers should also consider that buying a home is a long-term commitment and not a short-term speculation on house prices.

"Unless you believe house prices are going to correct by 20 per cent or more, it is a long-term investment and people should be out there looking. It is a buyers' market and there are some bargains to be picked up," says Pratt.

No deposit – no mortgage

Mortgage lenders have been keen to move out of higher risk areas of lending and, as many first time buyers are now finding, high loan to value mortgages are one of the areas they are avoiding.

First to go were those deals offering more than 100 per cent of a property's value, as a combination of a mortgage and personal loan, and the last two weeks have seen an increasing number of lenders move to withdraw loans offering up to 100 per cent of a property's value.

"In essence, all the 100 per cents have disappeared and there are fewer lenders offering 95 per cent. So there are some mortgages available but their criteria for 90 per cent or higher are far tighter than they were before," says Pratt.

To get around this, he suggests speaking to family to try to raise the deposit. "Be prepared to consider parents and family for deposits or look at finding some other funding, such as savings they have made for a rainy day, and use as much as they can for a deposit," Pratt adds.

Buy-to-let landlords are fleeing the market

Many commentators have predicted a deluge of buy-to-let property coming back on the market as landlords try to exit the market, encouraged by a combination of low rental yield, falling house prices and a change to the capital gains tax (CGT) rules – which means many owners of second homes will pay only 18 per cent instead of 40 per cent CGT on the profits of a sale.

Alexander Hall's Pratt says long term professional landlords are in the market for the long term and are not put off by market jitters. But part-time landlords, with only one or two properties, will be looking at the exit.

"The dynamics have fundamentally changed. A large proportion of those will consider selling and looking at other investments," says Pratt.

However, while the tax changes will encourage some "profit taking", demand for rental property is still high and the majority of landlords are in it for the long haul, adds Bien "Most landlords see property as a viable alternative to a pension, as a way of saving for retirement, so regard it as a long-term investment," she says.

Is there going to be a house price crash?

Prices are certainly coming down. The 2.5 per cent drop reported by the Halifax is the biggest single drop in house prices since the price crash of 1992.

But this is not an exact picture, as prices are still 1 per cent higher than they were last year and there are big regional variations. Prices in Greater London are up by a further 1.6 per cent this month, and in the East Midlands they are up by 2.2 per cent. But this is offset by some big falls, with prices in Wales and the West Midlands down almost 5 per cent.

Martin Ellis, chief economist at Halifax, says that a house price crash is unlikely. The crash of the early 1990s had a different economic profile with rapidly rising inflation and big increases in interest rates and unemployment.

"That's a long way from where we are at the moment," Mr Ellis says. "Yes, we're expecting to see the economy slow over the course of 2008, and that's likely to see some upward movement in unemployment but we don't expect this to be dramatic." His prediction is for "low, single-digit" house price falls this year.

But others estimates are not so optimistic. The International Monetary Fund suggests in a report published this week that the UK housing market will follow the US example, but on a two-year time lag. This would be very bad news for UK homeowners as the US house prices fell by more than 11 per cent in 2007.

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