Everyone knows the statistics by now: property prices have fallen almost 10 per cent in the past year and the market is at its quietest since the 1970s. More gloomy figures published on Tuesday by the National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) show an average of 192 buyers registered on estate agents' books in July, which compares with a peak of 620 in those hazy property days of summer 2003.
So are people right to hold off buying or selling?
Charles Smailes, president of the NAEA, says: "Fifteen months ago my Barclays shares were worth £10.80 and today they are worth £2.40. Occasionally during my working life – and right now is one of those times – this is what property does too, but many sellers are failing to grasp this. But so long as you are selling and buying in the same market, you won't suffer a loss."
That may not be enough to convince potential buyers. Faced with a tightening of lending criteria by the banks and building societies, and probable further falls in property prices, they are holding off in the hope of landing a rock-bottom bargain further down the line.
Something else deterring buyers is the recent confused message from the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, suggesting the prospect of an autumn stamp duty "holiday" or the abolition of the lowest 1 per cent tax band altogether. A quarter of an already pitiful number of sales fell through after his remarks, suggests a survey by the NAEA.
And according to an online poll of 1,500 people from the house-moving service Moveme.com, 83 per cent of people thinking about selling up were considering changing their plans as a result of the uncertainty. The firm's managing director, Charles Wasdell, says: "There was no clarity, no commitment and the Government managed to kill the market entirely. Now I don't see there being any pick-up this year."
The website Rightmove last week christened this state of affairs "brickor mortis" – the property equivalent of rigor mortis.
The site now has a ratio of one successful sale to every 15 homes. "But in 2007 there was one for every seven, which is an indication of the speed at which the market has deteriorated," says Miles Shipside, commercial director at Rightmove. "It has therefore become twice as hard to sell, which means sellers and their estate agents have got to work twice as hard to improve their odds."
Rightmove advises sellers to remember the three Ps rule: price, promotion and presentation.
Market your property at a competitive price, says, Mr Shipside: "Otherwise brickor mortis will take hold." Most experts agree that asking prices should be in the region of 10 per cent lower than sellers initially intended.
Interestingly there are some signs that homeowners are facing up to the new market reality. Figures from the property search engine Globrix show the average UK asking price fell to £210,000 in July from £214,950 in June.
Once the price is right, sellers will need to look at promoting their property by pushing it straight into the path of prospective buyers. They might, advises Rightmove, want to pay extra for premium-rate advertisements or, if the home has been on the market for some time, ask the agent to take new photographs and redraft particulars.
Sellers will also need to to advertise more widely than the estate agent's window or local newspaper. "Make sure the agent you instruct knows internet marketing inside out," says Daniel Lee, director at Globrix. "Online is where people look for property."
You will need to put some effort into the presentation of your home, but that doesn't mean having to spend a lot. "It could include decluttering, repainting in neutral colours and tidying the garden," says Paul Fincham at Halifax. "It's also a good idea to take each room back to its original purpose – putting exercise equipment out of sight, for example – so buyers don't have to use their imagination too much."
On the market since May, 'but at least we can afford to stay put'
Sian Smith, a public relations consultant, bought a property with her twin sister back in December 2002 as a "now or never" jump on to the first rung of the property ladder.
The pair paid £125,000 for the three-bed semi-detached house in Cardiff. They intended to sell in a few years, split the equity and use it to buy separate homes – but that's not how it's worked out, says Sian, 29.
"We had the property valued at £175,000 in the summer of last year," she explains, "but we actually ended up putting it on the market in May for £179,950. We knew this was the higher end of the price scale but we'd decorated and made improvements to the garden. The house is very well kept, in a desirable part of Cardiff and in the right catchment area for the best schools."
But all this is not enough. To date, the sisters have had just two viewings despite having lowered the asking price to £174,950. "We won't take less than £165,000 as we believe that's what it's worth," says Sian. "We may have to take it off the market but I feel fortunate we're at least in a position where we don't have to sell."