Property: How to track down homes under the hammer

It's happening again. Soaring house prices are forcing many home- buyers to settle for less space, or to head for auctions in search for a bargain. Rachel Fixsen warns against some of the services claiming to help them.
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London barrister Stewart Room is trying to buy a house in north London. "House prices are rising more than people's incomes are and that's a worry, because at the end of the day, you've got less to buy with," he says.

As long as the type of home you want stays within the price band you can afford, there's little problem. "It's when it goes outside the band that you get the concern," Mr Room says.

On average, prices are now between 6 and 7 per cent higher than last year, according to Gary Marsh, head of corporate affairs at Halifax. "We expect that to continue next year," he adds. But this national average hides sky-rocketing prices in London, where houses are up between 15 and 20 per cent.

Panic that they might be priced out of the market is driving many people to go downmarket, looking for bargain homes at auctions. But for many potential buyers, finding out just where the properties are going to be sold and when can be a headache. Auctions seem to be like buses: there may be none for weeks at a time and then several come along all at once.

To cater for this growing interest, new services listing repossessions going under the hammer are springing up as buyers prepare to save money by doing some of their own renovation. Property pages are dotted with advertisements for services offering lists of repossessions and other properties up for auction, often claiming bargains can be had.

The Property Network sends out via fax a list of houses and flats up for auction according to region. Some are repossessions. The list gives brief details of the property, date of auction, and a contact number for the estate agent handling viewing. The list is updated once a week.

The Fax Back Property Index is another service which, by area, gives details and contact numbers for cheaper properties that need doing up and are being sold through estate agents.

Both of these services cost pounds 1.50 per minute. The first service sent your reporter nine pages of details for the London region, costing about pounds 12 in phone charges. The second service sent out three pages listing properties in Yorkshire, including an index sheet, and this cost pounds 18 because it was much slower.

While services like theses save you some legwork, you can usually get information about houses up for auction free of charge by contacting auctioneers, or high street estate agents directly.

And the Fax Back Property Index, while it was still trading under its old name of the Repossessed Properties Index, has twice been investigated by the telecom watchdog ICSTIS (the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services).

In March, complaints that it took over 20 minutes to receive five pages of information led to a fine of pounds 2,500. In July it was investigated for, among other things, misleading advertising as not all properties on the list were repossessions. It was fined pounds 5,000.

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