Why not buy a house today?

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I HAVE a confession to make: my home is worth more than my mortgage - quite a bit more, in fact. I have not moved since 1981, which is not so unusual considering that people spend an average of nine years in a home. Take away the short period that most buyers spend on the first rung of the housing ladder and the normal span becomes far longer.

We are the silent majority - although I may have ruined my qualification by claiming such a substantial soapbox to shout from in the past couple of decades. About 15 million of us will feel little impact if the Government decides to extend the stamp-duty holiday past next Wednesday.

Another 7.5 million people in rented property will be just as unmoved. If any were planning to buy, the bait has not proved particularly tempting. Deals jumped by almost 30 per cent over the past three months, but this was probably because people who would have bought anyway later this year decided to beat the deadline.

Few of the other incentives proposed to rejuvenate the property market are likely to be any more inspiring. How many of the 1.5 million owners in homes worth less than their loans would move if given a tax cushion? Most can still cope with mortgage payments so they are under little pressure.

How many reluctant first-time buyers need extra financial help to get them going? Homes are cheaper than at any time since the mid-Eighties, but that has not stirred the masses. Stamp-duty savings were a pinprick compared with recent price falls.

The fact is that current and future home-owners are afflicted by the same fears. They believe prices will continue to fall, so almost any incentive is unlikely to make them consider moving. Why buy today when it it will be cheaper tomorrow? And the biggest bargain could turn into an albatross if your job disappears. Better to sit tight and pay off debts that mounted when rising property values made you feel rich. Or rent a place until the time seems right to buy.

But the 'right' time is when prices stop falling, and that will not happen until people believe they have stabilised. In the meantime they hold back, making prices fall further. It is catch 22.

The only real solution is to perk up all home-owners by general economic expansion. Anything else could be swallowed without trace. If lower interest rates are precluded by European monetary complications, we may simply have to grin and bear it.

There is another possibility. Perhaps we should declare a moratorium on bad news. The Sunday Times recently agreed to stop attacking government economic policies for a time because this is blamed for making matters worse. In the same vein, estate agents claim press reports of falling prices become self-fulfilling.

'I had this deal sewn up until the buyer read your column and decided to wait,' one told me recently. 'If you keep stuffing it down people's throats that prices are falling, they will make sure it happens.'

Unfortunately, while my mortgage is manageable, I still have to find the payments, and that means continuing to report the state of the market.

Maybe, however, it is time to start reminding ourselves that most home-owners are not hanging over a chasm, that more than one million homes were sold in the past 12 months, and that a recovery will take place some day. It may even bring salvation closer.

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