Agents urge caution before confidence

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The Independent Online
Britain's estate agents - not normally noted for understatement - moved quickly yesterday to rein in Michael Heseltine after his prediction of a "boom to come" in the housing market.

The Deputy Prime Minister's comments were received with scepticism by a body of professionals well known for verbal dexterity. Today's agents are anxious not to create the panic-buying conditions which developed prior to the ultimately disastrous housing boom of 1988.

"There's no movement in prices in this part of the world," said James Wick, of the Humberside chain James Wick and Partners. "A lot more properties are selling at their asking prices but we've seen absolutely no upward movement in prices."

Agents reported a significant increase in sales inquiries, and a minor upturn in transactions but negligible rises in price.

Modern houses in the Home Counties, London flats and terraced homes in the North were all said to be stuck in a stagnant market.

Prices of good quality family homes sold in the South-east are on the rise but partly because so few sellers are prepared to put their properties on the market.

Mr Heseltine heralded a future housing boom in a BBC radio interview on Boxing Day, in which he praised the Prime Minister for creating the "most extraordinary economic circumstances".

The word on Britain's high streets yesterday was that, having seen the effects of the last boom, house buyers were less optimistic and a great deal more wary than the Deputy Prime Minister.

Peter Hayward, a Carlisle estate agent, said: "People are more discerning. They have learnt certain lessons and they realise that you don't just buy a house because if you don't the man behind you will."

He said Cumbrian house prices were still lower today than during the housing boom. A three-bedroomed house which had been worth pounds 55,000 in 1990 was now worth pounds 50,000 at most.

Mr Hayward said: "I am positive for 1997 but whether it is anything to do with the Government is another issue."

If Mr Heseltine's boom does come about it is likely to emanate from the South-east and spread outwards as it did nearly a decade ago.

There has been a marked increase in activity in the central London housing market, prompting banks and building societies to predict rises in British house prices of between 7 and 10 per cent next year. Nationwide said yesterday that house sales would increase by 15 per cent in 1997.

Estate agents in the South-east said yesterday that the upturn was sharply focused on the upper end of the market.

Glennie Salt, of the Berkshire estate agents Drewett Neate, said that brand new properties and older "character" homes in the pounds 200,000 to pounds 300,000 price range were selling well. But she warned: "Modern boxes, characterless and built in the 1960s and 1970s with standard bathrooms and kitchens, have stagnated in price."

Many estate agents also became victims of the previous boom and bust. Now they are quick to distance themselves from the 1980s image of a wheeler- dealing shark. They profess a desire for "reasonable prices" and praise the acumen of the modern house buyer.

As Mr Heseltine reached for the champagne to toast the "new boom", he was warned that it could be more of an election handicap than a vote- winner.

Gordon Wighton, the Teesside area manager for Halifax property services, said: "We don't want to see a boom - it's not in the interests of anybody."

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