Housing market recovery remains fragile

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Economics Correspondent

The weak state of the housing market has been reflected in recent figures on new housing starts and mortgage borrowing. The hopes for its recovery lie in house prices and mortgage rate cuts since the end of November.

Housing starts have been weak for the past six months, running at levels about 15 per cent lower than a year earlier. Net mortgage borrowing fell an alarming 22 per cent to just over pounds 15bn between 1994 and 1995. The British Bankers' Association, announcing its year-end figures, called it ``a dismal year for the housing market''.

Even more troubling was the apparent weakening in borrowing towards the end of last year. Lending for house purchase declined through last year and new approvals fell back in December.

Adrian Coles, director general of the Building Societies Association observed: ``The recovery in the housing market will not be characterised by uninterrupted month by month improvements.'' However, he said that the trough of the market had been passed.

Confidence that a recovery is on its way rests partly on recent reductions in the cost of borrowing. The main lenders cut mortgage rates immediately after last November's budget and also after the quarter point reduction in base rates in December. Mortgage rates are now at their lowest for a generation.

Modest house price increases form the second fragile green shoot of recovery. According to the Halifax Building Society, prices rose in January for the sixth month in a row. However, the increase during the month was only 0.1 per cent, and the average price was 1.2 per cent lower than a year earlier.

The Halifax said its optimism about a modest increase in house prices in 1996 was ``tinged with caution.''

The Nationwide, Britain's third-biggest mortgage lender, predicted that this year will bring a revival in the housing market. Its index showed prices flat in December, with the year-on-year pace of decline beginning to slow.

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