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It's never been easier to buy

HOUSE prices edge up here and down a bit there, but the long-awaited revival in the housing market has certainly not yet materialised.

The number of transactions is still well below the frantic 1988 peak, and builders hoping to start passing on higher costs must be getting increasingly nervous. In this section, we look at the housing market - nationally and regionally.

But hope springs eternal. Everyone has to live somewhere, and property in general has not been cheaper in relation to earnings for a generation at least. We look at the ratios and the affordability indices, which should reassure the potential buyer that property is actually cheap.

We look at the different lenders: banks, building societies, the surviving central lenders, and the new direct sellers who offer mortgages over the phone. There are fewer lenders than there used to be, but they all offer a wider range of options than ever before.

We look at the pros and cons of repayment mortgages, endowment mortgages, unit-linked mortgages, pension mortgages and PEP mortgages. There is even a mortgage that is repaid from second-hand endowment policies bought for the purpose.

A mortgage war is going on between lenders desperate to increase their share of the shrunken market. Mortgage rates are currently low, and there is plenty of scope for fixed-rate mortgages to guarantee against rate rises for up to five years.

There is also a growing range of tempting discounts, for anything from six months to three years, to persuade buyers to take the plunge, some with free fees and cashbacks to cover costs.

And in the immortal words of competition offers: No Purchase Is Necessary! Existing home owners can change their mortgage lender to take advantage of fixed rates, discounts and even cashbacks without moving home. There are penalties to discourage home owners from making a habit of it, but the offers are genuine enough.

The negative equity trap is also shrinking and some lenders are offering a way of escape. Shared ownership is also alive and well. We look at some examples.