HBOS sells 13 per cent stake in Rightmove as agents feel the heat

HBOS has sold its remaining stake in Rightmove as the faltering housing market puts extra pressure on the estate agents who advertise through the site.

The bank, which owns Halifax, announced yesterday that it had sold 13 per cent of the UK's biggest residential property website for £59.2m. HBOS was one of the founding investors in Rightmove when it was launched in 2000.

HBOS announced the sale of 16.2 million Rightmove shares at 365p each through UBS and Numis. The bank held 20 per cent of Rightmove when the company floated on the London stock market in 2006 and sold 11 million shares in two tranches last year.

An HBOS spokesman said the timing of the sale did not reflect the bank's view of the property market. "The stake in Rightmove was a strategic investment. We have been selling our stake down over time," he said. Halifax's estate agency, the third-biggest in the country, will continue to offer all its properties through Rightmove, the bank added. The sale of the Rightmove stake by Britain's biggest mortgage lender came as Humberts, one of Britain's oldest estate agents, suspended its shares yesterday morning and said it was seeking to clarify its financial condition. The company said this week that it was struggling to meet the terms of an equity-raising deal.

Humberts shares were suspended at 3.25p on the Alternative Investment Market yesterday morning after falling more than 16 per cent on Thursday. The company's stock has fallen 88 per cent this year, valuing it at just £2m. The 165-year-old company, which is 20 per cent owned by the property investor Vincent Tchenguiz, planned to raise £2.25m of equity through a share placing after the collapse of a takeover attempt but said this week that it would be "difficult or impossible" to meet certain conditions. Humberts has about 80 branches after expanding quickly, mainly by acquisition, since 2005.

In a further sign of gloom for the property market, Crest Nicholson, the commercial and residential developer owned by HBOS and Sir Tom Hunter, is shedding 10 per cent of its staff, or about 80 people. The news followed figures showing a construction slump in the first three months of the year. New housing starts were down by almost a quarter from a year earlier.

The HBOS sale sent Rightmove's shares down more than 7 per cent before the stock made a partial recovery to close at 378.25p, a fall of 1.9 per cent on the day.

The Bank of England reiterated yesterday that its special liquidity facility, which will allow banks to swap mortgage-backed securities for Treasury bills to unclog the money markets, is open-ended and that its initial £50bn was based on conversations with lend-ers about their immediate needs.

Industry sources are staying tight-lipped about use of the facility under orders from the Bank but a number of lenders are thought to have pledged collateral for assessment by the central bank.

Steven Crawshaw, the chief executive of Bradford & Bingley, said on Wednesday that the liquidity facility was already starting to open up the market for inter-bank lending of three months or more.

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