Sellers pay a price for not facing home truth

ERIC CANTONA, his pregnant wife and his son were evicted last week from their rented home in Manchester. His club, Manchester United, wanted to buy the house for him. But the landlord held out for a higher price than independent valuers reckoned it was worth.

Money will soften the blow for the Cantonas. But for thousands of families, the difference between what buyers are prepared to pay and what sellers expect to receive is keeping them out of the homes they want.

And this paralysing expectations gap is widened by self-interested attempts of the housing industry to talk up the market.

Last week the Halifax, Britain's biggest mortgage lender and flagship of the building society industry, was clinging for the time being to its forecast of a 2 to 3 per cent rise in house prices for this year. This was despite reporting a 1.5 per cent fall in the year to March and admitting that without more activity in the market, the forecast would eventually have to change.

But more and more voices in the City and beyond are saying the talking- up has to stop. Every time housing market gurus predict prices rises are just around the corner, sellers raise their hopes. Like Cantona's landlord, they hang on for a higher price and lose a sale - then end up with the property on their hands for yet another year. In the meantime, the frustration of those entangled in chains of would-be buyers and sellers continues to grow.

Worse still, the forecasts of higher prices encourage the estimated 1.2 million home owners with negative equity to believe that if they wait long enough, they may be rescued from any loss on the sale.

"All this talking-up goes on, but every estate agent in the country is seeing an absolutely flat market and volumes down on last year," says John Carolan, chief executive of Black Horse Relocation, part of Lloyds Bank.

His counsellors have the task of breaking the news to as many as 5,000 relocating employees a year that their houses are not worth what they expected. "When people are reading everywhere that prices will improve, it's very difficult for us. In extreme cases, they refuse to sell and refuse to take the new job. Is it really in the best interests of the industry to talk things up?"

Peter Toeman, banking analyst at Hoare Govett, calls attempts to inflate the market with hot air "lunatic". Others agree. "All the pseudo-pundits at the estate agents and the building societies have an enormous vested interest in talking the market up and they all own houses themselves," says economist Ian Shepherdson at the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank group (himself a home owner in Blackheath, south London, where prices are falling).

Shepherdson cites the estate agent Savills, which last year predicted rises of more than 10 per cent countrywide, and the frantic bidding-up of land prices by smaller builders last summer. He says false expectations create a risk of market failure, where the gap between over-optimistic vendors and those who know it is a buyer's market becomes too great to bridge.

But leading lenders still feel obliged to boost morale. "Why do you think the Halifax is so slow to cut its forecast of a house price rise this year? Because it's their job to make home loans," says John Wriglesworth, head of strategy at Bradford & Bingley, and no stranger to bullish forecasts in the past.

But even Adrian Coles, director-general of the building societies' trade association, the BSA, now admits: "We have had a succession of false dawns, after the Gulf war, after the election in 1992, and then last year. Every time, vendors tend to start holding out for more."

The illusion may briefly cheer estate agents and feed bloated marketing budgets for bank and building society managers. But it means misery for families trapped in homes that no longer fit.

Fiona Biddiscombe, partner in the independently owned Parkers estate agency, operates in Lower Earley, a suburb of Reading that exploded during the 1980s into the second largest area of new housing in Europe.

Many of those who bought tiny, one-bedroom, gardenless starter homes here are imprisoned in them now that today's first-time buyers can afford bigger houses and ignore the bottom of the market.

Mrs Biddiscombe says: "I valued a one-bedroom maisonette recently that a couple had bought in 1990 for £60,000. Last spring another agent valued it at £48,000. The owners saved like mad to raise £12,000 to bridge the gap, and they did it, eventually. But if they had been able to arrange a £12,000 loan last spring, they would have done far better to have put it on the market then. Now we'd put it on the market at £43,950 and perhaps sell at £42,000. The wife nearly fell through the floor when I told her, and said she'd have to go to her father for the money."

Mrs Biddiscombe says hopes of better prices stop people in negative equity from facing the miserable truth that they will not be able to move until they save or borrow enough to bridge the gap between the diminished price of the property and the mortgage. If they delay too long, even in order to save, the gap may get larger.

"It's so easy not to bite the bullet and hope for something better if the experts are encouraging you. We insist that a seller is realistic about price and has plans for dealing with negative equity before we take a property on," she says. "After all, there are lots of loan schemes from the building societies, for example, where you can transfer the deficit as a loan against the new property. Or sometimes the owners' parents help out - we had one father who increased his own mortgage to help his son and the German Shepherd dog move out of a flat with a tiny garden. But plenty of agents will talk higher prices and put the property at the market at an unachievable price."

Quite apart from the pain of extra loan repayments, it is tough for many of those who believed they were making an investment as proverbially safe as bricks and mortar to admit they have lost out. But avoiding the truth means perhaps losing more.

Although lenders' research suggests that most people still regard home ownership as a worthy goal, many economists believe that since the 1980s property boom, a profound behavioural change has taken place in much of Britain as people realise that house prices can crash as well as rise. Owning and moving has a cost that is no longer compensated for by the prospect of capital gains. Getting your foot on the property ladder is no longer an article of faith.

Most have heard about, if not experienced, repossessions, unsustainable debts, or borrowers trapped in unsaleable property.

The birthrate collapsed after 1964, so that the number of people in their late twenties, the usual time for buying a first house, has slumped. The legal framework for providers of rented accommodation has improved. Despite fast economic growth, job insecurity is perceived to be high - the so- called "feel-bad factor".

Households still have far more debt relative to their income than they did in the decades before the 1980s. The increases seen last year in parts of central London are "just people like the Sultan of Brunei and some others with City bonuses buying houses and holding them", says Ciaran Barr of Morgan Grenfell's economics department.

"It's unlikely to feed through to a wider market, because you probably don't sell a flat in Kensington for £300,000 and then buy in Birmingham."

From October, the Government plans big cuts in the level of state support for mortgage borrowers who lose their jobs - a change that many banks and building societies feel kicks away the underpinnings from much of their lending.

More immediate factors depressing the market include the last of a series of reductions in mortgage interest relief that took effect last week. Base rates are on a rising trend and the next rise is expected within the next two months.

As Gary Marsh, the Halifax's economist, points out: "Most house moves are no further than 20 miles, they are not essential to keep a job, and they can be delayed a year or two."

House prices are not going up any time soon. That may be profoundly good for the British economy, historically all too inflation-prone. But perhaps it is time the estate agents, the conveyancing solicitors, the lenders and all the others still equipped for a level of housing market activity that will never now return stopped deluding home owners who have suffered enough.

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