Signs of revival in house market

THE FIRST signs of a strong pick-up in the housing market emerged yesterday when one of the country's biggest chains of estate agents reported new sales up 8 per cent on last year.

Countrywide Assured, a listed estate agent and surveyor with 750 branches, said it had recorded the biggest number of new sales in February since its business first took shape in 1994.

Mike Nower, finance director, said: "We're now optimistic to bullish, and business has been very good. There is a lot of activity, a lot of offers and our surveyors are very busy indeed."

Business at Countrywide's conveyancing division has already doubled on the same period last year, to more than 1,000 instructions every week.

The pick-up contrasts with Countrywide's results for 1998, which showed profits edging up by 7 per cent but earnings falling. The shares rose 9 per cent to 137p, valuing the firm at pounds 455m.

Results from surveyors and estate agents are often a leading indicator of the housing market's fortunes because they arrive ahead of data on mortgages and house prices.

Last week the Housebuilders' Federation produced a report showing the strongest demand for new houses since July 1997.

Steve Bell, an economist at Deutsche Bank, said: "I think we are going to get a strong market in the next few months. It's benefiting from low fixed-rate mortgages. What is harder to say is whether it will be sustained: many people are still afraid of losing their jobs."