A new year, a new home

People rarely used to move house in winter. But recently the buying sea son has undergone a radical shift, says Anne Spackman
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The Independent Online
It may be January, but it's springtime in the property market. For the third year in succession, new year rather than Easter has heralded a wave of buying and selling. The buying season has shifted forwards: instead of the lull in activity lasting from December to February, it now begins in September and runs through the autumn.

The only difference this year is that rather than regarding a good January as a sign of better things to come, estate agents see it as part of a new pattern in which most of their business is done in the first six months of the year.

Last week a reportwas published by the Corporate Estate Agents, owned by banks or building societies and with offices accounting for around half of all estate agencies. It shows many more new instructions from January to June than from July to December. Traditionally, the line would have looked like an M, with peaks in March and September.

The shift of the seasons coincides with the introduction of an autumn rather than a spring Budget. This may be one reason why the September market has gone dead. But if people postpone their moves until after the Chancellor has spoken, they do not let his words put them off. The last Budget brought the withdrawal of mortgage cover for home owners who lose their jobs - and a subsequent rise in interest rates. Analysts downgraded their predictions for 1995 and nobody expected a happy new year.

But estate agencies are now busy with new buyers and potential sellers asking for valuations. Edward Waterson of Carter Jonas in York took on 10 new properties in the first week of January. Robert Snowdon of Reeds Rains in Cheadle, Cheshire, has been working seven days a week since the new year.

Stephen McOwan of Sanderson, Townend and Gilbert in Darlington is one of many agents who believe people now decide to move solely for their own particular needs. "With prices stable, the speculative five or seven year itch isn't happening," he said. "People are only moving for real reasons: they need more space for a growing family or less space because the children have gone."

Sanderson, Townend and Gilbert is active in the good family house market across the North-east. Customers are unlikely to have a high mortgage-to-earnings ratio and are therefore less affected by moves in interest rates. Down in the West Country many of James Green's buyers at Stags in Devon are older couples looking for a retirement home. Rising interest rates are good news for many of them, as they have savings rather than a mortgage with a building society. Latest estimates based on comparisons between borrowing levels and numbers of transactions suggest that as many as 17 per cent of buyers now have no mortgage.

"A lot of people don't borrow money," he said. "They are selling a large house in the Midlands or London and buying something smaller down here. Interest rates are not a significant factor in the equation."

But what about first-time buyers? Of course, estate agents never see those who have been completely put off by rising interest rates. However, those who make it through the door seem fairly sanguine. "Interest rates are often perceived to be all-important to the first-time buyer," said Robert Snowdon, manager of Reeds Rains' Cheadle branch. "They are not. People buy because of their needs. Also, the lenders are very shrewd. They offer so many inducements that in the short term most first-time buyers will get £500 from a cash-back scheme." The recession has undoubtedly played its part in the shifting of the property seasons. For a long time, the Christmas break has been a period when families consider whether or not to move in the following year. They used to feel a March start would see them moved by August but now they would rather give themselves a bit more time to sell.

Winter weather also used to be a significant factor. "Now people bomb around in a car from one centrally heated house to another," said Edward Waterson of Carter Jonas. "They are less conscious of the seasons."

But in places where the weather is still a consideration, the traditional seasonal pattern holds more strongly. James Green, whose office serves the Exmoor market, said some people currently asking for valuations would still wait until March to sell. "The reason for not putting your house up for sale right now is that we may find we get five feet of snow in February," he said.

Much of his current business is from buyers moving out of London. Estate agencies in Cambridge and Sussex also report strong activity from this market. Strutt & Parker's Lewes office sold 15 country houses in December, the vast majority to families moving out from south London areas such as Clapham, Putney and Richmond. "Before the recession, country houses tended to sell on a seasonal basis - really from the spring to the early autumn," he said. "But this is no longer the case. In 1993 we had a miserable September and October, but December was our busiest month and that pattern was repeated in 1994. And since the new year the phones have not stopped ringing."

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