'Further fall' in number of house hunters

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The number of people looking to buy a home fell for the fifth month in a row during October as activity in the housing market continued to slow, research indicated today.

Potential buyers remained cautious, with many indicating they were putting off purchasing a property until the spring, while those who do want to press ahead with a transaction are continuing to struggle to raise the mortgage they need.

Overall, 12% more surveyors reported seeing a drop in new buyer enquiries during the month than those who saw a rise, up from 2% more in the previous month, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said.

There was also a drop in the number of sellers coming to the market for the first time since January, when the extreme winter weather caused people to put their plans on hold.

A balance of 4% of surveyors said they had seen a reduction in new instructions during the month, compared with 22% who reported a rise in September.

Brain Jackson, of Ellis & Sons, in Southport, Merseyside, said: "A feeling of doom and gloom prevails over the market (during what) was once a busy period."

Jonathan Clayton, of Bentley Higgs & Co, Blackpool, Lancashire, said: "This is probably the quietest market we have seen in the past 20 years.

"The outlook is gloomy and there is a lack of confidence in the housing market. The lack of available mortgages is a major contributing factor."

The mismatch between supply and demand had been putting downward pressure on prices, with most major house price indexes reporting price falls in recent months.

This continued during October despite the slowdown in people putting their homes up for sale, with a balance of 49% of surveyors saying prices were falling, compared with 36% during the previous month and the highest level since April 2009.

Unsurprisingly, given the lack of buyers in the market, the average number of properties chartered surveyor estate agents sold during the previous three months fell to 15.2, the lowest level since June last year and well down on the long-term average of 26.8.

The sales to stock ratio, generally seen as a good indicator of underlying market conditions, also dropped to its lowest level for more than a year.

But the fall in priorities coming on to the market should provide some support for prices going forward, and prevent a steep slide in property values.

Despite this, surveyors remain downbeat about the prospect for house prices, with a balance of 42% expecting further falls.

RICS spokesperson Jeremy Leaf said: "With both supply and demand falling transaction activity is set to remain at relatively flat levels for the foreseeable future.

"Agents may be cautious about what this could mean for house prices in the short term, but dramatic falls are likely to be limited by a gradual drying up of stock coming to the market."

Surveyors in all areas of the UK reported house price falls during October, with Scotland seeing them for the first time in 15 months.

The balance of surveyors reporting price falls was highest in the East Midlands at 64%, while the North West saw the biggest increase in surveyors recording a price drop.