Other people's business

How much did that house round the corner really go for? Graham Norwood finds a nosy neighbour's paradise
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The Independent Online
Tony and Cherie Blair paid pounds 3.6m for a house in London's Connaught Square last autumn but would they have done so if they had known a similar property nearby fetched pounds 1.39m in May 2003? I found out within a few seconds online, thanks to websites that now give exact sale prices of homes across England, Scotland and Wales.

This is good news for those who like a gossip about neighbours' house prices over a cuppa. Until now, speculation has been based on hearsay, with evidence gleaned from surreptitious calls to estate agents. But now you can be a busybody with complete authority, thanks to www.mouseprice.com, www.myhouseprice.com, www.nethouseprices.com and the more boringly titled landreg.gov.uk.

They work like this. The government has data on every sale held in departments called the Land Registry and, north of the border, the Registers of Scotland. The price information was available before January but only by writing to the Land Registry, specifying an exact address and paying a pounds 2 fee. The difference now is that you can find out the information within seconds online and request prices of homes in a postcode area or an entire street, instead of just a single address.

Quick-witted entrepreneurs have bought the information and are selling it to two groups of customers. The first is the property industry - surveyors and agents who have always relied on previous sales information to help them value a home. The second group consists of you and me - the nosy neighbours. While writing this article, I have discovered the price paid by almost every friend I know who has bought in the past five years - and don't tell me you got a bargain when you bought that Chelsea flat, Nigel: you were robbed.

"About 50 per cent of the hits we get each day come from ordinary people," claims Selwyn Lim of Mouseprice. Like most of these sites, Mouseprice charges people pounds 2 for two house prices, but offers bulk discounts for multiple uses. Nethouseprices has a special offer until March. The public can use it free but only when it is operating - demand led it to crash within hours of the offer beginning in the New Year.

Under normal circumstances, each site operates in a similar way. You feed in a postcode or street name, with your credit card details, and the prices of homes sold since 2000 in that location appear on screen within seconds. Myhouseprice also allows users to search a map to identify which prices they want identified.

The websites tell you if a property is new, give an outline description - flat, or semi-detached - and whether it is freehold or leasehold. However, the name of the buyer remains confidential, unless you write in the traditional way to the Land Registry requesting a copy of the deeds.

Although it's good news for the inquisitive, there are privacy implications; the prices are being made available as part of the government's response to the drive for greater freedom of information. "We've had individuals complaining that their price has gone public. There's nothing we can do about that - it's the law to release the information - but the benefit of learning more about house prices outweighs the disadvantages in our opinion," suggests Lim.

Buyers in particular will benefit, especially if a property has sold more than once in recent years. "Estate agents can be unwilling to say what a property sold for in, say, 2001. Now buyers can judge whether sellers are enjoying genuine capital appreciation or just trying it on," says a Consumers' Association spokeswoman.

All the websites promise their data will be used to provide new house price indices, using real sales figures. But the sites admit the real fascination will remain with individuals having their curiosity satisfied. The mantra for house buyers of the future will be information, information, information. And next time, will someone tell Tony Balir?