Property: Green shoots and salad days: East Anglia was hit early by the slump. Now, says David Lawson, prices are stirring again

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The Independent Online
IT IS what we have all been waiting for: successive monthly price rises of about 1.5 per cent announced by the Halifax Building Society for the first time since the slump began almost three years ago. Could it be the real turning point for housing?

A number of indicators suggest it is. Firstly, unemployment has also fallen two months in a row. Fear of redundancy has held back buyers despite record low interest rates and bargain prices. Any sign of better job security will relax their anxieties.

Secondly, central London prices are rising. That might seem irrelevant to the rest of the country, as the area is dominated by millionaires and landlords, yet this is the very reason for optimism. These are shrewd people. Like professional investors in stocks and shares, they sniff out the right time to buy or sell long before the punter, and they feel that now is the right time to get back into property.

Home-hunters are coming to the same conclusion. Cambridge and much of East Anglia, along with London, led the country into the boom and toppled first into slump. Now they are awash with potential buyers. 'I always make a point of asking people why they are buying,' says Ian Purkiss of the Cambridge agent Hockeys. 'They all say they think prices are rising, so they should move quickly.'

In contrast with the boom, however, they are moving more cautiously. A typical two-bed Victorian terraced house he put on the market a week or two ago sold for pounds 87,000 within three days, but despite intense interest it still fetched pounds 2,000 less than the asking price.

Prices are beginning to creep up when several bidders are involved. A three-bed house needing renovation generated six offers up to pounds 51,000, edging over the asking price, according to Martin Green of Catlings, another East Anglian agent.

This ebb and flow will have a confusing impact on national statistics in the next few months, which is why Gary Marsh of the Halifax warns that we may yet see another monthly price fall. In fact, most insiders are playing down the idea of anything more than a gentle recovery.

'The last thing anyone wants is to pour cold water on these glowing embers,' says one agent. 'But if owners get it into their heads that prices are rising, they could easily screw things up by rejecting buyers.'

Jock Lloyd-Jones of Bidwells shares that reserve, despite seeing plenty of movement among the big Victorian manses and country houses he handles around Cambridge. For instance, he recently put on the market a listed house, once owned by Sir Mark Oliphant, for pounds 275,000. A buyer was found within weeks.

'There are enough green shoots around to make a salad,' he says. 'We led the country into recession so it is natural that we will lead it out.'

The buoyant stock market has boosted the upper end of the market, where there are more buyers than sellers. Commuters have also begun home-hunting in Cambridge again, which shows they are confident of selling existing homes in and around London.

'Things can still go wrong,' Mr Lloyd-Jones says, citing trouble in Bosnia, Russia and South Africa. If any one exploded, share prices could collapse, throttling the 'feel-good' factor that has been so important in reviving buyers. On the whole, though, there are more good than bad signs. Several financial analysts anticipate price rises this year being just below the rate of inflation. Most predict higher rises in 1994.

Mr Lloyd-Jones fears that the large amount of negative equity will be a dampener on movement, but John Wriglesworth, housing specialist at the stockbrokers UBS, says this could be a positive factor, cutting the number of homes available to first-time buyers and helping to boost values in the South-east next year.

It will take a long time to dig many owners out of the pit, however. Average prices in Cambridge have fallen 25 to 30 per cent since the boom and Mr Purkiss points out that the pounds 87,000 sale of his terraced house would have been more like pounds 115,000 at the peak. Values for modern 'executive boxes' are down as much as 65 per cent. Older, well-renovated homes close to the town centre are only marginally below boom prices.

The same pattern emerged across the country at an auction of more than a dozen homes by Allsop last week. A two-bed Notting Hill flat sold for pounds 98,000, easily beating the pounds 70,000 reserve and the previous pounds 95,000 open-market price, while a five-bed house in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire, went for pounds 266,000 - 18 per cent above the reserve.

The secret lies in setting a sensible asking price, says Gary Murphy, auctioneer. This is one reason why the Halifax's optimism has raised a collective groan from agents. 'I have enough trouble persuading sellers to ask realistic prices without having this sort of thing quoted at me,' says one. 'I wish all these commentators would just shut up.'

It seems the analysts cannot win. Whatever they say causes someone's nerve to wobble. But the message that the recovery has started should be welcome to all. It may be weak, prices still have a long way to climb and some disaster may yet bring them screeching to a halt. But isn't it a nice feeling?

(Photographs omitted)