Property: Has that house got an MoT?

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The Independent Online
SIR NORMAN Fowler was a little late. He had been understandably delayed by the small matter of the Government's drubbing at the polls and what to do about it. But now all he wanted to discuss was the future of housing.

The National House-Building Council is keen to boast that there are advantages to having the head of the Tory party as your chairman: friends in high places, access to ministers and all that stuff. But it can be a darned nuisance at times such as this when you have your own flag to wave.

Sir Norman was desperate to talk about recovery and rising confidence. Builders started 54,000 homes this year, more than 12 per cent above the same period in 1992, he boasted. Sales have soared by a third since the autumn to 653 a day.

Yes, yes, Sir Norman, that's all very well. But what did you say to John Major? Will these green shoots save the Chancellor's bacon? Will you be the next Prime Minister?

It would be a shame, however, if unfortunate political timing were to overshadow a vast improvement in protection for homebuyers that is being considered by the NHBC. Its warranties against faulty workmanship last for 10 years, after which houses can crumble into the dust and no one will pay you a penny. But Basil Bean, the chief executive, is looking into the possibility of a regular 'MoT test' to reassure subsequent owners.

Before the warranty runs out, an inspector would check over the house and decide whether to give another five years' cover. This could go on indefinitely, providing owners with a certificate to pass on to potential buyers about the soundness of the home.

The idea is part of Sir Norman's eagerness to expand the role of the NHBC, although it looks suspiciously like an attempt to upstage another insurance group's moves to steal NHBC business with a warranty scheme that extends over 15 years. But who cares where the inspiration comes from, as long as it cuts the risks of home buying.

IF ONLY such a scheme could be extended to all homes. Lenders are coming under justified attack for refusing to accept surveyors' reports commissioned by owners as a method of speeding up sales. Financial groups insist that a select band of their own experts should carry out the valuation required for any loan, setting the buyer back hundreds of pounds, when it could be done cheaper as part of a combined survey and valuation. Now the Office of Fair Trading has asked the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to check if this is an abuse.

The row has been bubbling away ever since the slump. When repossessions started to soar, lenders panicked. Surveyors were blamed for overvaluing, and some were hit with law suits for compensation. Now lenders insist on hand-picked professionals carrying out the job. Unfortunately, there is a suggestion that these are sometimes chosen for the new loans they bring in from estate agencies to which they are often attached, rather than because of their expertise.

Naturally, these experts are trying hard not to repeat mistakes, but this has led to widespread undervaluations, which agents say are holding back the recovery. Olivia Fennell of Barnard Marcus quotes one house in Battersea which raised an offer of pounds 83,000 within a week but was then valued at pounds 75,000. She managed to change the valuer's mind, but many deals either fall through or force the seller to cut the price.

WHO IS this agent daring to describe Manor Farm House near Chippenham as 'a first-class house'? Has he not heard of swingeing penalties under the new Property Misdescriptions Act if such claims cannot be substantiated? What if I thought it was second class? And then he has the nerve to say that pounds 400,000 is also a 'first-class price'.

But hold on a minute. Could Christopher Blount (agent) be related to Christopher Blount (owner)? Well, that's all right then. The Act has one yawning gap: people can eulogise until the cows come home about their own homes. Now, does anyone want to buy a luxury two-bed flat owned by a first-class property journalist? Going cheap at pounds 2.3m.