Property: Return of the first-time buyer

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Recovery in the housing market is normally driven by first-time buyers, who come in at the bottom and spark off a chain of house sales up the price range. But in the present recovery they have been conspicuous by their absence. Over the past two years, the average age of the first-time buyer has gone from 26 to 28 - a steep rise. It seems that many young people have been put off home ownership by seeing friends and family caught by negative equity.

Now, with prices and interest rates at their most advantageous for 25 years, first-timers are coming back. This is reflected in building society lending, which rose by 25 per cent in the second quarter.

The bait being offered couldn't be more different from that dangled in front of new buyers in the Eighties. Then, building societies competed to offer the largest possible multiples of income, encouraging borrowers to stretch themselves as far as possible - and further. Now the rewards are all for prudence.

The Halifax has seen the average mortgage advance for a first-time buyer drop from 95-100 per cent in the boom years to 85-90 per cent today. Although it still offers mortgages up to 3.25 times income, few people go that far. 'The Halifax is trying to encourage this approach by offering bigger discounts to those who take out smaller loans,' said Liz Neild, its spokeswoman.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders reports another change in first-buyer behaviour, with 46 per cent taking out fixed-rate loans compared with virtually none five years ago. Figures published this month by the Halifax show that first-time buyers paid on average 2.3 per cent more for their home last month than in September 1992. To give some idea of how far the market has improved over the past 12 months, the comparable figure for September 1992 was minus 8.3 per cent.

THOSE who still labour under the misconception that they can swap their small flat in the South for a mansion in the North might cite Steelfield Hall on the edge of Gosforth village in Cumbria. The Grade II listed 16-bedroom house with four acres of grounds is on the market for pounds 108,000 - the price of a two-bedroom flat in Hampstead. The only snag is that it is close to the Sellafield nuclear complex.

The agent, Mitchell's Lakeland Properties, says the price is low because the building needs refurbishment and the owners are looking for a quick sale. Since its B & B business closed, the hall has been standing empty.

Perhaps the agent should try to persuade British Nuclear Fuels to turn it into a country club for its staff. The hall already has planning permission for a full health suite, including swimming pool. Or perhaps Greenpeace might like to buy it as a base camp from which to launch its next wave of protests. Anyone interested should contact the agents in Cockermouth, 0900 827292.