Property: Rising sales halt slide in prices

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The Independent Online
RISING sales may be bringing the long slide in house prices to a halt. In a poll by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the number of agents who say values have stabilised has risen since the autumn from 25 to 75 per cent. But owners are so reluctant to sell at low prices that many firms are running out of property.

Sales in central London rose by 30 per cent in the first two months of this year, according to a survey to be published tomorrow by the London Magazine. But Ian Homersham, of the agents John D Wood, says there is no chance of prices rising in the near future, and the RICS warns that the revival may peter out.

Brian Whitfield, of the Household Mortgage Corporation, is more bullish. As sellers hold back and the supply of property dries up, he says, 'prices could begin to move up a lot faster than people think'.

The Chancellor may have slowed the increase in some values by his Budget decision to raise the stamp duty threshold to pounds 60,000. As the average home costs only a little more than this, look out for a rash of property reduced to pounds 59,999, and deals where carpets and curtains are sold separately.

THE Chancellor was out to raise money rather than save the world when he imposed VAT on fuel bills from April 1994. But he may end up earning a pile of brownie points from environmentalists by pushing buyers towards energy-efficient homes. Improved insulation standards mean that houses and flats built since 1990 are costing less than pounds 600 a year to light and heat, compared with about pounds 1,000 for the average three- bedroomed home.

DO YOU remember what your home was worth in April 1991? Find out sharpish. Council tax bills coming through the door over the next few weeks are based on estimated values at that time, and many may be wrong. A check of 175 homes across Lincolnshire found that almost 45 per cent were rated too highly. If that is true across the country, home owners may be heavily penalised, says Peter Watson, of the agents William H Brown. In Norwich, for instance, an owner could end up paying pounds 700 too much over the next five years because a house was mistakenly pushed into a higher valuation band. Ask your town hall how to appeal. If you are considering a private valuation, check the fees involved; you could end up paying more than you save.

JOAN SALLY SQUIRE, a teacher in Harrogate, takes me to task for suggesting a few weeks ago that buyers have to become involved with 'expensive experts' when acquiring a home in France. The professionals, and magazines and exhibitions, can make it seem over-complicated, she writes.

She and her husband sailed through the purchase of a home 18 months ago by relying on common sense and good advice, much of it from their own solicitor. The property was sold through a local agent, and the Squires did most of the work by letter and phone. Both notaire and agent were happy to deal in English, she says. The latter even arranged for repairs to the house, and took the Squires around insurance agencies and the electricity and water boards, at no extra cost.

'Buying anything, at home or abroad, has to be thought about carefully and not undertaken without sound financial advice and an understanding of the implications,' Mrs Squire says. But she adds that this is unlikely to come from professionals with a vested interest.

The important factor is that the couple had done their homework. They chose an area known from holidays to have reliable sun, but not the troublesome mosquitoes you hear little about in Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. They investigated the house thoroughly, presenting a list of questions to the seller about repairs and charges. And they found free advice from a source little known to UK buyers, the local Syndicats d'Initiative. 'If I ever wanted to rent out, I would use their list of approved properties and their help in arranging caretaking,' Mrs Squire says.