Strike now while the iron's hot

With fewer buyers and a softening market, those who are ready could pick up a bargain. By Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online

With fewer buyers around, house prices tend to soften, especially in July and August. Anyone who must move house for the start of the new school year needs to have their offer accepted in June, if not before. And arranging viewings to fit in with the holiday plans of everyone involved can turn an already protracted process into a nightmare.

But for buyers who are willing to do the legwork, the summer presents an opportunity. With fewer buyers around, there is less competition for properties. By the same token, the sellers who do have their properties on the market are likely to be serious about moving, rather than testing the market. They will be more likely to take an offer, so that they can achieve a sale and move on.

And this year's summer lull comes at a time when house prices have been softening for a couple of months, and as mortgage rates have started to drop.

The Halifax's monthly housing market survey found that prices fell, nationally, in February, April and May, and managed just a 0.5 per cent increase in March.

Housing market commentators suggest that the soft market could actually mask some of the seasonal dips in prices that often accompanies the summer months, but suggest that it is still very much a buyer's market.

"I am not sure that we will see the annual drop in prices, because it is not a normal market," says Peter Bolton King, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents. "It is already a slow market, although in London it is picking up again after something of a breather last year."

One measure the NAEA uses is how long it takes to sell a property. It is currently taking five months for a property to come under offer. This is more than four weeks longer than this time last year. The longer it takes to sell a home, the cooler the market is.

Further evidence of how far the market has already cooled comes from the property research organisation Hometrack, which points out that transaction levels in the market are significantly lower than last year. "We might see a dip in prices. Transaction levels should stay up over the summer, but they are already 30 to 40 per cent lower than last year," says Hometrack's housing economist, John Wriglesworth.

He predicts that the number of homes changing hands over the summer should pick up, as prices fall. "One reason transactions are low is because prices are not low enough: people cannot afford the homes," he says.

This could present a window of opportunity for well-placed buyers. The money markets are predicting interest rate cuts in the Autumn, and this, combined with evidence that house prices have already bottomed-out in London, suggests that any correction in the market will only last a few months. Prices could even be rising again by October, especially if there is a boost in confidence now that London will be hosting the 2012 Olympic games.

Buyers with their finances in place, who are not in a chain, and are willing and able to move quickly will be able to make the most of any summer price drops, and buy at a good price. National figures from the NAEA suggest that offers are holding up, relative to asking prices, with homes selling on average at a 4.2 per cent discount. But anecdotal evidence suggests that some sellers will accept much lower offers. This bodes less well for sellers.

"Some sellers are testing the water and are happy to put a property on the market at a high value," says Peter Bolton King at the NAEA. "But it can take sellers six months to realise that their agent is telling the truth, and to drop the price.

"From a buyer's point of view, it is certainly a buyers' market," he adds. "Buyers are searching around for property that is better value and rejecting those that are too expensive. And 99 times out of 100, the reason a house isn't selling is price. Buyers are being a lot more selective."