Someone must be moving, but who?

Most people are sitting tight. But not all. Anne Spackman on rare signs of life in the housing market
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The Independent Online
Spring has always been the most robust season in the housing market, but this Easter estate agents are more likely to be walking on eggshells than cracking eggs open. There are very few good houses for sale, and buyers will not even look unless the price is attractive. Getting sales to completion is like negotiating a path through a china shop with a recalcitrant child: it requires infinite patience and care.

The housing market is probably more fragile than at any time in the past two years. The Corporate Estate Agents group, which covers half of all agents, predominantly in the lower to middle market, reports a general fall in activity of 20 per cent compared with spring of last year. At that time, 14 per cent of agents in the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' monthly survey reported that prices were rising, while 6 per cent said they were still falling. Today those figures are reversed, with less than 5 per cent saying prices are rising - and then only fractionally - while 15 per cent report a fall.

With chains so hard to complete and prices so low it is like the bad old days of 1991-1993: no one is moving unless they have to. But as Peter Miller of the RICS points out, homes are still being bought and sold. So who are the people out there in the marketplace and what are they moving into?

Most people on the move are doing so for work. The lucky ones get a relocation package. The rest have to weigh up the cost of long-distance travelling against the cost of a move. And even if they decide to move, they may decide not to buy. In Cambridge, where the university and the science park have always guaranteed a high number of work-related sales, agents report a large increase in the numbers preferring to rent for a few years.

New homes have consistently outperformed the rest of the market since the first signs of an upturn two years ago. New flats and houses in London have sold particularly well to buyers in their late twenties and early thirties.

From Docklands in the East out to Richmond in the West, flats along the River Thames have proved popular. Barratt's flagship Docklands developments at Sovereign View and Pageant Steps have been selling "off-plan" - before being built. Galliard Homes had 14 reservations for its final phase at Burrell's Wharf on the Isle of Dogs before it had come off the drawing board. Ideal Homes has reservations on a quarter of the 110 flats and houses the company has only just started building at Corney Reach on the Thames in Chiswick.

Apart from the riverside location what all these successful sites have in common is low prices. At Burrell's Wharf one-bedroom flats start at £49,950. The customers for these homes include mature first-time buyers as well people looking for a London pied terre.

There are two good, practical reasons why buyers are going for new build: it avoids the hassle of a chain and, with so few homes on the market, developers are some of the only keen sellers around.

But new developments have also lost a lot of their stigma. Schemes in London often incorporate leisure complexes, shops, cafs and walkways. In the Home Counties new homes are being built in what were once the grounds of stately homes. It is all far more appealing than the estates of bland boxes built 15 years ago.

The one sector of the market where people are moving because they want to, rather than because they have to, is at the top of the new homes sector. Business people, many of them self-employed or approaching retirement, who have little or no mortgage, are keeping activity on the smartest sites ticking over.

Crosby Homes' most successful sites in the North-west have been outside Manchester at locations such as Bowdon, where prices start at £300,000. The company has sold all three homes on a development in Formby, priced from £400,000 upwards, in a month.

In the retirement market it is, again, the top end which has attracted the keenest interset. Pegasus has taken reservations on 40 per cent of the apartments it is creating in the old Empire Hotel in Bath, where prices will hit the £400,000 mark.

There is a strong fear that prices will, if anything, fall slightly this year. Estate agents everywhere are crying out for sellers to ask "reasonable" prices - by which they mean low ones. But sometimes it is the agents themselves who are responsible for persuading sellers to go high. With such a desperate shortage of instructions some agents are over-valuing property simply in order to get it on their books. Huw Warren of Cluttons in Oxford tells how both he and an agent at Carter Jonas valued a property at £225,000, only to see it appear in a third agent's window priced at £325,000. In today's climate, it is likely to sit there for a long time.