Under pressure to move on down: Behind the latest figures on house prices lies a political agenda, argues Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
IT MUST have come as quite a shock to anyone who has tried to buy a house in any popular part of the country recently to hear - as they would have done last week - that property prices are falling. It simply doesn't tally with people's personal experiences or their friends' tales of losing a house to a higher bidder, or achieving a sale within 48 hours for the asking price.

The contradiction between these experiences and what the building societies' monthly figures tell us lies in the value of the property in question. As a general rule, the more expensive your house, the less the building society figures apply.

Just over half of all properties in the UK are worth less than pounds 70,000. But three out of four building society mortgages are on properties in this bracket. It is on mortgage advances that societies such as the Halifax and Nationwide base their monthly house price movements. So their figures are skewed heavily towards what is happening at the bottom of the market.

Last week, the Halifax Building Society reported that prices fell 1.6 per cent in May, after a 0.3 per cent fall in April. Two days earlier the Nationwide said prices had risen 1.4 per cent over the same period, but nobody took much notice. We tend to listen to the Halifax because it is the number one player in the field, with 19 per cent of the mortgage market. The corporate estate agents' property index, due to be published tomorrow, will probably show a similarly rocky picture regarding the number of house sales.

But is the gloom justified?

The real drop in house prices recorded by the Halifax in May was 0.8 per cent. The rest of the 1.6 per cent was 'seasonal adjustment'. This is calculated on a rolling monthly average in the same way as the unemployment figures.

Seasonal adjustment made sense when we had seasonal habits: April/ May and September/October were traditionally the peak house-hunting months. But over the past two years December and January have been two of the busiest months of the year with some of the highest price increases. According to James Laing, of the estate agents Strutt & Parker, there is now more business on Christmas Eve than in the middle of August. House buyers, it seems, have become about as seasonally reliable as the weather.

But seasonal adjustment is a sideshow. The fundamental question is whether the Halifax's figures accurately reflect what is going on in the housing market.

The chains of estate agents owned by building societies and insurance companies deal disproportionately with property at the bottom end of the market. And right now that matters, because the recovery in the property market is coming from the top. Mayfair, the richest area of Britain, has seen price rises of 25 per cent over the past 15 months. Kensington is not far behind with a 20 per cent rise.

The people who can afford to move are those who built up some equity before the 1989/90 crash. They are predominantly wealthier people in their thirties and forties looking for a bigger family house, or older couples who have paid off their mortgages and are looking for a retirement home.

The demand at the moment is for high-quality property, particularly family houses in popular areas. There are precious few about, and in many cases several buyers are competing for anything that comes on to the market, causing prices to rise.

Little of this buoyancy is reflected in building society figures. Not only are agents failing to sell these types of houses, they also provide few of the mortgages for buyers. The richer you are, the more likely you are to have your mortgage with a bank rather than a building society.

Recent research by the estate agents Savills discovered that one-third of buyers in the new homes market had no mortgage at all. On a new estate of about 20 four-bedroom homes selling for about pounds 220,000 in Esher, Surrey, the youngest buyer was 50. As the housing market matures, more and more purchases will be equity-funded.

At the other end of the spectrum, the values of properties worst hit by the recession are still falling. Small one- and two-bedroom flats, whose prices soared in the late Eighties, have suffered the most. These smaller flats were generally bought in the late Eighties by buyers in their twenties desperate to get a foothold on the housing ladder. They paid between pounds 50,000 and pounds 80,000 for flats that are now worth pounds 30,000 to pounds 55,000. These are the hotbeds of negative equity. And they are seriously over-represented in building society figures.

The monthly report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which has members in estate agents right across the price range, reflects this growing development of a two- tier market. In its southeast region 38 per cent of agents reported prices rising for four-bedroom homes and 47 per cent for country houses. But in the same region, 23 per cent reported small price falls for flats.

Gary Marsh, the Halifax's chief statistician, thinks house prices are broadly stable, but nudging upwards, with a few booming patches. So why did last week's announcement place so much emphasis on the effects of April's income tax increases and the possibility of the recovery faltering? Because the Halifax's report was not directed primarily at home owners.

The Chancellor considers house prices to be a key economic index, and the Halifax figures are the ones the Treasury go by. Resisting inflationary pressure remains a tenet of the Government's economic policy, and of course rising house prices are regarded as an important warning sign. Unlike some other analysts, therefore, the Halifax is sticking to a sternly sombre view.

As the building society said in its presentation of last month's figures, 'There are no signs of the housing market 'taking off'. Any moves to raise interest rates, tighten fiscal policy or mount an attack on housing subsidies would risk destroying a very fragile market.'

The Halifax's May report was more a lobbying tool aimed at influencing the Government than a measure of what has happened to the value of your house.

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