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  Confusion Continues on Direction of Housing Market
After seemingly having made a tentative recovery from the worst effects of the credit crunch and the recession that followed, the housing market appears to be diving downwards again. With house prices having recovered about 7% from their recent low point, much of the gain may have since been lost. Of course that depends on which figures you take notice of...

RightMove suggested that prices fell 1.1% in September, having dropped 2.3% over the previous two months. Nationwide reported a 0.1% rise in September following a fall in August but did not expect a significant fall in property values. Against this, the Land Registry reckoned that prices rose 0.3% in August while Halifax recorded a 0.2% rise for the same period.

These mixed messages, combined with a low level of transactions, appear to suggest a market that is stagnating. Various analysts have predicted that prices will fall further and will be significantly lower by the end of 2011. Many consider this to be not a bad thing, with property still over-valued, and will tempt more buyers into the marketplace.

Whatever the real picture, it's clear that house builders continue to struggle, with only 120,000 homes built in England last year, the lowest level since 1924. A better indication of future prospects is the level of mortgage approvals, which fell for the fourth month in a row. The Council of Mortgage Lenders announced that gross lending in August, at £11.4 billion, reached its lowest level for a decade. This does suggest that prices and demand are unlikely to pick up in the next few months.

The reasons for the general low levels of activity are easy to see, with the threat of spending cuts and reductions in public sector budgets making potential buyers uncertain of the future. These problems are thought likely to have the greatest effect in areas outside London and the South East. Property prices in London and desirable commuter locations are considered more resilient and the market is expected to hold up better there.

Future market activity may be adversely affected by a lack of mortgage finance as the banks build up their reserves and start to repay support funding provided by the government. The Financial Services Authority's proposals for more responsible lending may also restrict the number of loans that are granted. The FSA estimates that 17% of mortgages over the last few years would not have been granted had its proposals been operating. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, however, disputes these figures and claims that over half of all loans, amounting to some 3.8 million perfectly good loan agreements, would not have been granted. This level of restriction would obviously have very serious implications for the construction industry.

The key to getting house building moving again is no doubt to encourage large numbers of first time buyers into the market. Selling homes at the lower end will then enable existing owners to move up and will have repercussions right through the market. This may require prices to fall further as well as increased confidence through improving economic conditions.

What first time buyers also need is access to affordable mortgage funds. A Council of Mortgage Lenders' survey revealed that more people than ever want to be home owners, with three-quarters wanting to achieve this aim within two years. The Daily Telegraph reported that first time buyers are being charged up to £2,000 per year more than other buyers, although MyMortgageDirect believes that higher rates are charged simply because of a low level of deposit being provided. New ownership probably hasn't been helped by the scrapping of the Open Market Home Buy and MyChoice Home Buy schemes, although other options are available.

Some relief may be on the way in the form of private schemes designed to help prospective home buyers. Property portal Radarhomes has launched a part exchange service that is available to estate agents and private individuals. The Gentoo Group is planning to roll out a new home ownership plan for first time buyers. This eliminates the need for a deposit or mortgage, with participants paying a monthly fee that is part rental and part equity, eventually building up their share of the property to full ownership.

Any help will encourage the market to achieve a higher level of activity. Despite falling prices, however, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reported that its members were feeling more confident about prospects. Almost a fifth of those surveyed believed sales will get better by the end of the year.

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