Are house prices really rising?

Updated: 
two housesTwo major mortgage lenders reported rising prices in May, but do they reflect what's really happening in the UK housing market?

After all, the Land Registry says prices have dropped for 16 months on the bounce.

Inching up
Mortgage lender Halifax reckons that average UK house prices increased by 0.5% in May to £160,941, following a significant 2.3% decline in April. Its three-month measure (which is considered less volatile) also showed an increase of 0.8%, its biggest jump since last August.

The figures come off the back of Nationwide's index last week which also reported rising house prices in May. It said prices inched up by 0.3% between April and May to £166,022.

All good news then, isn't it?

Annual dip
The picture isn't that clear, because both Nationwide and Halifax agree that UK house prices have inched down slightly over the last year – by 0.7% and 0.1% respectively.

It's not a massive drop but it mirrors the findings of the Land Registry – which is about as close to an official house price index as you can get. It said last week that prices fell 1% in April, the 16th month in a row that they have decreased. It now puts the average UK house price at £160,417.

So what's really going on? Are prices rising or falling?

Going nowhere

In fact prices are doing very little indeed, hovering at around the same level as competing pressures cancel each other out.

Firstly, a lack of demand from purchasers is pulling prices downwards, and this is unlikely to change while unemployment remains high and wider economic woes put people off buying property.

The temporary spike that was caused by the Stamp Duty holiday coming to an end for first-time buyers has finally filtered through the figures, with a resulting 18% fall in house sales between March (when the holiday ended) and April, according to HM Revenue & Customs.

On the flip side prices are being supported by a severe lack of new properties coming on to the market. This is partly because we are not building enough houses to cope with the generation of new households. But it's also because many people are not moving and not putting their homes on the market.

This lack of properties is helping to prop up prices, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which notes that the supply/demand balance in the market has tightened in recent months, as measured by its ratio of house sales to the stock of unsold properties.

In other words low supply and low demand mean few transactions and flat house prices.

Peter Rollings, CEO of estate agent Marsh & Parsons, states that prices are now steadying after the Stamp Duty deadline: "An April lull was inevitable after many buyers brought forward purchases into March, but the last few weeks have seen an improvement on a national level, in spite of a fairly dismal mortgage market and a misfiring economy.

"We are back in the new norm for the housing market, characterised by historically low levels of transactions and largely static sales prices."

London bubble

While the UK housing market remains flat, the capital is experiencing a mini boom, with the Land Registry noting a massive 5% rise in prices over the last year to an average £360,721.

This is borne out by other reports, with property portal Hometrack stating that demand from buyers registering with estate agents has outpaced the number of homes coming to the market in the capital over the last three months.

Robert Lazarus, sales director of North West London-based estate agency, Paramount Properties, says: "High demand for property in West Hampstead and across North West London has enabled house prices to continue rising in 2012.

"Although further increases will be on a modest scale, I do expect house prices to rise further by the end of the year as there is a lot of competition for top properties in the area."

The continued interest in London property from overseas buyers, who see it as a safe haven, will only add to the upwards pressure on prices.

But what about the future for the rest of the country?

Looking ahead
Halifax reckons there will be little change in average house prices for the rest of the year. Housing economist Martin Ellis says: "We expect this situation to continue with prices likely to still be around today's levels at the end of 2012 as the ongoing tough economic environment constrains housing demand."

Ashley Alexander, managing director of MeetMyAgent.co.uk, agrees that prices will remain static, but thinks transactions could fall further over the summer as sporting events distract potential purchasers.

"The price rebound from April to May reflects a lack of transactions, not a sudden rejuvenation of the market.

"There are simply too many factors preventing a purchase. A lack of stock generally, intransigent sellers, tougher lending criteria and consumer caution are keeping transaction levels low.

"As we move into the summer, expect sales to drop off further as the Euros and Olympics are going to throw another large spanner in the works. It's likely to be September before we see anything of note happen regarding transaction levels."

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