Belfast Telegraph

Lending slump increases fears for housing market

By Nicky Burridge

Speculation that the UK housing market recovery is faltering is growing after a sharp slowdown in mortgage lending.

Net mortgage lending, which strips out redemptions and repayments, slid to just £318m in March, 83% down on February's figure of £1.85bn and the lowest level since July last year, when it was negative.

The number of mortgages approved for house purchase also failed to rebound as strongly as had been predicted, edging up to 48,901, according to the Bank of England.

This was only slightly above the nine-month low of 46,882 seen in February, and still well down on the 59,572 recorded last November.

The low level of both lending and mortgage approvals is likely to partially reflect the distortions to the market caused by the Government's stamp duty holiday, which led to people rushing through transactions on lower-value properties before the end of last year.

It can also partly be explained by the severe winter weather the country suffered at the beginning of the year, which dented housing market activity, as well as the uncertainty caused by the General Election.

But economists have warned that these factors alone cannot explain the fall in activity seen since the beginning of the year.

There are also signs that the imbalance between supply and demand is beginning to ease as more people put their homes on the market, further reducing some of the upward pressure that was being exerted on prices.

Nationwide and Halifax recorded price falls of 1% and 1.5% respectively during February, although the cost of property resumed its upward trend in March.

Despite this, many economists expect house prices to remain volatile during the coming months, and flat over 2010 as a whole.

Hetal Mehta, senior economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item Club, said the Bank of England figures were "indisputably weak".

She said: "Though mortgage approvals are up slightly on February, they are below the six-month average, and the slowdown in mortgage lending is likely to act as a drag on housing market prospects.

"The 'mortgageless recovery' is unlikely to be sustainable; house price inflation is already slipping as supply pressures abate thanks to higher prices encouraging more people to put their properties on the market."

Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, said: "The Bank of England mortgage approvals data do little to dilute the belief that the housing market is finding it difficult to regain momentum after flagging at the start of 2010.

"We expect house prices to be erratic over the coming months and they may very well be no better than flat over the rest of the year."