Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 13:47 UK

Do the green shoots have roots?

By Andrew Verity
Propertywatch, BBC Two

Bjorn Teksnes is stuggling to sell his listed Tudor mansion in Shropshire

If you're looking for signs of springtime in the housing market, the estate agents reckon they are coming across them every day: buyers returning, offers being made, houses that have been on the market for more than a year finally selling.

The greenest of the green shoots was perhaps the data from the Nationwide in March, showing house prices rose by 0.9%. And we know that the number of people getting mortgages to buy houses is sharply up, by 19% compared to the last quarter of last year.

There are good reasons why there should be green shoots. Interest rates are low: you can get a five year fixed rate mortgage at 4.7%. That means you could borrow £150,000 interest-only for less than £590 a month.

Propertywatch map

And with prices lower than they have been since 2004, that means ownership is cheaper than it has been for most of the last decade.

But no sooner have those green shoots popped out than they seem to get squashed.

Now the Nationwide tells us that prices dropped 0.4% in April.

And the mortgage approval data is not even a return to normal - it is still down by 34% compared with 2008, when the housing market was already freezing up.

And if prices are about to recover, not everyone would welcome it.

In making films for BBC Two's ground-breaking new series Propertywatch, I have come across people who have staked their whole financial future on a recovery - and others whose lives have been on hold waiting for prices to fall by more.

Big debts

Bjorn Teksnes, the owner of a listed Tudor mansion near Market Drayton in Shropshire, needs the market to pick up. I first met him last year when he had already cut £350,000 from the original asking price, taking it down to £1.4m.

"I had some interest from a few buyers, but I think they were put off by the mortgage, even at the lower price. They signed a contract, but then dropped out - I think I just need to wait a little bit longer for a better time," he says.

He has been developing and fixing the mansion, known as Colehurst Manor, for 20 years.

Ideally, he would avoid selling it altogether and continue living there. But he urgently needs to sell something.

Our options for getting a home were really very limited and a mobile home was the cheapest way we could do it
Sara Hall

While the boom was under way, Bjorn borrowed a total of £2m to develop four barns in the grounds of the mansion. He believed he could sell them for £3.5m and have plenty to retire on. That was 2007.

Disputes with the local planning authorities held up the development and the sale. Still there are no takers and a big debt to service. Where would the money come for repayments?

Bjorn switched his debt into a bridging loan, so that instead of paying regular interest, it would roll up on top of the capital.

That means that with every month, Bjorn owes more, and with every month, his potential retirement fund shrinks. Meanwhile, while he looks like a property millionaire, he has very little to live off.

"We have borrowed some money from people - even more money - to survive for the time being. But I do believe the market will warm up, we have had inquiries for the manor and the barns," Bjorn says.

While the market is frozen, Bjorn urgently needs some cash. Reluctantly, he has gone back to letting out Colehurst Manor for wedding parties. But he would rather be retiring.

Mobile home

But others would urgently like prices to go on falling. Another couple I met, Sara Hall and her partner Andy, are living temporarily in a caravan on her parents' land near Worcester.

When they moved in two years ago, they had planned to live there for only six months while they saved for a 5% deposit.

"Our options for getting a home were really very limited and a mobile home was the cheapest way we could do it," Sara says.

They scraped together £7,000. Then the credit crunch hit.

The average house price is now down 22.5% since the peak. But for a couple like Sara and Andy, that is still too little to make prices affordable - especially when they will now need to save at least 10%.

Sara Hall and her partner Andy
Sara and Andy would like to leave their mobile home behind

"I think this time last year, or two years ago, we would certainly have got a mortgage, but now they are being very careful," Andy says.

"We enjoy living here, but we're definitely looking to move on to living in a house soon - we just want a place with two bedrooms," Sara adds.

Sara and Andy, both firefighters, are now well into their 30s. If prices fall further, they may finally have the chance to set up home.

But they have become tired of waiting for that to happen. Their hope of buying an affordable home now rests on their family.

Their father has a plot of land on an industrial site, close to his house, which Sara was due to inherit together with her two sisters. If she can get them to agree to borrow money and develop it, they could each build a home there.

Right now, that seems more realistic than waiting for prices to become more affordable. But it would mean asking each of them to borrow £50,000.

"For us, this would mean we would have to remortgage our house and we'd not be able to retire," Sara's father says.

Having the whole family with a vested interest in your home can be hostage to fortune, but Sara thinks they have no other option and remains optimistic about the idea.

"I'm sure we'll have arguments, but we're family, we'll sort it out, and we stick together in the end."

If Sara and Andy are to have a chance of affording their own home without relying on their family, they need prices to go on falling and the credit crunch to ease. The green shoots for them are not the numbers suggesting prices may rise, but the opposite.

Propertywatch, a new series on property prices and the downturn, will be broadcast from 11-14 May at 2000 BST on BBC Two.

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