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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Q&A: House price warning
Bank of England governor Mervyn King
Will homebuyers heed Mr King's warning?

Bank of England governor Mervyn King has warned of the growing risk that house prices may start to fall.

BBC News Online looks at why he believes homebuyers should weigh their options more carefully before plunging into the property market.

What did Mervyn King actually say?

With recent figures showing house prices rising 20% over the past 12 months, the Bank of England's governor has expressed what many in the country have been thinking for some time.

Prices are now "well above what most people would regard as sustainable in the longer term", he said.

"After the hectic pace of price rises over the past year, it is clear that the chances of falls in house prices are greater than they were," he told a meeting of CBI Scotland in Glasgow.

However, he later stressed that he was not expecting a crash.

Mr King's comments coincide with the latest monthly survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which said the rate of house price growth had slowed for the first time in six months.

Why did he say it?

The Bank has been concerned for some time about rampant house prices and high levels of consumer debt.

It fears that, if left unchecked, Britain's booming property market could eventually crash, with disastrous implications for the wider economy.

The Bank has been increasing the cost of borrowing - interest rates rose to 4.5% last week - partly in an attempt to cool the market down

It is also worried that consumers are sinking ever deeper into debt as they attempt, among other things, to raise money for higher mortgages.

But aren't house prices still rising?

Yes, they are. The Halifax's latest house price survey showed prices jumped by 2.2% in May, with property values up 20.4% on the previous year.

Meanwhile, Britain's biggest building society, the Nationwide, has said its prediction of 15% annual house price growth this year could be an underestimate.

But influential international organisations, such as the IMF and the OECD, have warned that a house market crash remains one of the biggest risks facing the UK economy.

So, should those of us with plans to move onto - or further up - the property ladder think again?

That is not something Mr King, or any one of Britain's army of estate agents, would want to see.

The housing market is a key ingredient in the UK economy - an economy which is overall still growing strongly.

But with levels of personal debt soaring, Mr King is keen to avoid homeowners falling into the trap of negative equity or being lumbered with mortgages they can no longer afford to repay

A report by the Bank at the beginning of the month suggested that Britons were on course to owe a collective 1 trillion by the summer.

"Anyone who stretches themselves to the limit by taking out a very large mortgage needs to be aware both that it's possible interest rates might go up further and that house prices do not inexorably always go upwards."

What does this mean for interest rates?

Expect more rises.

Financial markets believe UK rates will reach 5% by the end of year, while some analysts forecast they could even go a touch higher.

This means millions of homeowners face the prospect of higher mortgage repayments.

But if that serves to cool the market, and avoid a crash, the short term pain will be worth it, the Bank believes.

How much control over events does Mr King actually have?

In the end, the fate of house prices will be affected by a number of influences - from consumer appetite for debt to the state of the wider global economy.

But, along with the interest rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee which he chairs, Mr King's actions and words still carry considerable weight.

In the tradition of responsible central bankers, his reserved comments amount to something of a sober warning.

"It is the nearest a central bank comes to saying the housing market is a bubble," said John Butler, UK economist at HSBC.

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