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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 May 2006, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Will house prices boom again?
Ian Pollock
BBC personal finance reporter

House price graphic
House prices are shooting up once more.

The traditional spring house hunting season is firmly under way and mortgage lenders and other experts who predicted that prices would be subdued this year - or even fall - could soon be left with a certain amount of egg on their faces.

After a big slowdown last year, the early months of this year suggest that 2006 may see a return to the double digit inflation rates that characterised the housing market in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

The Halifax

Let's take the latest Halifax survey at face value.

It says that during the first four months of this year, prices across the UK rose on average by 4.4%.

If that trend continues then properties will end the year around 13% more expensive than they started.

That could mean the average house price reaches nearly 195,000.

The market has been stronger at the beginning of the year than we had been expecting
Martin Ellis
Chief economist
The Halifax

Despite the recent acceleration in prices, the various lenders who produce the most widely followed surveys are still trying to play things down.

For instance, the Halifax says it expects inflation to slow in the second half of the year.

But the price increases recorded so far have already outstripped its forecast for the whole of 2006.

Last December, the Halifax predicted that prices this year would go up by just 3%.

Martin Ellis, the mortgage lender's chief economist, acknowledges that the activity has been surprisingly lively.

"The market has been stronger at the beginning of the year than we had been expecting," he says.

Mr Ellis admits that for his original forecast to be true, prices would now have to go into reverse and register an absolute fall in value over the remaining eight months of 2006.

And he concedes that is now most unlikely.

"We could get into double digit growth over the next few months, but I expect it to ease back later in the year," he says.

Wrong predictions?

The Halifax is not the only organisation that appears to have got its market predictions wrong.

For sale signs
Property prices have risen faster than observers had expected

The Nationwide, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and the website Hometrack all forecast modest single-digit increases for this year.

An economics consultancy, Capital Economics, which has for several years been forecasting price falls, went further and again took the view that prices would drop in 2006, by 5%.

Could these subdued predictions turn out to be right after all?

Well, the various organisations that measure the market do not all do it the same way.

So it is possible that the Halifax survey is simply overestimating what is really going on.

Its figures are based on its own mortgage lending and they show that prices are rising much faster than, for instance, the monthly survey from its main rival the Nationwide.

The latest view of the country's largest building society, Nationwide, is that prices have risen by just 2.5% so far this year.

That is still slightly less than its 3% forecast for the whole of 2006.

Buoyant demand

What drives house prices up is demand from would-be buyers.

The latest figures from the Bank of England show no let up in the granting of new mortgages.

The number of new loans approved for house purchases in March was 27% higher than a year ago and slightly higher than the average for the last six months.

Could this come to a halt?

Well, unemployment has been going up, with the claimant count rising steadily for the last year.

But that on its own may have no effect in terms of dampening things down.

Back in the 1980s, when a recession led to mass unemployment, those people who were still in jobs - the vast majority in fact - were still able to stoke up a house price boom that only went bust at the end of that decade.

With the economy continuing to expand, so is the number of people in jobs, up by nearly 150,000 in the last year.

If prices do shoot up further, the Bank of England could become worried again and push up interest rates.

Such a move had a dramatic effect just two years ago when three small increases in borrowing costs produced a quick and very sudden slowdown in house prices.

Meanwhile the property market in London, the traditional driver of house price inflation, is hotting up again.

And where London leads, usually the rest of the country eventually follows.

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