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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
NI house price boom hits brakes

By Yvette Shapiro
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

"Screeching to a halt."

That is a description of the east Belfast housing market from two estate agents.

And it's a view that's shared by agents and financial advisers in other areas of Northern Ireland.

Houses for sale
The house price rise in Northern Ireland seems to be slowing

"For the first time in about 18 months we're actually having to work hard to sell houses," said one agent.

"In the recent past, terraced houses, in particular, simply sold themselves.

"In fact, if a prospective buyer didn't move immediately to make an offer, we didn't really bother with them because there were so many other buyers chasing the property. That's all changed now."

So it seems that at last, the heat may have gone out of the local housing market. But not according to the latest official survey which continues to show that as far as prices are concerned, the only way is up.

The University of Ulster's Quarterly House Price Index reports that housing values rose by 46% over the past year, and by 11% in the first quarter of 2007.

The average house price in Northern Ireland is now 215,590 - higher than in Scotland, Wales and the entire north of England.

South Belfast still has the most expensive houses - the average there is over 256,500, but the north coast/Portrush and Limavady region is just a few hundred pounds cheaper.

East Antrim saw the most spectacular increase - up 56% on the year.

In the Craigavon/Armagh area there was what the authors of the report call a "staggering" increase in semi-detached houses - up 67% to an average price of 211,000.

So why are agents seeing a different picture? Simply because surveys, by their nature, are always a little out of date by the time the data's collated, analysed and published.

Slow-down

Economist Alan Bridle, head of research for the Bank of Ireland in the north, warns that the long-awaited and much-predicted slow-down of house price inflation is already under way.

Close observation of the housing market would suggest that at long last, the local price boom may be starting to come off the boil with a return to a more normal market
Alan Bridle, economist

"In the past 12 months, the market's been rampant and now we're seeing signs, as predicted, that things are returning to normal activity levels.

"From a banking point of view, property transactions in the past few weeks have been fairly flat and investor demand has slipped back.

"The interest rises are partly responsible, and also the fact that houses are simply too expensive for investors now."

This slow-down will be largely influenced by a further predicted rise in interest rates.

This week, or in a month's time, the Bank of England is expected to add an extra 0.25% to the 5.5% rate.

That would mean five rate hikes since last August, piling pressure on homeowners, particularly those who have stretched themselves to the limit.

Amongst the worst-affected will be those who are coming to the end of exceptionally low interest fixed-rate mortgage deals.

It's estimated that one in five UK homeowners switched to fixed-rate deals in August 2005, with many securing rates as low as 4.25%.

Is the market in Northern Ireland about to crash? No, say the economists who believe the brakes have finally gone on
Those deals are about to expire and it's hard to find a new deal for less than 6%.

The sums make grim reading.

A homeowner with a 180,000 mortgage, at a fixed rate of 4.25%, would be paying around 975 a month. For a new deal, at a rate of 6%, the repayments would rise by about 185 - 19% - to a much less manageable 1,160 a month.

Throughout the financial services industry, fears are being expressed about a rise in repossessions once homeowners find themselves making significantly higher monthly repayments.

So, is the market in Northern Ireland about to crash? No, say the economists who believe the brakes have finally gone on.

"The survey shows that we are living through remarkable times in Northern Ireland," says Alan Bridle.

"However in time, the first quarter of 2007 may prove to be the high watermark as far as Northern Ireland's rate of residential inflation is concerned.

"Since Easter, close observation of the housing market would suggest that at long last, the local price boom may be starting to come off the boil with a return to a more normal market.

"Evidence to date is largely anecdotal, but it will be a major surprise if we are not reporting a slower rate of inflation in our next survey in the late summer."


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Yvette Shapiro reports from East Belfast



SEE ALSO
Average house cost over 215,000
01 Jun 07 |  Northern Ireland
NI housing market to slow in 2007
28 Feb 07 |  Northern Ireland
NI homeowners 'paper millionaires'
13 Feb 07 |  Northern Ireland
Buy-to-let boom 'may have peaked'
13 Feb 07 |  Northern Ireland
NI house buyers brave winter chill
24 Jan 07 |  Northern Ireland

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