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Last Updated: Friday, 10 June, 2005, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Going round the houses
The property market has become a favourite topic of conversation in the UK. Who doesn't want to know what their home is worth, if they can afford to trade up?

But do the BBC's reports on house prices help people or simply confuse them?

Julia Caesar
House prices is a popular BBC topic
It may be that there's just too much information. Halifax, Nationwide, the Land Registry, Hometrack, Rightmove, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are among those publishing surveys and statistics.

They often use different methods of calculation, which can result in BBC stories like this one:

"There are mixed messages this morning on the strength of the housing market. A survey by the property website, Rightmove, says house prices have fallen by an average of around 900 over the past three weeks.

But the country's biggest mortgage lender, Halifax, says house prices are still rising, but at a slower rate, than during the past six months."

It's not just the quantity of data but how it's interpreted that concerns viewers and listeners. Simon Haswell said he heard two reports this week on the latest Halifax survey, one presenting a more upbeat view than the other.

Curious

Jonathan Kingsbury wrote: "I am just a little curious as to why the BBC generally reports favourably on the housing market, even when the figures are negative."

And G Wishart said about one online report: "Spring bloom implies prices rising, whereas prices are clearly falling. Therefore there is hardly a spring bloom in the property market."

The BBC's economics editor, Evan Davis, says he has some sympathy with these views:


The confusion that the viewers get, the confusion you see in the BBC's own coverage, reflects the confusion of the data.

There are lots of house price surveys - far too many of them - they don't all point in the same direction and getting the single story up is incredibly difficult.

Economics editor Evan Davis
Evan Davis: "Too much coverage"
I'll be absolutely blunt - I think we cover this subject way, way too much. The housing market doesn't move on a fortnightly basis very significantly and when you report it on a monthly or twice monthly basis, the temptation is always to read far too much into a very volatile series of statistics.

I don't think it's appropriate to impose a blanket rule or policy on everybody at the BBC and even if I wanted to - and sometimes I am tempted - I don't think I would get away with it.

I do think there are better statistical ways of doing it than responding to monthly data. I am desperately encouraging my colleagues to focus on what we think of the last three months over the previous three months rather than the last month over the previous month.

Clearer picture

That does tend to give you a rather smoother, clearer picture than the volatile monthly data. But I don't think I can dictate what every bulletin and every producer does.

Evidence from News Online - and they can monitor very closely which stories are read and which ones aren't read - shows that there is an enormous appetite for house price stories.

My view is that even if there is an appetite, it is misleading to give people every data release on house prices because they are very volatile and I would far rather we were reporting it less often where there is a clear underlying story.

I don't think there's an inherent bias towards optimism in our reporting of the housing market.

Haphazard

I think there might be inherent biases towards looking for a story and sometimes that might mean exaggerating the upside or exaggerating the downside.

How the decisions are made on the ground is probably more haphazard than viewers realise.

The data comes out in monthly form - you get the three-monthly and you get the annual - and people are making quite quick decisions. All of these can be justified on one term or another, they're all reasonable.

They might point in different directions and the wire copy that you get that summarises the data will pick one of them. These decisions are often made without reference to the economics editor giving an ultimate view of what we think house prices are doing.




SEE ALSO
Why I'd like a house price crash
29 Sep 04 |  Business

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