Pressure grows over house prices

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Pressure is mounting to cool the housing market after a fresh string of reports pointed to property prices continuing to surge.

House prices have leapt 8.5% over the year to April and now stand at an average of £177,648 as demand from home buyers "remains strong", Halifax reported.

Meanwhile, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) said that house sales have lifted to their strongest levels in six years and it expects prices to push up higher as the market "continues to be marred by weak supply and high demand".

The Bank of England base rate was kept at its historic 0.5% low today, an announce ment which was widely expected as policymakers have said they would rather utilise other tools to curb any property bubble before acting on rates, which would only be deployed as a "last line of defence".

Speculation has been mounting over whether further action will be taken to dampen house price growth amid concerns about the possibility of strong rises in values leading to a crash.

Matthew Pointon, a property economist at Capital Economics, said: "W ith market conditions still tight, and the economy set to grow strongly this year, further house price gains are likely.

"So it would seem prudent for the Bank to take action sooner rather than later. A recommendation to cut the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee would be a good start."

Last week, the Bank's deputy governor, Sir Jon Cunliffe, warned that property market activity could pose the biggest danger to the country's financial stability.

The Bank has already tried to put the brakes on by withdrawing the Funding for Lending scheme, which widened access to mortgages last year by giving lenders access to cheap finance. It has been redirected purely to business loans.

Another measure has seen a new power created to be able to vary the affordability criteria that borrowers must meet, to ensure that they can afford to service mortgages if interest rates rise.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) also reported today that repossessions edged up slightly in the first quarter of this year compared with the last three months of 2013.

Some 6,400 repossessions took place in the first quarter of 2014, a 4.9% increase compared with the fourth quarter of 2013, which had seen the lowest quarterly total since records began in 2008.

Despite the recent increase, home repossessions are still 20% lower than they were this time a year ago.

The CML said that low interest rates, an improving jobs market and lenders' fair treatment of borrowers to make sure that repossession is "absolutely the last resort" are behind the general downward trend in repossession numbers seen in recent years.

Stephen Noakes, mortgages director at Halifax, said: "With supply of properties being slow to respond to market conditions, stronger demand in the past year has resulted in upward pressure on house prices."

According to the housing market report from Rics, some surveyors reported that a lack of choice in the housing market was prompting people to "panic-buy", while others were seeing more than 10 potential buyers for every property coming up for sale.

Government mortgage support schemes such as Help to Buy are said to have unleashed a stream of pent-up demand on the housing market, while in London wealthy overseas investors have been snapping up properties.

Rics said there are some tentative signs that the pace of strong house price growth seen in London could cool in the second half of the year.

In London, the balance of surveyors who expect prices to rise rather than fall over the next three months has fallen back, from 61% in March to 49% last month.

A mortgage lending crackdown came into force last month, resulting in home buyers and people looking to re-mortgage being probed in more detail about their spending habits to make sure they can afford their loan.

The Bank rate has been at the historic low of 0.5% for more than five years to nurse the economy back to health, with a recent period of falling inflation easing pressure on its Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to act.

With the recovery gathering pace, policymakers have made clear they want to see more of the "spare capacity" in the economy taken up before any hike, leading to expectations of a first rise next spring.

But signs of accelerating growth, including UK survey data earlier this week, have added to speculation that they might have to go up this year to cool inflationary pressures likely to lie ahead.

The Bank will update its forecasts for gross domestic product (GDP) growth and inflation at its quarterly inflation report next week.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has hiked its UK growth forecast to 3.2%, although it also sounded a warning that action may be needed to cool the housing market.

The international body called for action to restrain demand to contain levels of household debt.

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