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Budget boost for buyers

Chancellor Gordon Brown’s Budget was billed as a vote-winner. Cash for schools and families, together with free bus travel for the elderly, certainly grabbed the headlines.

For those wanting to buy property or use it as an investment, there were also encouraging signs although many feel the Chancellor did not go far enough.

Raising the stamp duty threshold from 60,000 to 120,000 is to be welcomed and the Council of Mortgage Lenders estimates it will enable around 370,000 additional homebuyers to escape the tax each year.

Looking in estate agents’ windows will be a lot more tempting as there is still a range of properties for sale below 120,000 in cheaper parts of the UK. However, if you live in Bath, Brighton or elsewhere in the South, it is practically impossible to find any property in this price bracket.

Many commentators would like to see the threshold raised to 150,000 if homebuyers in more expensive parts of the UK are to have any chance of buying a property. This view is backed by the National Association of Estate Agents which points out that average prices across the UK are 150 per cent higher than when the base level for stamp duty was last amended in 1993.

It is important that more steps are taken to tackle affordability. It is not just the price of housing that is the problem. Many younger people are so burdened by student debt that they feel they cannot take on a mortgage. Then there are the problems faced by key workers, who may be unable to meet full mortgage repayments or can be trapped in expensive private rented accommodation, leaving them unable to save for deposits.

Certainly, many mortgage lenders have tried to address these issues by revising income multiples and introducing affordability calculations and guarantor mortgages.

On a more immediate basis, the move to involve lenders in financing an extension of Homebuy equity loans, which target first-time key workers, is positive. The aim of this scheme is to help around 20,000 people with low-cost loans each year over the next five years.

Brown said the new partnership with mortgage lenders will typically finance a quarter of the purchase price of a shared equity scheme. The idea is that a potential buyer gets a 75 per cent mortgage at the current rate – often with an interest level of 5.75 per cent or less – with the remaining 25 per cent funded by a zero-interest loan.

The Government currently funds this part of the deal, helping 10,000 homebuyers a year at a cost of about 500m. But Council of Mortgage Lenders deputy director general Peter Williams has said that a number of banks and building societies have now signed up to providing an additional 500m.

The fact that Brown has pledged to build new private homes on council estates – starting with nine pilot schemes across the UK – should also offer hope to some prospective buyers.

This move is part of an ongoing project being tackled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister which oversees housing. It recently announced that a number of rundown estates will benefit from private investment to attract buyers to create more mixed and attractive environments.

It has also been made clear that the report by Professor Richard Miles, published over a year ago, which made a number of suggestions on affordability, is being taken forward.

One Budget change which has provided reassurance for homeowners has been to lift the threshold for inheritance tax from 263,000 to 275,000. In the next two years it will rise to 285,000 and then 300,000. Although designed as a tax for the wealthy, booming property prices have made inheritance tax a very real concern for many ordinary property owners.

Many will argue that this is still not enough and there will no doubt be calls for more radical reform. Although the Chancellor claimed that 94 per cent of estates will not pay inheritance tax next year, some tax experts say this disguises the fact that the number of estates paying the tax will actually rise next year from 5 per cent to 6 per cent, despite lifting the threshold. This is because property prices have raced ahead of the inheritance tax threshold since May 1997, when Labour came into power.

The number of properties in the UK valued at more than the current IHT starting point now stands at 2.4 million – a near fivefold increase since 1997. There are crumbs of comfort here but many will be concerned that they could still face a 40 per cent tax bill in years to come.

One final area where some property owners might need advice is where same-sex couples register as a civil partnership to obtain the same tax rights as married couples from December 5. This will allow civil partners to transfer assets, such as buy-to-let property, between themselves without incurring a big tax bill.

But there is still a long way to go before many would-be first-time buyers can own a home and altho-ugh the Budget has offered some rays of hope, a wider reaching package could have gone a lot further.

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