Is it just me or are the months getting shorter? It certainly seems that way. I am sure there used to be a time when housing data was published just once or twice a month.
But having a housing report-free week today is a bit like having a Sven and Nancy-free week – nigh on impossible. (As I type, another housing survey entitled Boom Times Are Over drops into my inbox).
Not a week goes by without some bank, building society or analyst publishing house price figures. What is more, now more than ever, such data is top secret and under strict embargo. The very mention of house prices in a press release is a surefire way to get coverage.
Maybe it has always been that way, it was just that people never gave most reports a second glance because house prices were either just plodding along or they were too busy casting an eye over booming stockmarkets.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of reports simply clouds the picture. Read one and you think: “Whoopee, my house has gone up by 20 per cent.” Yet read another and you think: “Crikey, I will be in negative equity if prices keep falling at this rate.”
The latest report from Nationwide, for instance, reckons that house prices rose at a rate of 2.1 per cent in July, pushing annual price inflation to 20.3 per cent. Not so, say the people at the coalface, who claim that prices are falling. Spicerhaart was just one estate agent to hit out at the figures, claiming that Nationwide was being irresponsible and even going so far as to suggest that the Bank of England would increase interest rates off the back of the data.
Critics of the Nationwide and Halifax surveys argue that they are flawed because they are weeks off the pace. Two notable critics are Hometrack and Rightmove, which produce rival data. They argue that, like the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, they pick up on price trends long before mortgage lenders because they ask estate agents their views on current market conditions.
The surveys from Halifax and Nationwide, on the other hand, are based on mortgage approvals, which are often made many months after a property comes on the market.
So which report, if any, do you believe? I cannot help thinking that if estate agents are saying house prices are falling, then they probably are. After all, imagine how hard it must be for an estate agent to settle for a lower price and lower commission.
But whether or not house prices are falling, or whether a crash is imminent, it is clear that lenders do not seem at all concerned to lend vast amounts of money in the current climate. Over the past few weeks, several lenders have adopted aggressive strategies to target the top end of the market.
Halifax kicked off the proceedings a while ago by increasing the maximum loan size on its core range to £2m while Portman and Alliance & Leicester have just upped the loan limit on their product ranges from £500,000 to £750,000.
Abbey National has increased procuration fees from 0.3 per cent to up to 0.5 per cent until the end of August to lure brokers to its products while Bank of Ireland and Accord have recently launched new mortgages aimed at people looking to borrow substantial amounts.
The onset of mortgage regulation is no doubt playing its part in the aggressive tactics. Lenders are keen to stem the volume of business they take in but not the amount.
Business taken on by lenders but not completed by October 31 will have to be treated as new business for regulatory purposes and so, in such cases, some of the laborious sales and admin process will have to be repeated.
With many employees currently away on training courses for the new regime, it makes much more sense to take on board 10 mortgages each for £2m than 200 mortgages each for £100,000 – hence favourable terms for the £1m-plus loans are on offer at the moment.
The offers may not last, though. There is a view that once mortgage regulation kicks in, you will see a return to the norm, with the focus turning back on more standard-sized loans.
It may not be quite a case of fill your boots while stocks last but brokers should be able to get a better deal for clients wanting to borrow sizeable amounts than they have for a while – so long as they act swiftly.
Paul Farrow is a personal finance reporter at the Sunday Telegraph