House sales and lending pick up
The UK property market is seeing a modest pick-up in activity, latest figures indicate.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said house prices across the UK rose on average by 0.7% in January, to leave them just 0.2% up on a year ago.
Mortgage lenders granted 22% more home loans in January than a year ago.
Sales edged up slightly in February, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few more first-timers have been buying ahead of the reintroduction of 1% stamp duty on 24 March for homes under £250,000.
As a result, Rics members said that average sales per estate agency branch rose from 15.7 to 16 last month.
Rics added that its members were no longer expecting prices to fall further.
"This is the first time since May 2010 that respondents have not been predicting further price declines," Rics spokesman Alan Collett said.
"Given the recent upturn in interest from first-time buyers looking to beat the stamp duty exemption deadline, it would appear that surveyors are slowly becoming less pessimistic over prices."
According to the Council of Mortgage lenders (CML), the number of home loans granted in January stood at 35,600, a 25% drop from December.
However, this was still 22% higher than in January last year, while the comparable figures for first-time buyers showed a 23% rise from a year ago.
Paul Smee, the director general of the CML, said: "We traditionally see a substantial fall in lending figures at the start of the year."
"But the year-on-year rise in house purchase lending suggests that lending levels are generally rising, although we expect the trajectory to be bumpy rather than smooth this year."
The average deposit that first-timers had to put down stayed at 20% of the value of the homes they were buying.
The DCLG survey shows that the average UK house price in January was £206,523.
One factor that may push up sales a bit further in the coming months is the government backed New Buy scheme, which was launched on Monday.
This is aimed at letting 100,000 people apply for mortgages to buy newly built homes, when they may have only a 5% deposit to put down.
House sales have slumped in the UK in the past few years, partly because of severe mortgage rationing by lenders.
The New Buy scheme will provide an element of insurance for lenders against borrowers defaulting, when lenders grant a mortgage to someone who has a deposit worth only 5-10% of the property's value.
Home builders, lenders and the government hope this will enable some potential buyers to buy for the first time, or move to another home, when they might otherwise have been frozen out of the property market.