Housing market measures offer little respite

LONDON Wed Mar 12, 2008 3:22pm GMT

Residential housing sale and letting signs are seen in Hastings in southern England, January 3, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN)

Residential housing sale and letting signs are seen in Hastings in southern England, January 3, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville (BRITAIN)

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LONDON (Reuters) - Chancellor Alistair Darling has unveiled measures designed to help those struggling to get onto the housing ladder and hard-pressed mortgage holders.

In his first Budget, Darling pledged 8 billion pounds to boost affordable and social housing over the next three years, and delayed stamp duty payable on shared ownership properties.

He also said he wanted to strengthen the mortgage market, hit by the global credit crunch, and work with industry to introduce affordable fixed-rate home loans.

But industry experts said the measures offered little respite to those struggling to enter the market or meet the rising cost of servicing mortgage debt.

Nicholas Leeming, director of property portal Propertyfinder.com, said: "Hard-pressed homeowners, in particular first-time buyers, need financial relief immediately.

"Once again, the government has shirked its responsibility, merely blowing smoke around the issues in an attempt to disguise inaction."

Consumers are increasingly feeling the pinch from the global credit crunch, following an end to cheap credit, and rises in household mortgage repayments, food, fuel and council tax costs.

Darling said 70,000 new affordable homes will be built per year by 2010/11 and share equity schemes for key workers, such as teachers and nurses, and first-time buyers will become available to those who can afford half the value of a property, as opposed to the current three-quarters.

Stamp duty on shared ownership properties will be delayed until people own 80 percent of the equity.

On affordable mortgages, the Treasury will consult with industry on 10, 20 and 25-year fixed-rate mortgages.

"Long-term fixed rate mortgages can reduce some of the risks of taking out a mortgage, especially for first time buyers and lower income families," said Darling. "And it will help more people get on -- and stay on -- the housing ladder."

Darling added that the Treasury, Bank of England and Financial Services Authority would discuss with industry "market-led solutions" to strengthen secondary funding markets.

"The uncertainty in the financial markets is having an impact on mortgage lenders here in the UK," he said. "So I want to take measures that will keep mortgage rates low and stable."

But industry experts said the moves would help few people, as a new 18 percent flat rate of capital gains tax serves to aid buy-to-let investors, who have "cashed in" on the property market boom at the expense of first-time buyers.

Helen Adams, managing director of Web site FirstRungNow.com, said: "The credit crunch has meant that more and more lenders are reluctant to offer mortgages to aspiring homeowners.

"Property investors may soon have a lower tax burden from cashing in on the inability of first-time buyers to take the first step onto the property ladder and the government is standing by, deserting its roots by promoting capitalism.

"In property terms, the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer."

Longer-term fixed-rate home loans were also unlikely to prove popular, said independent broker Savills Private Finance.

"Like his predecessor, the Chancellor is determined that first-time buyers should take out long-term fixed-rate mortgages in order to protect borrowers from interest-rate fluctuations," said director Melanie Bien.

"But he is under the illusion that borrowers are interested in taking these out in the first instance.

"A tiny proportion of borrowers are interested in committing themselves to a fixed rate for 10 years or more: they wish to retain flexibility and long-term fixes are not flexible."

Early repayment charges on longer-term fixes are generally hefty, locking consumers into deals that might prove expensive.

Building societies Nationwide and Norwich & Peterborough currently offer 25-year fixed rates with the option to switch to another product without penalty -- but only after 10 years.

Other lenders, such as Kent Reliance Building Society, charge exit penalties for the lifetime of loans.

Industry bodies including the New Homes Marketing Board and Council of Mortgage Lenders had called for an increase in stamp duty thresholds and more state support for those struggling to meet mortgage repayments.

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