What's really happening to house prices?

House question marks

House price growth is starting to slow, according to several of the main house price indices.

Nationwide's index this week reported a slowdown in the annual rate of growth from 9.4% in September, to 9% in October. Last month it reported that monthly prices across the UK had dipped for the first time in 16 months - although they returned to growth in October of 0.5%.

Earlier this month, the Halifax index reported that while prices in the three months to September were 9.6% higher than they were in the same period a year earlier, the rate of growth had reduced from August, when it stood at 9.7% (down from 10.2% in July).

However, when Hometrack recently reported house price growth was running at 8.3% a year, it pointed out that this was "the highest level for almost seven years".

The only index based on actual sold prices is the Land Registry. Its data lags the other indices but its most recent data revealed that in September the average UK house price fell by 0.2%, and in London, prices fell by 0.7%.

It put the average house price in England and Wales at £177,299, compared with the peak of £181,324 in November 2007. It added that the annual growth was 7.2% in September.

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Why are prices falling?

"A variety of indicators suggest that the market has lost momentum," said Nationwide chief economist Robert Gardner, as he announced the October index. "The number of mortgages approved for house purchase in September was almost 20% below the level prevailing at the start of the year," he explained.

Jonathan Hopper, managing director of property search consultancy Garrington, added: "At the same time, buyers are taking their time again, viewing multiple properties, and not feeling pressurised into making a quick and rash decision.

"The overall picture is that of much more sensible, much more controlled market."

The information generated by the house price indices varies greatly, so how can home buyers and sellers use them to gain an advantage?

1. A basis of comparison: The indices give a rough idea of what's happened to house prices generally. There's no such thing as the average house, but by considering regional and national trends, buyers and sellers can get an idea of how much they might be able to make from a sale, or how much they may need to fork out to buy.

For example, at the Land Registry website you can also check house price growth in your area over time. For example, a £150,000 home bought in Cardiff would have seen its value fall by 6% over the period to £141,109. Veering south-east and nearer to London, in Kingston-upon-Thames the price would have soared 25% to £187,475.

This sort of price information can be a useful ahead of getting an estate agent's valuation or when considering how big a deposit or mortgage you may need.

2. They give an idea of whether it's a good time to buy/sell: For example, Jonathan Hudson of Hudsons Property, a London agent, explains a benefit of knowing when the market has passed its peak. "If I was a buyer I would rather buy now [that London prices have started to fall] as it limits the risk of gazumping."

However, the house price indices aren't an important part of many homebuyers and sellers' research. Ed Mead, executive director at estate agent Douglas & Gordon, told Moneywise: "Real buyers and sellers never ask about average prices in my experience. They only want to know what's going on in the five or so streets around them."

James Wyatt, partner at Surrey estate agency Barton Wyatt, added: "Coming from one of the most expensive areas in the country, I can honestly say real buyers and sellers never ask about average prices. There is no such thing in this area. But a general price per square foot is often discussed now - this is a big change to 10 years ago when that sort of data was something talked about overseas but not in the UK."