The saying goes that moving house is the third most stressful event in life after death and divorce. Of course, whoever first made that observation was talking about the pre-credit crunch days. Since the economic meltdown, moving house must be edging closer to the top spot.
With prices falling, bank lending criteria tightening and mortgages for first-time buyers becoming the stuff of legend, the property market has been bleak.
But will 2012 be a better year for the market?
Not according to Capital Economics. The research consultancy expects house prices to decline by 5% in 2012. "We think economic growth will be flat in 2012 as a whole, and that there is a high chance of another recession," warns economist Paul Diggle. "There are few signs that lenders will loosen their lending criteria.
Against this background, there's little chance of a meaningful increase in mortgage lending and housing market transactions. However, a rise in unemployment should see more properties being brought to the market."
Diggle makes a good point. In late 2011, the Office for National Statistics warned of an increase in redundancies. It reported that 43% (292,000) of people leaving their jobs in 2011 did so as a result of redundancy. What's more, debt charity the Consumer Credit Counselling Service warned that people made redundant would struggle to repay their debts, including their mortgages.
SOUND SELLING STRATEGY
If prices fall in line with Capital Economics' forecast, homeowners forced to sell their properties - either because they can no longer afford it or because they simply need to move - may have to sell their property at prices way below what they had hoped for. If you find yourself in this position, there are things you can do to improve your situation.
Andrew Baddeley-Chappell, head of mortgage strategy and policy at Nationwide, says it's important to be realistic. "The best advice is always to do all you can to make your property as appealing to as many potential buyers as possible and work out the best strategy for getting the best possible price for your property," he says.
"Allow for the process to take longer than you would like and be realistic about what you can expect to get." People selling because they have to move should do their best to jump up a rung on the property ladder with their next purchase, says Ed Mead, a director at estate agent Douglas and Gordon, because trading up is easier in a falling market.
"You might lose on the sale, but gain more on a purchase," he says. "Say you have a £250,000 flat and want to buy a £450,000 house. The flat might drop £50,000, but the house might well fall by double that."
GET IN EARLY
If your property is worth less than £250,000 and you need to sell, get it on the market early in the year. Until 25 March 2012, first-time buyers purchasing a home worth less than £250,000 won't have to pay stamp duty. So there's a chance there will be a lift in market activity as the stamp duty 'holiday' deadline looms. One sector that is expected to do well in 2012 is buy-to-let, a market that revived in 2011.
For anyone who can afford to invest in property the future looks bright. "The signs are already clear that 2012 will be a strong year for buy-to-let investors," says David Newnes, director of LSL Property Services, owners of estate agents Your Move and Reeds Rains.
"If you're thinking of investing in property, doing so in the next six months is an excellent idea, as the parlous state of the recovery makes an interest rate hike unlikely before mid-2012 and mortgage rates will thus stay at rock bottom. Those waiting for rates to dip lower should not be fooled. Mortgage rates don't have much further to fall. Now is the time to invest if you have a large enough deposit."
Getting together a big deposit seems to be the main hurdle faced by would-be buyers, whether they are buy-to-let investors or owner occupiers, and that seems unlikely to change. "Increasing competition in the mortgage market has resulted in a greater choice of affordable mortgage products on better terms, but the future remains uncertain," says Stuart Law, chief executive of property investment specialist Assetz.
"The eurozone crisis could have a significant impact on UK banks and limit the amount they are able to lend, resulting in a temporary further tightening of lending criteria and mortgage availability." Baddeley-Chappell agrees. He predicts that net lending in 2012 will remain "close to zero". The mortgage market isn't helped by the fact that the future for interest rates is uncertain.
According to a Reuters poll of 52 economists, the latest predictions are that the first rise will not be seen until 2013 at the earliest.
SMART MORTGAGE MOVES
If there are unlikely to be any changes in 2012, should homeowners be remortgaging?
"Interest rates are unlikely to rise significantly over the medium term, so we would advise homeowners to opt for a tracker mortgage at this time," says Law. "However, the economy might grow faster than predicted and if that happens interest rates will quickly follow suit. We would always suggest that those who could not afford higher monthly payments choose one of the fixed-rate deals that are currently available at historically low rates."
Property expert Henry Pryor believes people should consider locking-in the current low interest rates "if [they] can find a competitive five-year fixed-rate deal." If homeowners think they've had it bad, they can at least console themselves with the fact that they are more fortunate than first-time buyers. With deposits of at least 10% now required, most potential buyers find themselves out in the cold.
Shockingly, a study by Smart New Homes found that 10% of first-time buyers planned to borrow on credit cards or take out bank loans to fund the deposits required by lenders. Law believes next year will be better for first-time buyers, with more high loan-to-value mortgage products and shared equity schemes becoming available. The figures appear to back up his optimism. According to Moneyfacts, 265 mortgage deals are currently available to first-time buyers, compared with 172 last November.
If there is to be more activity in 2012, house buyers and sellers will need to be more adaptable - by accepting that 20% deposits are, for now, the norm or understanding that house prices are not what they were.
"We are continuing to see the gap between asking prices and offer prices narrow as people become more attuned to the new environment," says Andrew Montlake, director at mortgage brokerage Coreco.