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The property auction that will show us just how bad the crash is

The four-bedroom bungalow in a well-to-do suburb of Dublin was once a cherished family home.

In the good times, would-be buyers planning a future there might have been greeted by the aroma of percolating coffee and fresh-cut flowers wafting through the air.

With cushions plumped, door knobs polished and hedges trimmed, gushing estate agents would lead them through the 'light and airy' rooms and 'well-proportioned' gardens bordered by 'mature' trees.

But the trickle of viewers sizing up the property today will be spared the guff and they'll have to do without the gloss. Somebody's dream home has become a receiver's nightmare, a debt-riddled, distressed asset destined for the bargain-basement of the crippled property market.

On April 15, behind the salubrious walls of the Shelbourne Hotel, that once-loved house, along with 83 other impaired buildings, will go under the hammer in the country's largest-ever property auction.

They are the bricks and mortar that tell the story of Europe's worst housing crash -- the debris of developers' pipedreams. Most of the properties, which range from upmarket pads in the capital's embassy belt to rambling farms in Wicklow, have been taken over by lending organisations.

For those caught up in the searing cycle of negative equity who bought at the height of the market, April 15 will be a sickening day because it should reveal just how far prices have flopped in the bust.

Some will have to suffer the indignity of seeing the house next door flogged off for half the amount they paid for theirs a few years ago.

But for the lucky few who sold at the peak, held onto their cash and played the waiting game by renting, the moment may just have arrived when they feel safe to step their toes back into the property game.

Such is the scale of the event, Britain's largest auction house, Allsops, has been brought in to run proceedings along with Dublin property agents Space.

A flick through the slick cerise catalogue they have produced for the event would make a Celtic Tiger tycoon swoon.

The cheapest house on offer is Lot 79, a three-bedroom semi-d on the outskirts of Mullingar going for a mere €22,500. Similar houses in the area have had asking prices more than three times the amount in recent times.

Head south to the rolling hills of west Wicklow and you could pick up a sprawling equestrian holding with 55 acres of grazing land, a tumbledown farmhouse and outhouses. Five years ago, in the fever of the bubble, it sold for €1.29m.

Today, a million has been knocked off that price and it goes into auction on Friday week with a reserve of just €290,000.

Zip up to Dublin 4 where a designer mews in the leafy lanes near Ballsbridge would have set you back a couple of million in the boom.

This week, peak-purchase owners in the area must be squirming at the sight of a four-bedroom bijou gem on Raglan Lane with roof terrace and balcony plummeting to a knock-down price of €600,000. At the height of the boom houses in the area were selling for millions.

Fancy something with a bit of a buzz? Head into the lively district of Temple Bar where the city centre's cheapest apartment is on offer at a refreshing €80,000. Granted, cat-swinging is out of the question in this snug studio but it's a perfect starter flat for those desperate for a place of their own.

Local estate agents, whose properties have yet to venture below the six-figure mark, are aghast at the figure, which is expected to force values down in the cultural hub.

Since news of the auction spread, Robert Hoban, an agent with Space Property Consultants, has been rushed off his feet.

"So far we've had 75,000 visits to the online catalogue," he says.

"About 40,000 of them were from Ireland, 20,000 from the UK and the rest from 132 other countries reaching from Dubai to Canada and Hong Kong to Australia."

The agents, which plan to hold six more distressed lot auctions in Ireland in the next two years, have vowed that the bad old days when status-hunting vendors refused to sell and properties were puffed up way beyond their spec are over.

"These houses have got to go and go quickly," says Hoban.

"People don't want auctioneer's bullshit. There will be no spiel, no hype. This is a no-nonsense, no-frills sale. We're letting the bidders decide the value."

Distressed sales -- those in which a lender has repossessed a house or the owner has agreed to a price below the value of the outstanding mortgage -- have become a regular feature of the British property market, where they are a weekly event.

In the US, they accounted for more than 40pc of all property sales last month, dragging values down to more affordable prices that house-hunters are willing to pay.

Property economists here have welcomed their arrival in Ireland, claiming they will help prices find a bottom and shine a light into the opaque housing market.

"They are a good idea because they lead to greater transparency and price discovery," says Professor Brian Lucey of Trinity College Dublin.

"We haven't had price discovery due to the overhang of stuff from NAMA. I believe NAMA should take a similar course but they don't need to rent the Shelbourne. They should put all of their properties up on eBay to clear the whole goddamn lot.

"If that had been done 18 months ago, we would know what the losses are and could have moved on.

"We wouldn't have to fart around today with stress tests.

'We need to accept that there has been a massive property crash in Ireland which is still going on. NAMA is trying to stop it but they may as well be there like King Canute with his lovely throne going 'no, no, no, Mr Tide, please go away.' It ain't going to happen.

"The question is -- will the houses at this distressed auction be sold?

"Nobody knows what property is worth in Ireland even though that information exists in the Revenue Commissioners. It's not surprising the market is still absolutely petrified. We still have a massive overhang of houses."

Property analyst Ronan Lyons of Daft.ie believes the auction will provide an unique avenue for would-be buyers to check out the competition and assess whether prices have hit a floor.

"Distressed lot auctions are quite a useful thing for the market because they establish the real value of property in an area -- the amount people are willing to pay and who is out there buying.

"It's very rare to hear of a property going for below €100,000 in Dublin city centre, like the Temple Bar studio. You could probably get €700 a month for that studio apartment, which would be about €8,000 a year in rental income.

"If you have paid €80,000 for it, that's a 10pc yield which is very good in a market has been returning anything between 2 and 4pc in the last few years.

"If you look around now, people are talking about a discount from the peak of anywhere between 50 and 55pc as being where the property market will level out.

"Most sellers at the moment are still only discounting between 30 and 45pc from the peak so prices still have some way to go.

"An auction like this could help to drag them down further."

Indo Review