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Smart Consumer: As house prices plummet, should first-time buyers pounce?

House prices have fallen like a stone in the past three years. This means it now takes just over a tenth of the average income of a first-time buyer couple to pay the mortgage.

So anyone thinking of buying should pounce now, right?

Some, mainly estate agents, will argue that. But for all those who think now is a good time for new buyers to plunge into the market there are as many voices saying hold back.

The naysayers point to the fact that income-tax changes are sucking cash out of everyone's finances, while confidence is low among consumers.

On top of this, there is no urgency to buy as house prices are expected to continue to fall.

Prices are down sharply

There is little doubt that prices have fallen dramatically.

Average house prices are down to levels last seen in 2002 after a 38% fall from the peak, the latest Permanent TSB/ESRI survey reveals.

Some €120,000 has been wiped off the value of the average house.

Experts said prices were still falling at the end of last year but at a lower rate than the same period in 2009.

House prices came down by 11% over the course of last year. The report said the figures compared with a fall of 18.5% in 2009.

The average price being agreed for a house at the end of last year was €191,776, compared with €311,078 at the 2006 peak -- a fall of €120,000.

And economists argue that houses are now more affordable.

The average first-time buyer now requires 13% of their disposable income to pay a mortgage, research from DKM Consultants and EBS Building Society shows.

Monthly mortgage payments for the average new buyer have fallen to €639, half of what it was in 2006. That year a typical first-time buyer couple was paying €1,323 in mortgage repayments.

First-time buyers now make up almost half of the shrunken mortgage market.

Even if interest rates rise another 1%, and workers have to take further pay cuts, the DKM model shows repayments taking up at most 19% of the salary of a first-time buyer couple earning €35,000 each.

Prices could keep falling

However, the problem is that price falls may not be over yet.

Most commentators expect house prices to continue to fall this year.

Predictions from 20 different economists and ratings agencies (in a survey compiled by the website NAMAwinelake) shows prices falling between 80% from the peak to 40%.

UCD economist Morgan Kelly has predicted prices falling 80% from peak -- that would mean average prices falling to €65,000.

When all 20 predictions are looked at, it shows that most analysts see a fall of another 5% to 10% this year.

Worth considering is the fact that when prices reach the bottom they may stay there for a while. And it could take a while to realise that prices have hit the bottom as it can take up to four months for sales data to filter through to the statisticians who compile price figures.

Prices may continue to fall as there are continuing difficulties for people seeking mortgage approval.

Just 14,000 mortgages were approved in the first nine months of 2010, compared with 80,000 in the same period in 2005.

The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) may release property on to the market, pushing prices down.

And repossessions and foreclosures may increase this year. The Irish Brokers Association is predicting a tsunami of 15,000 to 20,000 repossessions in 2011.

There is no urgency to buy for most young people. And there is an oversupply of as many as 130,000 houses nationwide.

Some feel the worst is over

Those of a more positive disposition acknowledge the oversupply, but think the worst is over for the housing market.

They argue that house prices may start rising soon for a number of other reasons.

Dublin has fewer houses than other parts of the country. This is not the case in areas and may lead to a two-speed market. Also, lenders are less inclined to fund buys outside urban centres.

Stamp duty has come down from between 7% and 9% to 1%.

Prices have now fallen to the point where it takes, on average, four times the average first-time buyers' income to buy one.

Housing construction has sharply declined.

Asked for his view, the foremost housing economist in the country, Dr David Duffy of the Economic and Social Research Institute, feels prices will fall by 50% from their peak.

Prices have already fallen by 38%. Dr Duffy sees prices falling by a further 10% this year and then remaining flat in 2012.

Irish Independent