House-builder Barratt Developments gave an upbeat view of the property market after reporting a pick-up in sales since the start of the year.

The company, which is about to start work on a 1,000-home development at Telford, said the market remained competitive.

But it saw "positive signs" in terms of buyer confidence after its forward sales book reached £910 million compared with £708 million at the end of 2005.

Adding in 7,003 completions in the six months to December 31, Barratt said it had secured 90 per cent of its annual sales target for the year to the end of June.

Chief executive David Pretty said: "On current form we are on track for another successful year and are in good shape going forward."

Barratt said its presence in a wide range of markets had insulated it from the market downturn of last year, with interim results showing a four per cent rise in underlying profits to £163.9 million.

The group again underlined its status as one of the most efficient operators in the sector by wringing out a return on assets and capital employed of 30.1 per cent, one of the highest in the industry.

Its housebuild operating margin was stretched to 14.8 per cent from 14.4 per cent last time and it managed to raise its average selling price by £1,000 to £166,600.

Finance director Colin Dearleave, who will retire in June at the age of 54 after 25 years with Barratt, said the company was performing strongly in the West Midlands.

He described the market overall as "steady and stable", adding: "It isn't a boom market, but we can do business in it."

As well as the Telford development, which is one of the largest of its kind in the country, the group has a further 23 schemes due to become active in the next six months.

Barratt's new iPad starter home concept will also be rolled out in the region.

These are one-bedroom, 380 sq ft homes that sell for between £80,000 and £120,000, well below the new £125,000 stamp duty threshold.

Barratt has already sold the first 30 iPads in Middlesbrough and has another 170 under construction at a further six sites in the North East.

The company said it plans expanding the concept into other areas and expects to sell 250 units in the period to June 2007 rising to at least 1,000 in future years.

"The new iPad concept will help address the growing need for affordable homes at the lower end of the market," Mr Pretty said.

"The homes are well under the stamp duty threshold and if the Government's proposed equity share plan scheme comes into effect it could effectively lower entry level prices even further with prices in the north of the country starting at around £60,000.

"This would be a magic formula and sensational news for first-time buyers."

Yesterday's interims showed that Barratt benefited from its expansion into social housing, as completions in this area increased by 14 per cent. Private completions were one per cent lower at 5,569 - leaving the figure two per cent higher than a year earlier. ..SUPL: