West Midlands house prices crept up by just 0.3 per cent seasonally adjusted in March to an average of £158,354 - 8.1 per cent higher than in March last year, according to the latest Halifax house price index.

Over the first three months of this year the region's house prices were 9.9 per cent higher than in the first quarter of 2004, according to Britain's biggest mortgage lender.

That was marginally better than an increase of 9.7 per cent across the UK to an average of £162,840, the first time for more than three years that the annual rate has slipped below ten per cent.

The national average would have been considerably lower but for increases of 25 per cent in Northern Ireland and 22.9 per cent in Scotland, which piled on another six per cent last month.

House prices in the West Midlands are now rising more slowly than those in the East Midlands, which recorded a 1.6 per cent increase last month and 12.2 per cent over the first quarter of last year, although that still leaves the average price there £10,000 behind.

Last month's national increase of 0.5 per cent reversed an identical decline in March. "The picture on a month- to- month basis remains mixed with four rises and four falls in the past eight months," said Martin Ellis, chief economist at HBOS, Halifax's parent company.

"Overall, however, there has been virtually no change in UK house prices since last September."

The difference between house prices in the south of England and the north has been narrowing over the past year, Mr Ellis noted.

"The increase in interest rates between November 2003 and August 2004, and the difficulties facing potential firsttime buyers in purchasing a property, has caused the housing market to slow since mid-2004," he added.

"The ongoing health of the UK economy and the associated strength of the labour market, together with historically low interest rates and a shortage of housing supply, however, appear to be limiting the extent of the downturn.

"There are increasing signs that activity levels are now stabilising and house prices are broadly static at a national level."

Halifax's chain of estate agents has reported an upturn in the number of sales agreed since the start of this year after a decline during the second half of 2004.

This trend confirms Bank of England figures showing a modest increase in the number of loans approved for house purchase in February to the highest level for four months.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also reported rising numbers of housing sales agreed in both January and February, the first time this has happened two months running since last spring.

The RICS also noted that sound economic conditions and high consumer confidence have supported a stabilisation in housing demand in recent months, so that the number of inquiries by potential buyers has stopped falling.