Mortgage approvals for house purchase fell for the first time in 13 months during December, prompting speculation that the housing market recovery may be running out of steam.
The number of mortgages in the pipeline for people buying a new home dipped to 59,023 during the month, down from 60,045 in November, according to the Bank of England.
The figures came as property intelligence group Hometrack said house prices in England and Wales had edged ahead by just 0.1% during January, with the cost of property remaining static across much of the country.
The group also reported a fall in both the number of new buyers and sellers coming to the market, and the level of sales agreed, and it warned that the general health of the housing market may have been “overstated”.
Andrew Goodwin, senior economic adviser to the Ernst & Young Item Club, said: “The small fall in mortgage approvals is consistent with the idea that the mini house price boom is running out of steam.
“It is clear that underlying demand remains relatively subdued and, with pressures from low supply likely to fade, we expect prices to flatline through this year.”
The Council of Mortgage Lenders expressed concern that the fall in mortgage approvals during December pointed to a “bunching” in transactions as people buying lower value properties rushed to beat the end of the Government’s stamp duty holiday.
But Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, said: “The dip in mortgage approvals in December reinforces our suspicion that housing prices are likely to suffer a limited relapse during the coming months, and will be essentially only flat over the year as a whole.”
The Bank of England figures also showed a fall in new mortgage lending, but borrowing through unsecured credit rose for the first time in six months.
Net mortgage lending, which strips out redemptions and repayments, slowed to £1.17 billion during December, down from £1.56 billion in November, although it remained ahead of the recent six-month average.
For the whole of 2009, net lending totalled just £11.5 billion, the lowest level since records began in 1987.
But the figure was well up on the Council of Mortgage Lenders’ original forecast for the year of net lending of minus £25 billion, although it later revised this to a rise of £8 billion as the housing market recovered more quickly than previously expected.
CML economist Paul Samter said: “These figures confirm that the mortgage market ended 2009 in much better shape than it started, but it still looks like a slow haul back to meaningful levels of activity.”
But while mortgage lending was down during December, the amount people borrowed through credit cards, overdrafts and loans increased for the first time since June.
Total unsecured borrowing was slightly lower during the month than in November, but weaker repayments led to outstanding debt rising by £52 million.
However, economists cautioned against reading too much into the rise, saying some of it was likely to have been caused by consumers bringing forward purchases before VAT increased back to 17.5% in January.
Within the total, the amount people owed on credit cards rose by £195 million.
Borrowing through overdrafts and loans contracted for the seventh consecutive month, but at £143 million, net repayments were well down on those of £623 million and £713 million seen during November and October respectively.