Consider these three headlines; all of them taken from the same edition of the Times:
Mortgage lending hits a new record in 2007
Half a million homeowners miss mortgage payments
Bargain hunters reignite UK housing market
Despite the seeming contradictions in the headlines, taken together the three articles provide an almost complete narrative about today's housing market.
The first article tells us of a bumper year of household debt accumulation "Gross mortgage lending rose to its highest level last year. Figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) show that banks lent a total of £362 billion to homeowners last year, up 5 per cent on 2006 and the highest level since records began in 1999."
To be fair, the mood of the article quickly sours when it acknowledges the recent mortgage slowdown: "lending in December was £22.6 billion, down 25 per cent on November and the lowest level in any month since May 2005."
The second article is much more unpleasant; it is about debt despair and desperation. It tells of "almost half a million cash-strapped homeowners" who have "missed a monthly repayment on their mortgage in the past six months." Since there are almost 12 million mortgages in the UK, this means that about 4 percent of borrowers are in deep trouble. Should these repayment difficulties turn into repossessions, then the UK would have financial crisis every bit as bad as the sub-prime crisis over in the US.
So far, the story is clear; too much housing debt pushing far too many households into payment difficulties. But what about the third article? How does that fit into the reality of a rapidly deteriorating property market. Can the housing market really be reigniting?
The third article is about denial. The housing crash may be upon us, but there are still plenty of people ready to drop a quote that distorts reality. The market is not crashing, it is reigniting because "bargain hunters" have appeared to save the day.
It acknowledges that "the average price of a house has fallen for a third month", but despite declining prices "activity is growing as cheap deals draw out buyers ". Miles Shipside, from Rightmove, gleefully informs us: “Some home buyers are now able to find properties that have fallen into their affordability zone, and are bagging what they see as bargains against previous prices."
So there we have it, the three corners of the UK property market triangle; debt accumulation, debtors drowning in debt, and denial that anything is wrong.