January 18, 2011 • 3:37 pm

Good news for Express-reading homeowners today, who will have been informed by their paper of choice about an impending surge in the value of their property.

The main reason for this outburst of headline optimism is the most recent housing market analysis from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

“Property prices are heading for a spring surge according to the country’s leading experts,” proclaims the first line of the Express article.

Yet when one Full Fact reader contacted us to express some doubts about the report we took a closer look, and quickly began finding holes in the story.

Analysis

Firstly, even the RICS press release which accompanied the latest update referred to the outlook as “mixed”.

Reading the report itself, it states that in terms of outlook for prices in the coming months, the balance of surveyors who foresaw falls against those anticipating rises was -29.

This was an improvement from -44 recorded the previous month but it nevertheless shows more respondents expecting price falls than rises in the next few months.

Indeed there is a note of caution sounded by RICS spokesman Jeremy Leaf in the press release that went out.

What follows is the quote from Mr Leaf, with the sections the Express left out in bold: “Although bad weather hit the housing market during December sales levels have remained stable. While lack of supply, and more importantly demand continues to impact heavily, surveyor sentiment does appear more positive for the coming months.”

“The key issue now is mortgage finance. However, with commentators suggesting lending constraints are unlikely to be eased, it is hard to envisage a meaningful increase in sales levels in the near term.”

The article also misunderstands the nature of one of the key statistics published in the RICS report. As mentioned above, the survey looks at the net balance of positive and negative outlooks for prices.

Referring to the findings for December the Express reported: “Just 39 per cent of surveyors reported values falling last month, down from the 44 per cent who did so in November.”

Actually, as the RICS report itself makes clear the figures again refer to the net balance, so, rather than more surveyors experiencing rising prices in December “39 per cent more surveyors saw prices fall rather than rise.”

When we contacted RICS a spokesperson was cautious about the use of the word “surge” used in the Express headline, pointing instead to an increasingly positive outlook, but overall a “really mixed bag” across the regions of the country.

Of course there are other experts quoted in the piece who sound positive noises about the housing market, and the expectations of those surveyed for the RICS update were only asked about views for the next three months.

Three months would only take us to the middle of April, only part-way through spring, leaving further time for the market to “take off” as the article tell us the experts expect.

But even some of these economists’ assessments were more cautious than the Express would suggest.

Take the quote from Howard Archer from I.H.S Global Insight which reads: “Clearly, if the supply-demand balance in housing moves increasingly away from buyers towards sellers, it will provide significant support for house prices.”

However this is what the full paragraph of Howard Archer’s analysis actually says:

“Clearly if the house supply-demand balance moves increasingly away from buyers towards sellers, it will provide significant support for house prices. Even so, we still consider that the fundamentals remain largely unfavourable for the housing market. Thus we maintain the view that while house prices are unlikely to collapse, they will fall by around 10 per cent from their peak 2010 levels by the end of 2011. Given that house prices have already fallen by some 3 per cent, we believe that they will fall by around 7 per cent in 2011.”

For the avoidance of doubt Dr Archer’s analysis can be read in full here, but a 10 per cent fall is not the kind of change that normally passes for a surge.

Conclusion

The reporting of the Daily Express has given an overly positive assessment of the findings of the RICS report.

In particular the claim that only 39 per cent of surveyors experienced prices falls during December, is just wrong.

Given that the survey is the hard news element of the story, the RICS findings do not seem to justify the front page splash of the Express.

Likewise the selective quotation is worrying. Of course, economists never give verdicts in black and white, but in the cases of Jeremy Leaf and Howard Archer, important points they made were not covered in the article, particularly regarding the likelihood of a fall in house prices this year.

We are trying to contact the other experts quoted in the piece to establish if their remarks were similarly truncated.

Thus it seems for Express reading homeowners, the coverage of the RICS survey really does turn out to be too good to be true.

Full Fact is currently paying special attention to the reporting of the Express, given that the paper has withdrawn from the Press Complaints Commission code.

Of course, few property buyers are likely to rely solely on the Express for information on the economic outlook. But without scrutiny the Express is free to make such errors, and next time the issue may be one where coverage has much more serious implications.

According to the Financial Times ‘One person familiar with Mr Desmond’s strategy said the media owner believed his business could perform the same self-regulatory functions without being “a member of the PCC club”. ‘

It is now up to the Express to show that is has a robust and quick process in place to correct inaccuracies in the paper. Last week Full Fact complained to the paper about the wrong claim that figures show 2 million incapacity benefit claimants were fit for work. and but we are still awaiting a substantive response.

Without any evidence so far of a responsible alternative to the PCC’s oversight from the Express, for now there is little we can do about today’s claims. However, with politicians and media experts watching the situation closely, we will continue to provide some of the missing scrutiny.

We are grateful to the reader who flagged up this article for fact-checking, and encourage all our readers to keep a close eye on the Express.
 

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