Countrywide Holdings, the estate agent that counts Scotland's Slater Hogg & Howison among its high street brands, plans to return to the stock market after an absence of six years.

Chief executive officer Grenville Turner cited signs that sentiment was improving in the "broadly flat" housing market as Countrywide unveiled its flotation plans yesterday.

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Meanwhile, David Mackie, regional executive of the National Association of Estate Agents in Scotland, said the housing market north of the Border was moving more freely, but added that it was largely being driven by investors buying to let at the lower end.

Countrywide, which has 40 branches in Scotland, 25 trading as Slater Hogg & Howison and 15 as Countrywide, aims to raise £200 million through an initial public offering (IPO) of new ordinary shares.

It is understood that a successful IPO will give Countrywide a market capitalisation in the region of £650m, with the company expected to take up a position in the FTSE-250 on flotation.

Countrywide was bought for £1.1 billion in 2007 by US private equity firm Apollo Management, which saw its shareholding reduce to 25% in 2011 following a refinancing deal with US-based investment manager Oaktree, now the majority shareholder with 55%.

Apollo currently holds 25%, with Alchemy holding 8% and the rest of the shareholding held by management and legacy shareholders dating from the deal that took Countrywide private.

Countrywide said it would use the funds raised by the IPO to repay outstanding borrowings, bring down interest payments and create a more efficient capital structure, as well as position it to pursue organic growth and strategic acquisitions. A spokesman said the principal shareholders would retain their shareholdings post-IPO, adding that "all are committed to supporting Countrywide in its growth going forward".

Commenting on the backdrop, Mr Turner said: "The exact timing of a recovery in the UK residential market remains difficult to predict. However, we have seen an increase in mortgage approvals and an improvement in sentiment in the sector."

Mr Mackie said: "I've seen more and more people moving into the housing market to buy to let the properties out, and that really is what's pulling an awful lot at the bottom end just now.

"More properties are being bought by investors."

He added that many home owners who bought at the peak of the market were continuing to stay put for fear of losing equity, which he said meant "there's not enough decent stuff coming to the market".

He said: "What does come on the market, in good areas, close to decent schools, is attracting good interest and selling well."

He questioned the impact of state efforts to kick-start the mortgage market, including the Scottish Government's MI New Home mortgage indemnity scheme, and said the main beneficiaries were the construction firms behind new-build properties.

He said: "I don't see it filtering through to the re-sale market."

Announcing Countrywide’s annual results yesterday, Mr Turner said the estate agent’s financial services division approved 54,000 mortgages last year, up from 53,000 in 2011. The figure is said to account for 10% of the intermediary market.

Mr Turner said: "Government initiatives to boost mortgage lending appear to be kicking in, as the Funding for Lending scheme helped lenders to lower interest rates and improve availability in the past few months."

Countrywide Holdings, whose activities range from estate agency and letting to surveying, valuing, conveyancing and financial services, reported a fall in operating profit to £16.8m in the year ended December 31, 2012 from £19.6m in 2011. Total income rose to £539.8m, from £509.1m.

On the estate agency side, operating profit dipped to £4.4m from £6.8m last year, with total income down to £214.3m from £215.4m.

Operating profit for the company’s lettings arm jumped to £16.3m in 2012, from £10.9m.