MORTGAGE lending has increased by almost 25% in a boost for the country's improving property market.
More than 12,300 home loans were approved across Scotland at the start of 2014, a year-on-year rise of 23%, as first-time buyers take advantage of cheaper homes and mortgage deals.
New house hunters accounted for a large proportion of the rise, securing 5900 new loans in the first three months of 2014 - an increase of almost one-third year-on-year. However, they borrowed almost three times their income, a higher proportion than at the end of last year, according figures released by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML).
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Linda Docherty, chairwoman of CML Scotland, said: "Year-on-year lending shows a strong upward trend in Scotland, which gives grounds for optimism mortgage lending will continue to grow.
"First-time buyers were a crucial driver throughout 2013, and this is appears to be continuing. Affordability for first-time buyers is better than the UK average, suggesting there are still comparatively favourable conditions in the Scottish market."
Figures were down compared to the last quarter of 2013, although industry experts said a seasonal dip at the start of the year was to be expected.
John Perkin, financial services director for estate agents Slater Hogg and Countrywide Scotland, said 10 per cent more staff had been taken on at the firms to deal with increased demand. "Help to Buy is definitely having an impact," he said. "There is slightly better consumer confidence and mortgages are still cheap, with the cost of borrowing low.
"People who have got 40% deposits are getting mortgage deals of between two and two-and-a-half per cent, which is helping.
"Those who have been saving up money are starting to buy. First-time buyers were paying 6% 12 or 18 months ago and now it's 4% to 4.5%."
Mr Perkin said the Mortgage Market Review, which saw new rules introduced last month to protect against reckless lending, could lead to growth slowing in coming months. The overhaul will see borrowers subjected to greater scrutiny. However, he predicted growth would continue, saying he had agreed more mortgages on behalf of buyers this month than in April.
"I believe the amount people will be able to borrow will fall," he said. "The early indications are that lenders are offering slightly less than they did pre-mortgage market review. But it's a good time to buy - I think it will remain buoyant for the next few years."
A total of 6100 loans, worth £670m, were also agreed for remortgages, a rise of 7% on early-2013 volumes.
Philip Hogg, chief executive of industry body Homes for Scotland, said the figures painted an "encouraging picture for continued sustainable growth". He added: "The hugely successful Help to Buy (Scotland) scheme has had a significant impact, enabling buyers to realise their home-owning aspirations at the same time as supporting vital jobs and boosting the wider economy.
"With the proven success of the scheme clear, it is essential the initiative is extended to 2020 and funding is matched in order to meet this ongoing demand, particularly in light of recent Scottish Government statistics which highlighted a sixth consecutive annual fall in total housing completions.
"We therefore hope that this strong upward trend continues to act as a signal of industry recovery, translating into the thousands of homes across all tenures which are required in order to meet need throughout the country."