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Dan White: Thwarted at every turn by this house price cover-up

Dan answers your financial questions

Having previously rented, my wife and I now want to buy a home in the area where we have lived for many years. We have approached a number of auctioneers about properties that have been offered for sale and we feel that the prices they are quoting are utterly unrealistic.

Unfortunately we have been unable to obtain accurate price information on the houses and apartments that have been sold in our area. When we asked the auctioneers concerned for this information, they declined claiming that it would be in breach of "data protection legislation". Can this possibly be true? What can we do to ensure that we don't end up overpaying if we decide to buy?

HUGH

Hugh's situation is not unique. With property prices collapsing and the number of transactions way down, getting accurate price information, always difficult at the best of times, has now become virtually impossible.

The Permanent TSB/ESRI house price index, which is based on mortgages drawn down, is now months out of date and, due to the lack of transactions occurring, is now published quarterly rather than monthly. Meanwhile the Department of the Environment housing statistics, which cover all house sales, are published so long after the event as to be of purely archaeological significance. Matters aren't helped by the fact that auctioneers are forbidden to disclose sale prices without the consent of their clients. This is the sort of nonsense that gives data protection legislation a bad name. Still no information is better than, as in what has happened in a number of cases, some auctioneers publishing exaggerated prices for houses they had sold.

All of which means there is a crying need for up-to-date information on house prices. Now Justice Minister Dermot Ahern has got in on the act, promising the establishment of a new property price database. Mr Ahern is promising an amendment setting up such a database will be introduced into the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009, which is currently meandering through the Dail.

According to the minister, this will result in the "timely" publication of house price information when the Bill is enacted "later this year".

Just don't hold your breath. The job of compiling the house price database is to be given to the Property Services Regulatory Authority, a new quango that is supposed to regulate auctioneers, estate agents, letting agents and property management companies when the Property Services (Regulation) Bill becomes law.

Somehow I can't help feeling that the latest quango will have its hands more than full in its early years getting to grips with rogue auctioneers and that the property price database might have to take a back seat.

Even if it doesn't, there is likely to be an almighty turf war between the new agency and the Property Registration Authority, previously the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds, which has statutory responsibility for recording all changes in property ownership. It will no doubt argue that, as it already possesses all of the necessary information, that it should maintain the new database.

All of which means that it is likely to be a long time before Mr Ahern's proposed property price database makes the transition from silly-season political promise to actual reality.

I recently received an Arnotts gift card as a birthday present. Now that the banks have taken over the company, what is the position with my card? Can I still use it to make purchases at Arnotts?

Jean

Holders of gift cards issued by retailers that go bust are unsecured creditors and, as many Irish consumers have recently learned to their cost, can expect to recover very little if any of their money.

However, the good news is that Arnotts didn't go bust.

Instead its banks, who are owed more than €300m, exchanged some of their loans for shares and took effective control of the retailer. This means that Arnotts' gift cards are still valid.