Mortgages taken out by new buyers accounted for less than 30 per cent of lending for the first time during February.

The Council of mortgage Lenders said just 29 per cent of all loans were taken out by people taking their first step on to the property ladder, compared with a long-term average of more than 45 per cent.

First-time buyers might be less confident than others as they did not have any equity to cushion them against possible house price falls while affordability constraints might also be holding them back.

At the same time, overall levels of mortgage lending showed signs of slowing, falling to £17.8 billion in February from £19.4 billion the previous month.

The British Bankers' Association, which measures lending by the major banks, also reported an easing in the rate of growth.

It said mortgage lending, after redemptions and repayments, increased by £4.96 billion last month, down from £5.29 billion in January.

The council said it was too soon to tell from one month's figures whether this marked the turning point to a less frenetic market.

But it expected house price inflation to return to a period of lower and more sustainable growth during the course of the year.

Remortgaging remained popular during February, accounting for 49 per cent of total lending, with 39 per cent of borrowers taking advantage of the low interest rates through a fixed-rate loan.