THE 34 per cent month-on-month rise in mortgage lending by Hong Kong's big banks in March announced yesterday may sound substantial, but it could be just the start of something bigger. The figures quoted by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority for new loans approved by the territory's 33 largest mortgage lenders in March and not yet used by potential home buyers, provide the best available market indicator for likely home lending business in April and subsequent months. The quoted March figure for clients with pending mortgage facilities was up 260 per cent month-on-month to $9.23 billion, showing a substantial surge in the number of buyers now getting ready to re-enter the flat sales market, providing, of course, the price is right. This gives a further sign that the residential market is now at or near bottom. In recent weeks, we have seen end-users queueing up to buy properties and developers replenishing land banks through auctions and tenders. In his debut sectoral report since joining Baring Securities, top property analyst Nichols Pang predicts the property market will land softly. Early birds are returning to the market, he says, and prices for mass residential properties have reached more acceptable levels after adjusting from their peak in March last year. However, all is not rosy. Another round of interest rate rises, which seems likely, could temporarily spoil the party. But there is growing consensus that a more sustained recovery could emerge in the latter stages of the year. In the meantime, buyers are being choosy. Developers are keen to clear their portfolios and banks are being more flexible with their lending, worried about the sharp downturn in one of their core businesses. But evidence from successive post-Lunar New Year sales shows shrewd investors have realised that for once, at least temporarily, the negotiating power has swung back into their court.