Property buyers are staying away from the market as interest rates continue to march upwards, new data from Australian Finance Group (AFG) has revealed.

The report showed that mortgage sales in January - traditionally a strong month for sales - have slowed to a crawl. Sales rose by just 5.6% - a huge drop from the 20.5% increase in January last year.

NSW suffered the most, with sales plunging by 8.9% compared to a sharp increase of 19% in January 2007. The increase in sales in Western Australia was also markedly lower at 5.7%, compared to 37.5% the same time last year. AFG noted that mortgage sales were so subdued that in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and WA the number of mortgages sold was actually lower than in January 2007.

"Potential property buyers are seriously concerned about the prospect of rate rises," said Mark Hewitt, general manager of sales and operations with AFG. "At the same time that they're holding off buying properties, they're also refinancing in record numbers to try to get the best mortgage deal available."

AFG revealed that 37.04% of the mortgages arranged through its brokers were for refinancing - the highest recorded level in the past 12 months. Hewitt also noted that the relatively low loan-to-value ratios of mortgages indicated that middle income earners and first-time buyers are the worst affected sector of the market.