Property: Bring down the holly and the ivy

Your house may look marvellous in its festive finery, but decorations can spell disaster for prospective sellers.
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The Independent Culture
If putting up Christmas decorations rates as one of the most enjoyable domestic jobs, then taking them down comes pretty close to the bottom of the ratings list. So pity the London flat owner who had to remove all evidence of her seasonal labours a day after she had completed her handiwork.

"A new client called to say that her South Kensington property was beautifully decorated and ready for the photographer," says Rebecca Read, of the estates agents Cluttons Daniel Smith. "I had visions of pristine paintwork and immaculate walls, but instead we walked into a Christmas-card scene. It had obviously taken hours to create. We then had to break it to the owner that everything had to come down."

A key objective of all property photographers is to produce as unseasonal a picture as possible. Another is to avoid clutter. Read says: "There were garlands and crackers, cards and candles. All the presents had been wrapped and beautifully laid out. It took an hour to move just the Christmas tree, which was huge.

"The owner couldn't see the problem and thought she had done a marvellous job. We had to explain how inappropriate it would look in a brochure by the second week of January, let alone the spring."

It is not unusual to find Read in a client's bare winter garden with armfuls of silk flowers. "We dot them round so that buyers have an idea of what it looks like in the summer. You have to be careful not to use anything exotic."

Her vast bag of flowers comes into its own for the interior shots. The real thing, though, can be a trap for the unwary. Poinsettias and Christmas cactii in full flower should be banished from the room if a photographer is en route. And as for the hosts of golden daffodils that sellers long to share with each prospective buyer, they are banned from the sights of every camera. No one in September can pass off a house surrounded by dancing daffodils as a recent arrival on the market.

Just about everything we seize on to photograph for the family album - three feet of snow on the lawn, the old cherry tree in blossom and mantlepieces weighed down under holly branches and fir cones - are the last pictures that any selling agent wants to see in the particulars.

"You have to listen to what clients say because they are paying for photography, but they are also paying for your advice. Far too many things become distractions and you have to say if a house is overdressed. The interiors should appear as large and inviting as possible," says Edward Rook, from the country house department of Knight Frank. This could well mean turning on the lamps, opening the curtains and the fires blazing all at once.

Unless a buyer has an obsession with Christmas, festive decorations are not going to clinch a sale. Yet most people feel their homes look most inviting at this time of year. "There is always a chance of doing a deal on Christmas Eve or between Christmas and the New Year," says Rook. "Tastefully placed holly and a lovely tree can add warmth and atmosphere, but the same cannot be said if rooms are decked out with streamers and paper chains made by four-year-olds."

Knight Frank issues advice to its photographers with tips which include lawns mown in stripes, stable doors left open, the gravel raked and tables laid for a meal. Chris Wood, a property and interiors photographer who helped dismantle the decorations in the South Kensington flat, is used to rearranging people's homes. "I draw the line at washing up the dirty plates, though."

The crucial art of making a room look as large as possible is not helped by the current trend for beige. "If you have a pale carpet, walls, ceiling and furniture, it all blends into an indistinguishable whole," says Wood. "A rug, a vase of flowers or cushions are enough to break it up. Yellow always works well in pictures while black always looks terrible even if it has a fancy finish."

Wood tries to put himself in the shoes of whoever opens the brochure. This often means turning a deaf ear to the seller's suggestions. "Even if you can stand with your back in the oven and see 60ft to the end of the drawing room, I have to try to explain that it will make a terrible picture."

Vendors can pay upto several thousand pounds for a brochure and their opinions cannot be dismissed out of hand. "The debate with clients about which photographs to use can go on for hours," says Richard Gayner, from the country department of FPD Savills. "They often fix on aerial shots or they want the house to be seen from different angles, whereas we want to show just enough to encourage buyers to jump in the car. In the country the setting is the most important issue."

Gayner tells a story that will warm the heart of anyone desperately trying to keep a large house in viewing order. "A wealthy family arranged to meet an agent at a country house, only to tell him on their arrival that they didn't want to go in. When he asked why not he was told that it might put them off buying it." Just what those of us who wouldn't dare let a photographer loose in the house like to hear.