Property: House-hunters from Hell: Does a buyer's market give viewers an excuse to leave manners outside the door? Rosalind Russell, a seller who survived, reviews the evidence

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THE INTERIOR-designed Chelsea house was plush and comfortable, the home of a rich young woman of expensive taste. The pastel-shaded bedroom was dominated by a large bed, so squashy it might have been inflated with a bicycle pump; pillows and cushions as plump as marsh-mallows were carefully arranged in a soft mound at the headboard.

It was too tempting for the potential buyer: in front of the horrified estate agent, he took a flying leap from the door, threw himself joyfully on to the bed and bounced up and down. 'I gave him such a look,' says Andy Buchanan, of John D Wood. 'He was a real smart alec, the sort who fancied himself as upwardly mobile. I had to go back and completely remake the bed with all those wretched cushions.'

This is not a one-off. Show me one person trying to sell a house or flat and I will show you 10 more who have experienced the Viewer From Hell. Tact and diplomacy? Trying to sell my flat, I had common parts insulted, curtain tie-backs wrenched off, the kitchen floor flooded by someone who trod in the dog's water bowl and, when expecting one Chinese viewer to arrive, I was confronted by seven of them, all jostling for space in a hall the size of a tea-chest.

'I can beat that,' says Simon Edwards, of Winkworth estate agency. 'I had an appointment to take a Danish couple round a two-bedroom flat in Pimlico and 13 of them turned up. I had to sort out who was buying and told the rest to wait outside.'

It's painful enough exposing your nest to critical eyes, but some would-be buyers have the cheek of the devil - an attitude which has been encouraged by occupying a strong position in the housing market for the last two years. 'We'll let you know,' they say grandly, sweeping through a recently redecorated lobby, scoring a line along the wallpaper with their briefcase.

'People seem to think because they are buying, they are doing you a favour,' says Patrick Ramsay, of Knight Frank & Rutley. 'They think the art of negotiation is being rude and assertive. In fact it's counter-

productive as the seller usually says 'Over my dead body will that person buy my home.' '

The long, hard haul through the recession has seen seller and agent grow quite chummy - well, you do if you've known each other long enough to get on the Christmas card list. 'Most agents get quite fond of their clients,' Patrick Ramsay confirms. 'You get rather annoyed on their behalf when someone is rude, and take it personally. One person's kitchen may be another's purgatory, but you don't say loudly that you would have to gut the place.'

'Ninety-nine per cent of people have a great deal of respect for other people's houses,' Andy Buchanan says. 'But there are some horrors. Very often, they will light up cigarettes without permission and then either throw the stub down the loo or in a fireplace. Even worse, if it is an appointment after lunch, they will turn up smoking a cigar. The owner goes into orbit when she comes home to that smell.'

Saturday afternoons bring out the worst in viewers, he maintains. A woman buyer often has a couple of friends in tow and regards house- viewing as window-shopping. I know this to be true. I was that shop dummy. But, it seems, I am luckier than some would-be sellers. 'They often hunt in pairs and turn up at around 2 pm with the hanger-on, then while the agent opens the wardrobe to demonstrate the cupboard space, they say: 'Oh, I wonder where she got that?' and inspect the labels on the clothes. I have even known some to try on the owner's shoes.'

People picking up interesting knick-knacks for a closer look are an agent's nightmare, as bills for breakages dance before their eyes. 'Especially if father has drawn the short straw and has been forced to bring the children while mother is out shopping,' Andy Buchanan says. 'He has usually lost control of the children by this time, they have found the playroom and I'm left trying to put all the games back into the correct boxes. There have been several times when I have picked up something I didn't want a child to touch, and found myself walking out the door with it in my hand.'

One couple, selling a Victorian semi in Surrey, had already been forced to reduce the price by pounds 20,000 by their buyer. She came back just before completion and demanded they also leave the children's swing in the garden and the toys which had been stored in the garage. Another owner - of a rather smart country house - employed two full-time gardeners, but took a personal interest in a fine, York-stone wall, in the cracks of which she had planted primroses. An American potential buyer stopped by the wall and announced: 'You sure have a weed problem here, doncha?'

One woman, says Simon Edwards, commented on a beautiful cabinet which the owner had built himself. 'May I open it?' she asked, adding: 'It's a bit stiff . . .' One firm yank, and not only did the door drop off, the whole cabinet fell apart. 'She felt like running a mile,' says Simon. 'But when I was a viewer myself, inspecting an attic conversion, I fell off the joist, through the ceiling and into someone else's bathroom. Luckily they weren't in it.'

As well as the rude, the grasping and the tactless, there are the Nosy Parkers, who thrive during a housing crisis. Who's going to refuse to show when the next viewer may turn out to the buyer? 'What really irritates me are those who look through the post on the hall table to see who lives in the house,' Andy Buchanan says.

Prospective buyers also have a habit of fiddling with switches and not leaving them as they found them. A few weeks ago, a viewer with John D Wood went a twiddle too far. He switched off the deep-freeze. The owners were away for a fortnight. They returned to find a horrendous smell; all the smoked salmon they had bought for a party was ruined. The agents got the bill.

Understandably, sellers' attitudes are hardening. Many now refuse to show unless the viewer has cash, or has his or her own home under offer. Others just can't bear the pain and go out. One house-owner asked John D Wood to notify her every time someone was coming because she'd been so upset by people's rudeness. When the agent was taking the prospective buyer around, he opened a wardrobe door to show off the interior . . . to find the owner hiding in it.

I know how she felt.-

(Photograph omitted)