Property: Throw caution to the wind

Only foolish purchasers allow their heart to rule their head. Rosalind Russell meets a handful who have pulled it off
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The Independent Culture
GILLIAN Ashbridge sat in her car looking out at the pink-washed thatched cottage and knew she had to have it. The house in Helions Bumpstead wasn't even officially on the market and she hadn't set foot over the doorstep. But this was a classic case of coup de foudre.

The accepted wisdom when buying a house is to play hard to please. Point out the faults to the agent, back them up with a picky surveyor's report that makes woodworm sound as sinister as the Black Death. Never sound too keen. Act as though you'd be doing the owners a favour by taking the place off their hands. All the while, of course, manoeuvring to knock a few thousand off the price. Gillian knows all these tactics. Gillian is a building society manager.

"I want it," she said.

The rules of the buying game go by the board when love strikes. Four months later, Gillian and her partner are happily choosing curtains for their 16th-century, three-bedroom cottage near Saffron Walden.

"We knew what we wanted but there isn't much on the market. Local estate agents Bruce Munro knew we were on the lookout and told us about the cottage. It is a gem," says Gillian. "I was quite prepared to make an offer without even going in."

Luckily for Gillian, who is quite tall, the rooms are not of the usual 16th-century headbanging height. When she did make an appointment to go inside, there was nothing to cause a change of heart.

"I deal in building society repossessions, I know the property market. So I know I should be laid-back about house buying, but I was hyper about this one. I loved it from day one. It was a bit foolish in hindsight. I let the agent know right away I wanted it. I was mad keen. There was another person looking at it but I would have been devastated if anybody else had got it.

"I did it all the wrong way. Even my solicitor told me off. Knowing what you know about houses, he said, you should know better. But my heart was ruling my head. I don't regret it. I know it is the right house for me."

Trying to talk someone out of a love affair is a thankless task. Not only don't they pay any attention, they hate you for your words of cold common sense. Brigid Martineau, housebuyer for East Anglian agency Bidwells, is an expert with the cold flannel when it comes to steering a buyer away from the house they are convinced they were meant to have but which could prove disastrous which is rich, she admits, coming from someone who decided to buy a house having only seen a picture of it in Country Life.

"I would never, ever, let a client do what we did," says Brigid, who with husband William had been house hunting in Somerset when she spotted the picture of the Georgian rectory in Suffolk. If your geography is up to scratch, you will realise these counties are at opposite ends of the country. The Martineaux are still there 23 years later, but, she says, they were very lucky, had to work hard and had to make sacrifices to keep a large house with 12 acres to maintain.

"True and lasting love at first sight is as rare when it comes to houses as it is in humans. I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect home. You have to make compromises. I take people through a series of questions to make sure it's the right compromise."

Consider, says Brigid, if you really want to travel that far to work. Are you sure it doesn't matter that the nearest shop is two miles away, or that there is a piggery next door? Is the house so big that maintenance will become a worry, or too small to accommodate future children? Will you be overstretched financially, will you miss having holidays? Is it wise to buy a thatched, beamed cottage if you are six foot two?

Have a look over the neighbour's wall. Is there an outdoor swimming pool used by his children and their friends? "One of my colleagues was driven from his home by the exuberant swimmers in the next-door garden," she warns in a dramatic, cold-flannelly sort of way.

This is all academic to Simon and Charlotte Brown. Both were art therapists living in St Albans when they started thinking about a major lifestyle change and a home in France. Between February and August last year, they travelled to France six times, looking in the Charente and the Dordogne. They wanted a home not only for themselves and their children, but as a centre for the art holidays business they hoped to set up.

Nothing seemed exactly right and they became downhearted. Then Sally Treganowan of the French Property shop rang to say she had a beauty; an old Perigordine farmhouse around a courtyard with an arched gateway. There were two stone hearts carved on each side and the motif picked up in the old cobbled floor. There was even a pigeonnier tower.

Initially sceptical, Simon's attitude changed when he received the faxed details. "The next day I caught the coach from St Albans to the ferry, then a coach to Paris and finally a train to Bordeaux. When I saw the farmhouse, I was stunned. It was almost completely ruined with one habitable part, but absolutely gorgeous."

There was a chestnut tree in the middle of the courtyard. The rest was buried under brambles The asking price was 390,000 fr. (about pounds 51,000).

"I was willing to disregard all my own advice, it was magical. I was smitten. It was like a scene from Sleeping Beauty, hacking through the brambles. I made an offer, drank two bottles of champagne, got on a train and came home."

Their own home already sold, the Brown family packed up and headed for France. They worked 18-hour days getting the farmhouse ready for the first batch of holiday guests, and now, with a successful debut season behind them, have no regrets.

As Brigid knows, such wild passions don't always stand the test of time. Two years ago, GA Town & Country sold Wheelwrights, a rambling old house near Rye in East Sussex, to a Japanese businessman, sight unseen. It's not hard to see how he was seduced by the tile-hung, black and white, quintessentially English property that has been added to like a patchwork over the years. Alas, the passion cooled and he asked GA to sell it, without ever having moved in. Now the house is being sold by Americans for pounds 325,000.

Dr Sarah Brewer, Woman's Journal health editor and author, was keen to escape London, where she lived in a flat in the Barbican. With her partner, Richard Marchant, they blitzed all the East Anglian estate agents and then gave themselves three days to go up and inspect the promising ones. They saw the converted brick and flint chapel on the third day.

"We had suspected from the photograph and the details that this would be the one, but when we got there, it was overwhelming. I knew at once it was the house for us," says Sarah. "I thought, gosh, it's stunning."

With The Complete Book of Men's Health recently published by Thornsons and a medical thriller on the boil, Sarah wanted a home with a study where she could write. The five-bedroom house has a 12ft study as well as a double-height vaulted hall and 20ft drawing room. It was on the market with Bedfords at pounds 185,000.

"We saw this house at 2.30pm on 1 May and made the offer the next day. It was only on the market a week and eight other people had been to see it. It was a bit nerve-racking, waiting to see if they put in a higher offer than ours. We've been in two weeks now, changed its name back to St Helen's Church, and love the peacefulness. I know we made the right decision."

! Bruce Munro, Saffron Walden, 01799 522628; Bidwells, Cambridge, 01223 841841; French Property Shop, Mark Cross, East Sussex, 01892 852449; Bedfords, Burnham Market, 01328 730500; GA, Tunbridge Wells, 01892 542711

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