May is high season for house-hunters. As one man's cramped flat becomes another's must-have, Richard McClure meets city dwellers on the move
Forget the FA Cup final. Another May tradition has preoccupied the country as thousands of potential buyers traipse self-consciously round some of the 1,000,000 domestic properties currently up for sale. This month - the two Bank Holiday weekends in particular - is the traditional time for house hunting. Though 1.2 million homeowners still languish in the negative equity trap, Spring is in the air and the natives are getting restless.

Around one in 10 of us intends to move house this year, with one in five planning to do likewise within the next three years. Interest rates are the lowest since 1965 and tempting mortgage packages abound. After years of stagnation, the property market seems to be on the move again.

But even in these happier times, things can go wrong. To see how vendors are bearing up under the strain of moving house, the Independent on Sunday went to south London. We found a chain which began in Battersea, one of the "hot markets" in the Capital. It then looped west through Hammersmith and Chiswick before heading off to Surrey where it got stuck. There are 10 people in this chain. All are keen to move, but none of them is going anywhere.

The first link in the chain is a first-time buyer. He wants to buy a garden flat in south London and thinks he's found the perfect place: a des res currently owned by Piers Inkin.


Selling for pounds 92,000

Buying for pounds 85,000

"This chain is the most godawful nightmare," says Piers, a 30-year-old stockbroker, taking another drag of his cigarette inside his garden flat in Clapham.

Piers bought the property for pounds 80,000 last year after leaving the Army but has tired of it quickly. "I bought this place from a girl who got married and moved out to the country. Money wasn't too much of an object for her, so she wasn't going to quibble over pounds 10,000."

Part bachelor pad, part officers' mess, polo sticks are propped against the wall and framed photographs of his Old Etonian cricket team line the shelves.

"I don't like this street and there's not much of an atmosphere round here," he admits. "But the flat has got a large double bedroom with a dressing room for all my kit. This room, though, is more of a sitting room than a living room."

Piers put the flat on the market in January, finding a buyer within a week. A few days later, he had his own offer accepted on a flat in Battersea. But three months have passed and instead of enjoying his pounds 12,000 profit, he's found himself in a situation that even his Army training couldn't prepare him for.

"I had planned my sale with military precision but, of course, the best- laid plans go to rack and ruin," he says. "There's nothing I can do about that."

His decision to move was based on a desire to settle down. "Battersea is an area that I know because my mother has a house there. It's a nice, quiet place to live and it's still coming up. Lots of restaurants, lots of young married people who look after their houses.

"And let's face it, I'm 30 years old. To think I was going to be a bachelor for the rest of my days would be pretty depressing. The chances are I'll be married within five years so I'm buying somewhere which, with a bit of effort, I can make into a family home. It's the most expensive investment one's ever going to make apart from sending the children to school."


Selling for pounds 85,000

Buying for pounds 140,000

Mary Phillips (not her real name) is a company director. She is selling her large, one-bedroom flat to Piers for pounds 85,000 and is buying Claire and Lucy Henry's flat for pounds 140,000 (see below). She declined to be interviewed, explaining that "This whole moving business is stressful enough as it is. I can't bear to talk about it!"


Selling for pounds 140,000

Buying for pounds 112,000

When Claire and Lucy Henry were looking to sell their two-bedroom flat near Lavender Hill, they had one important criterion for their new home. "Because we're sisters, we wanted a place we could easily sell on," says Claire. "We don't want to be living together for years and end up like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis."

The Henrys were first-time buyers when they purchased the top floor flat two years ago for pounds 115,000. In November, they put it on the market for pounds 145,0000. The sisters had six offers and chose Mary, the highest bidder. Despite its fairly drab surroundings, their area is in huge demand. Estate agents' offices line Lavender Hill, often three in a row, jostling for custom. "It's easy to get trains to Waterloo and Victoria and it's nice and quiet," remarks Lucy.

So nice and quiet that the siblings have decided to stay south of the river, buying another, smaller, two-bedroom flat barely a mile up the road. "When we accepted the offer we blitzed it and saw about 20 flats in one day," says Lucy, 26, who works at MTV. "We tried to overlook decor while we were viewing. It helped if the vendor wasn't a Fred West type."

The sisters are downgrading, swapping their roomy, chic apartment, for a slightly dingier, less convenient street near some dodgy pubs. The departure of Claire's boyfriend - along with his rent contribution and the chance to make some money are the motives behind the move.

"We'll be very sad to leave but we wanted to free up some of our capital," says Claire, a 29-year-old financial consultant. "When myboyfriend left, it put pressure on us financially. We looked at the market and realised we could make some money, so it seemed like a sensible decision. The flat has gone up in value so we decided to treat it as an investment and use the cash we can get out of it.

"The new flat isn't as spacious but it's got character, though we're going to have to do the kitchen up. We just wanted somewhere that was an OK price and had two equal bedrooms so we wouldn't fight."


Selling for pounds 112,000

Buying for pounds 180,000

"Seeing that I'm 32, I thought it was about time that I had my own house," reasons Alastair Baxter, relaxing in the kitchen which figures so large in the Henrys' plans. "I've lived here for seven years and it's about time I moved, I've been too lazy to to do it before."

Alastair put the property on the market four weeks ago for pounds 115,000 and received three offers before the details had even been written. He eventually decided to sell to the Henrys for pounds 112,000. Like them, he comes from Scotland and mixes in the same social circle of professional, well-to-do young Scots. "It's all very close-knit. My girlfriend went to the same school as the Henrys and my flatmate knew them as well."

It will be his flatmate, Emily Jane, rather than his girlfriend who will be sharing the new house . "I'm not thinking of settling down, I just want a bigger place. I've got a girlfriend but it's not a cohabiting situation - though she does visit."

Like the others in the chain, Alastair will make a profit on the sale. He bought the flat for pounds 72,000 and has spent around pounds 13,000 on it, knocking through the kitchen and putting in a roof extension.

The house of his choice costs pounds 180,000 and is also located off Lavender Hill, near to the offices of his mail-order shoe company. "It's just a bog standard Battersea house. But it's the right size and it's the right money. Everything I need is there."

The prospect that the sale may fall through doesn't dishearten him. "I'm not worried about losing my survey money. It's just part and parcel of buying and selling. In fact I think the chain is disintegrating. The woman who has been organising everything, holding it all together, left a message for me today. She's no longer in our chain, she's now in another chain ..."


The house Alastair has his eye on is owned by a single mother, who has had her offer of pounds 180,000 accepted on a period house in Chiswick, west London, which is owned by a single man, who was supposed to be moving to a semi-detached house in Esher (cost: pounds 220,000). Unfortunately for Piers, Mary, Claire, Lucy, Alastair and the rest, the family who live in the Esher house have decided not to sell, and so the chain has broken down.