There are house sellers who have no intention of exchanging contracts.
THERE ARE buyers at this very moment who are about to learn that the property they have fallen in love with, had surveyed and offered the full price on, is no longer for sale.

They probably had no inkling that the delightful couple who showed them round never had any intention of selling. For sellers, the game can be cost free and repeated at any time because few estate agents will risk turning them down.

So it is that fantasy buyers who get a thrill from stringing vendors along also have their mirror image.

Jonathan Crellin, of Lane Fox estate agents, knows this all too well. For three years, he had been on the verge of taking instructions for a lovely country house in Buckinghamshire. Eventually, particulars were taken, followed by another year's silence. Finally, 18 months after that, the brochure was printed and the green light given.

Some 50 people were shown around and the interest had pushed the price up by 10 per cent. A bidding war was looming. Until, that is, Crellin's wife returned from a local function with bad news. "A woman had been talking about all the people interested in her house and who the agent was," he recalls.

"Then apparently she laughed and said, `But of course we are not really going to move, we are just testing the market'. There had been a few signs - feeble excuses for not being there or making up their minds about something. In the end, I let them off the hook. One day they might sell and you have to travel in hope."

It's an occupational hazard for agents to be used as a free valuation service, but the contact usually ends there. While the serial fantasy sellers may find themselves on a blacklist, they are rarely shown the door.

The elderly and the lonely find the excitement of selling worth all the inconvenience - they positively welcome people tramping around their home. Peter Young, of John D Wood's Kensington office, is used to excited telephone calls. "It becomes a total entertainment. They want to discuss in detail how we are getting on. Then suddenly when an offer is made they panic because they don't know where they are going to go. It took us six years to sell one elderly client's house."

For all but the most dedicated practitioners of subterfuge, mention of marketing costs focuses the mind and many estate agencies insist on a refund of marketing costs should a seller pull out.

Foreigners, it seems, can be the worst offenders. Peter Young is currently dealing with an American who has suddenly gone cold on the idea of selling. "For the past six months, I have put a huge amount of work into getting the price he wanted and now he is oohing aahing. I am considering invoking the penalty clause if he doesn't go ahead."

He is not alone in pointing the finger abroad. William Gething of Property Vision, the buying agency at the top of the market, finds the higher the price the more likely you are to get bogus sellers. "London is full of these people and foreigners who do not live here full time are the worst culprits. They go to a dinner party and hear wild stories about prices and call the agent the next day saying, `if you can get x for my house I'm a seller'. He usually wants a great deal more than the house is worth and if it's 30 to 40 per cent more, he's on an ego trip and wasting everyone's time."

So can nervous buyers do their own detective work? Dithering divorcees are certainly worth being wary about. The possible sale of their property becomes a catalyst for their faltering marriage and just before offers are accepted they will kiss and make up and the house is snatched from under the buyers' noses, according to Brian D'Arcy Clark, of Chesterfield. "There have even been a couple of famous cases where the bogus seller has sold quickly and well, but didn't own the property in the first place," he adds.

Alan Gottschalk of Black Horse Agencies, which has a no-sell, no- fee policy, says you should be inquisitive without interrogating the seller. "Motivation for moving and time scale are crucial. If they avoid answering, the alarm bells should start ringing."

Of course, there are many good reasons why sellers withdraw but it doesn't make the buyer feel better or the seller with a conscience, less guilty. Alison Dean still feels mortified about letting down her buyer. Putting her Fulham house on the market at the same time as she started looking turned out to be her downfall. "There was nothing we wanted to buy. When we dropped out, our purchaser increased his offer substantially. We felt dreadful and offered to pay the purchaser's legal fees of pounds 350."

Her buyer would have had no indication that this would happen: "We had even got together a seller's package to speed things along. We should have looked around first, but at the time you were not considered a serious purchaser unless your own house was on the market."