A new pilot scheme for Bristol house-sellers could spell the end for cowboy vendors
Estate agents' pride in their profession can't be the Government's motivation for tackling house buying and selling reforms but at least one agent hopes that it will be an inevitable consequence: "When I walk into a pub and say I'm an estate agent I want to be able to hold my head up high," says Maria Coleman.

Ms Coleman believes that Government plans to test proposals with a pilot scheme for Bristol homeowners is the first step toward banishing cowboys from her industry. Adverts in last week's local papers offered 250 volunteers the chance to sell their homes with the benefit of a Government- funded information pack.

Housing minister Nick Raynsford is determined to make home buying and selling easier, quicker and less stressful: "Home buyers and sellers in Bristol have a unique opportunity to be the first to benefit. The results of the pilot scheme will help ensure that our proposals for seller's information packs for all home sales are introduced in a way which maximises benefits for all buyers and sellers."

When applicants have been chosen, their properties will go on to the market in a fortnight with a standard information pack for buyers.This should speed-up the process, and reduce uncertainty and disappointment.

The pack will contain copies of documents which sellers currently provide much later in the transaction; title documents, copies of any planing regulations, replies to preliminary enquiries, guarantees for work carried out and a draft contract. More significantly, the pack will also contain replies to local authority searches and a home condition report based on a professional survey of the property.

Environment officials hope that the pilot scheme will show a reduced time period between offers and exchanges and reduce the threat of gazumping. The scheme will test "user friendliness" of the information packs and assess cooperation between the many parties involved in a sale. Theoretically, this should ease a process commonly held to equal divorce in the stress stakes.

Maria Coleman contributed to the consultation process and approves of the pilot scheme but doesn't find the idea of a seller's pack novel: "We've been doing the same thing for three years since visiting the US and seeing that they were offering so much more." US sales take one week compared to England's eight.

Initially, Ms Coleman had difficulty persuading clients of the benefits of sellers' packs and her experience confirms the value of a pilot scheme before proposals become law: "In our first year we had teething problems and couldn't persuade vendors to pay pounds 500 for the survey. Other agents were knocking us and it's fair to say that we considered giving up."

Three years on, reaction from vendors and sellers is testimony to the practice: "Our clients love it and if a survey shows up a problem it's better to know from the start as it won't go away." Statistics bear this out: Nationally, for a variety of reasons, one in three sales falls through. Ms Coleman's agency's fall out rate was 29 per cent but since introducing sellers' packs has fallen to 7 per cent.

Financial advisor Philip Clark has bought several investment properties using this system: "It's very helpful and allows you to make a decision from the outset." Does he miss the opportunity to cut his offer when a survey reveals problems? "I haven't time to play silly games," says Mr Clark who completed on one of his properties within three weeks of viewing.

Buyers are happy but are vendors happy to reveal their property's faults? Simon Emery recently moved in with his fiancee and is about to complete on his two-bedroom, Victorian terrace which he is selling for pounds 56,000. The process has taken weeks rather than months producing "no sleepless nights". "You need an MOT to sell a car, I think it should be the same with houses. When you've got one that's over a hundred years old it's not worth trying to hide anything and it takes away worries about haggling."

Mr Emery's survey was paid for by his agency which recovers costs from vendors on completion. Ms Coleman believes that using sellers' packs alters the experience for everyone involved including sellers, buyers and not least agents. "We have to be confident of our initial valuation and get it absolutely right. This method takes away the bargaining from the buyer as we take into account any work that needs doing so vendors know that once they accept an offer they won't have to reduce their price."

But some agents are concerned with the extra financial burden on vendors. Some parts of Bristol are seeing price rises on a par with London. But in Ms Coleman's area, an industrial region where an average property costs around pounds 75,000, there are concerns that additional costs are unrealistic: "Some vendors won't have an extra pounds 600-pounds 800 to spend on a survey."

The pilot scheme will cover a range of properties from the cheapest towncentre flats for sale at pounds 30,000 to houses in "hot spots" like Clifton which cost around pounds 300,000. Critics argue that reforms will work only in affluent areas but Ms Coleman disagrees: "It's in the poorer areas where you need this scheme most as these vendors and buyers can't afford pounds 500 on abortive fees for failed purchases.

First-time buyer Sandy Evitts agrees. Last month she completed on a small Victorian terraced house after rejecting two other properties when she saw their surveys for which she incurred no cost: "It was good to find out that they weren't for me right from the beginning. I've heard friends' horror stories but for me it was so straightforward and I couldn't have afforded two sets of wasted fees."

There are other concerns about lenders. Will they accept vendors' surveys or insist that buyers commission additional reports using surveyors from their own panels? For the duration of the pilot scheme Cheltenham and Gloucester and Bristol and West PLC have agreed to accept vendors' surveys for the purpose of mortgage valuations however the six participating surveyors are already on their panel.

Will it be a different story if sellers' packs become legally binding? Cheltenham and Gloucester spokesperson Emmy Smith, believes Government pressure will persuade reluctant lenders: "They will be pushing to make it law so that lenders have to accept these surveys. However, Ms Smith doesn't think it is lenders who delay the purchasing process and points the finger elsewhere: "It's the searches, the solicitors and guarantees which really slows things up. I don't think the survey will make much difference alone but having a whole pack will make a difference."

Some lenders are less enthusiastic. Harold Cleminson, Managing Director of Woolwich Surveying Services, questions the value of a pilot scheme he calls "artificial": "I'm sure it will be successful as the Government is paying for the surveys. When you ask the public to pay I think it will be a different story." Mr Cleminson doubts that the "accredited individuals" who the government suggests carry out condition statements have the necessary expertise for valuations.

But if buyers apply for mortgages on properties in the pilot scheme will the Woolwich accept sellers' surveys? "We haven't yet decided and will look at each case to see if the surveyor responsible is on our panel,"says Mr Cleminson with an attitude that might push buyers into the welcoming arms of the Cheltenham and Gloucester.

All will be revealed when researchers report back in the summer and if findings are agreeable the sellers' pack could be with us in the Queen's speech next November. In the meantime, if you live in Bristol and want to sell your property and have the Government pick up the bill, you have until January to apply.

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