The buyer of a dilapidated property may want early access to get a head start on vital repairs. The seller, confident in the buyer's integrity and his contractual safeguards, may be amenable. To the seller's solicitor, though, any risk at all should be avoided. Granting early access, Robert Liebman has learned,

is inherently risky.

Some buyers request, even demand, access to begin refurbishing a property after they have exchanged contracts but before completion. Long-neglected and even derelict properties, especially those which are repossessions or in the hands of executors, are likely candidates.

Once contracts have been exchanged, many sellers are willing to comply with such requests, bolstered by the deposit in their pockets, the contract in their solicitor's safe, and the buyer's insurance policies. A solicitor worth his shekels, however, will insist that it ain't over until the fat lady sings.

"Normally, if a buyer wants early access, I would encourage them to complete sooner," says Edward Bliss, residential property solicitor with the central London firm Maples Teesdale. Early access should be denied whenever possible.

It is not always possible. Plumbing, a common culprit, might need fixing or might not even exist. "A property with no bathroom at all would be unsuitable for human habitation, and we might insist on at least some work before completion," a Halifax spokesperson says. An insistent buyer might make early access a condition of the sale, and an executor of an unmodernised property might desperately want to clinch a deal. Lenders and solicitors alike agree that, if early access is granted, the property should be vacant and contracts already exchanged. "The seller has full legal rights to have the property back," Mr Bliss says. "Nevertheless, the danger is if the buyers refuse to move out or return the keys, it might be necessary to enforce the seller's legal rights by taking the matter to court. This is time-consuming and costly, and always contains an element of risk for the seller."

In granting early access, Mr Bliss insists on "various minimum requirements. The buyer undertakes to enter only as a licensee, and to acknowledge that they won't take actual occupation until completion. They must also return the keys daily to the estate agent".

The estate agent may be entitled to additional compensation for the extra work involved in handling the keys and monitoring compliance with the early-access conditions. Mr Bliss says: "The purchaser also has to be responsible for utilities such as gas and electricity and where possible take over the insurance."

Such safeguards mean that early-access arrangements tend to end happily - ultimately. "On several occasions the buyer failed to complete on the actual completion date specified in the contract," Mr Bliss says. "Typically it turns out to be technical delays, but my client and his solicitor both get jittery. Even with so-called fast-track court proceedings, it can still take quite some time."

Jitters are justified. One estate agent knows of "several instances in which buyers have pulled houses to bits and then, for various reasons, been unable to complete". Joanna Haydon-Knowell, who owns J H-K Estate Agents in Muswell Hill, north London. says: "Sometimes my gut reaction is to distrust a buyer. I advise against early access."

One buyer benefiting from early access was Ms Haydon-Knowell herself, transforming a house that, requiring new bathroom, new kitchen, and new everything, also needed a new front foundation because of subsidence.

Her vendor did himself no favours. "He insisted on a reinstatement clause but took no photographs to display the original state. His contract was nebulous."

Sellers sometimes foolishly cut corners, she warns. "It happens when a solicitor charges an additional pounds 100 or pounds 200 to compose the access clauses. To avoid the unexpected expense, some sellers naively rely on a verbal instead of a written agreement."

The saving is false and dangerous - and unnecessary. The extra cost could and should be absorbed by the buyer. And the emotional reassurance is worth the price in any event, advises Ms Haydon-Knowell, who was 1995 Estate Agent of the Year.

An informal version of early access occurs frequently. "We do it all the time," says a London estate agent, referring to the forbidden but widespread practice of casually lending keys to buyers whom they have come to know and trust. It should never be considered acceptable, even if the buyer only wants to measure up.

There are stories of buyers looking in wardrobes, rifling through papers, cleaning their teeth with the occupier's toothbrush and even using the bed for conjugal activities.

Some vendors, having agreed to minor redecoration and refurbishment, return home to find paint stains on their clothing or new windows in every room. For some buyers, measuring up includes the actual laying of carpets or hanging of curtains. And if measuring up can be defined so broadly, it can easily include sanding floorboards, fiddling with central heating, or drilling holes in walls. Gouged floors, a flood or a fire can be the consequence. Even if the physical damage is entirely covered by insurance, the legal, administrative and emotional problems may be considerable.

Ms Haydon-Knowell recently handled a sale to a developer who, buying to let, persuaded the seller to release the keys for an unaccompanied visit for one day only. The buyer duly returned the key that same day but not after making a duplicate, and surreptitiously refurbishing the entire property throughout the rest of the week.

What if he went bankrupt and failed to complete both the purchase and the renovations? The value of a single-family house that had been turned into not-quite-finished flats might easily plummet. The deposit could prove to be far less than the cost of repairing the damage.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Mr Bliss "insists on at least the full 10 per cent deposit on exchange, and we try for 15 per cent if it seems feasible".

Sellers should also actively monitor their property, seeing who is doing what, and when they are doing it.

Maples Teesdale, 21 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3DU, 0171 831 6501; J H-K, 338 Muswell Hill Broadway, London10, 0181 883 5485.

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