Down to a photo finish

Penny Jackson picks between the pixels of the property brochures
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The Independent Online
The house looked perfect. It was on a wooded hillside, with gardens that led down to the river. There was even a boathouse on the water's edge. It was an idyllic spot that required an immediate visit. For Margie Coldrey, who could see no obvious hitches from the estate agent's details, the property seemed to represent everything she and her husband had been looking for in the West country.

They made the journey, with mounting anticipation, to the spot on the River Dart. The house was as good as it looked in the brochure but to their enormous disappointment the land they had assumed was the garden, far from descending in a riot to the river, was not even part of the property.

"All there was in front of the house was a gravel driveway with a parking space. The garden turned out to be at the back," says Mrs Coldrey, taking up the story. "The picture had been taken from the other side of the river: because of the slope and the trees you could not see the driveway or the road that ran alongside the house. It looked as though that land ran down to the water. We didn't even bother to go and look at the house."

She felt irritated with herself. As public relations consultant to John D Wood, she is familiar with brochures. "In our enthusiasm at seeing such a lovely property, we failed to read the map properly. If we had studied it and checked the measurements it would have clear that the garden couldn't have gone down to the water. We knew some other people who made a special trip down from London to see the same house. They were so sure of what the picture showed that they also failed to seek clarification from the agents."

This sort of scenario comes as no surprise to Charlie Ellingworth of Property Vision, a buying agency he started "because agents' details tell only a tenth of the story. One of the first houses I went to see was a very pretty Georgian house with a background of trees. When I got there I found the M40 flyover went within 20 yards of the top window. Buckets of times I find something bang next door to a house which is not shown in the photograph. Brochures are powerful tools that by definition make everything look like paradise. That's their job. The hope is that people turn up and like a house despite its drawbacks".

There is, however, a great deal of difference between having a garden overlooked by neighbours, and finding that the country cottage you have driven 50 miles to see is plonked next to a pig farm or is on a road with lorries thundering past every few minutes. Unless you employ someone like Mr Ellingworth, most of us rely on the selling agent.

It is reassuring that the leading agencies do inform buyers of obvious blight. Edward Sugden of John D Wood's Oxford office believes not disclosing a planning application or informing a potential buyer that a house is on a major road junction wastes everyone's time and causes bad feeling.

In London, noise factor is crucial. Jonathan Hewlett of Savills finds the Underground can be a sore point. "Technically we don't have to mention it in our details, but we do where it affects the house - although this upsets the vendor sometimes."

Vendors are also the only people who are sometimes disappointed by the constraints of the Property Misdescription Act 1991. While it outlawed such practices as using a view from a penthouse to sell a first-floor flat or airbrushing out an unsightly building, it also saw off extravagant and vague descriptions. Instead of adjectives, we now have facts, floor plans and maps and, above all, photographs. Those selling are mostly persuaded of a brochure's pulling power and will spend anything from pounds 200 to several thousand pounds for a professional job. Where appropriate, an extra pounds 500 on aerial shots can show at a glance that a house really is secluded and close to the water and more than repays the expenditure.

Vicki Naish, who is involved in brochure design for Savills, says that in choosing the best photographs she has to be sure that they are not misleading. "But like any advertising, we want to show the property in the best possible light. It's often a matter of emphasis - a garden may be more spectacular than the house, or an interior shot may be a better selling point than the outside."

Buyers, then, should learn to read into the absence of certain pictures. It is perfectly natural for owners to want only the best features of a property to be shown.

Not that they are always the best judges. Edward Hill, an architectural photographer, is surprised at how many people have no idea which direction their houses face. "I might photograph a house in the morning because it faces east yet the owner insists that the sun hits it in the afternoon. You have to be very diplomatic sometimes"

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