Locked in a stalemate

The second part of Rosalind Russell's guide to house buying
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The Independent Online
It seems dismissive, even in the most charitable light. Brutal, even. Estate agents will not now waste time with would-be buyers who still have a property to sell. The national shortage of houses for sale from pounds 120,000 upwards has created a back-draught of buyers, all eager to part with their money and in a position to move swiftly.

"It sounds awful," admits Atty Beor-Roberts, of Knight Frank in Cirencester, "but if an offer on a house is subject to the people selling their own home, it's not considered an offer." In Edinburgh, KF recently sold a detached house without advertising it. They received four offers at the closing date, all above the asking price. The top offer was 30 per cent higher.

According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the autumn market may be the strongest in eight years. The biggest increases are seen in country homes, two- and three-bedroom houses pre-1960, bungalows and modern houses.

"It is imperative potential buyers present themselves in the best possible light," insists Michael Parry-Jones, of Brown's in Guildford. "This means having funds in place and giving the impression you are able to make a quick decision."

Mr Parry-Jones recently took instructions on the Old Rectory, in Albury.

"On day one we made five telephone calls to buyers we knew could move quickly," he says. "As a result, there were four viewings in 48 hours, three offers received and a sale agreed immediately. The better homes are being sold at lightning speed. He who hesitates is lost."

More than 75 per cent of estate agents responding to their National Association survey say that demand is outstripping supply. Says Janet Wilson, of Tunbridge Wells agent Ashleys: "We are desperate for property instructions. Last month, our mailing list enquiries outnumbered new property instructions by 60 to 1."

"As people move into the area with their jobs, they either don't have enough time to go house hunting, or they can't find what they want," says Atty Beor-Roberts. KF has just taken over a lettings agency in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, in response to demand. "People are more cautious about buying since the recession when they got caught, unable to move because houses weren't selling. Renting puts you in a very strong position; you can move much more quickly."

It is also a way of making sure you like the area. "You might think you know where you want to live, but it's possible to make a very expensive mistake," says Ms Beor-Roberts. "In the country there are quite odd sorts of divides. A road or a railway line can mark a boundary and you may find you have bought on the `wrong' side. You may want to share a school run, so you have to live near the families who travel to that school."

Linda and David Johnston and their four children spent a year - and a lot of money - flying over from Munich to go house hunting. David, who worked for a British firm in Germany, wanted to return to the UK to start his own business.

"It was a very unhappy situation," says Linda. "We couldn't build a good relationship with the estate agents. We'd fly across and dash around 14 houses in a weekend and not see anything we liked. With four children, from 11 to three, we need quite a big house."

The Johnstons wanted to live in Wiltshire, not too far from Bath. In April, they finally decided that it would be best to rent first. Through Cluttons, they found an eight-bedroom Georgian country house with a large garden, in Trowbridge. It had been on the market for sale or rent.

The owner said that the Johnstons could rent it for six months before making a more permanent decision.

"Now we are really glad we decided to rent. We didn't know anything about the local schools. We could have been landed with a secondary school with a bad reputation. And I had seen one house I loved in a village called Holt. It could have been a disaster, as we later learned that Holt is not where we would want to live. Now we think we may still rent for a while. This is the most beautiful house in Trowbridge, but we are still deep in thought about where to buy."

The trick to buying may be to avoid the places best served by a good rail link, or within easy reach (but not sound) of motorway connections and airports. A few miles further away could mean a substantial drop in price.

"The distance of a property to a good local station can now make the difference of up to 30 per cent to the price, depending on the region," says Paddy Stewart-Morgan, of Cluttons in Bath. "But anything over an hour and a half, door to door, is considered too long for daily commuting. The top priority for commuters is to be no more than 20 minutes from the station." He adds: "Buyer priorities here are, in order of importance, location, style, price and size."

Commuter belt prices always hold their value, even when times are tough. Best value for money, say agents, include areas such as north-east Oxford, south of the M4 in Wiltshire, Royston and Baldock in Hertfordshire, west Worcestershire and Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire.

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