Money Grouse: Left holding the house and the bill

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AUDREY HARMAN sold her house in Winchester last year, but not before an offer that she had accepted was withdrawn.

'Neither my solicitor nor the agent could give me a reason,' she says. 'As a result of this offer I was charged pounds 50, plus of course the dreaded VAT, by my solicitor for the abortive work done.'

Mrs Harman does not see why she should have been pounds 50 out of pocket because of someone else's perhaps frivolous action. She asked the putative buyer to reimburse her, but predictably got no reply. 'I was particularly aggravated as the 'non-purchaser' sold the local searches to the eventual buyer, using my solicitor in the process]'

Clearly one householder could be subject to a series of withdrawn offers and end up considerably out of pocket.

'As the solicitors do not suffer in such cases, indeed they profit by them, it would have to be a consumer-led group who would come up with a solution to this problem - the Consumers' Association perhaps?' Mrs Harman asks.

She points out that when she last moved house eight years ago it was customary for a sum of around pounds 100 to be held by the agents as a token of faith from the would-be buyer.

The president of the National Association of Estate Agents, David Goldsworthy, said the old system of buyers paying a deposit would not have helped Mrs Harman. The deposit was always fully refundable - except in a minority of cases where a portion was forfeited and kept by the estate agent.

The deposit habit is now rare, as estate agents have to pay interest on deposits, and most do not think it is worth the bother any more.

The NAEA has devised a conditional contract, which can only fall through because of a very bad survey, or because the buyer cannot raise a mortgage. It is only suitable for single sales, not a chain, where one failure to complete can have a knock-on effect. 'The contract makes the process more firm,' Mr Goldsworthy says.

Beauchamp Estates advises sellers to get their solicitor to draw up a lock-out agreement to give potential buyers a set period to exchange contracts or withdraw. Sellers can then move on to the next potential buyer. This gives the seller a clear idea of the state of play.

But Mr Goldsworthy says lock-out agreements can be one-sided - for the benefit of the buyer who gets a free run at the property.

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