Sellers who want to shift their properties in time for Christmas should brace themselves for a challenge. According to September's Hometrack house price survey, the average time a property remains on the market before an offer is received stands at 9.3 weeks. This takes us beyond Boxing Day and is a far cry from the 5.3 weeks recorded in the boom days of September 2003.
The latest housing report from the National Association of Estate Agents revealed that the average number of buyers registering on estate agents' books continued to fall in September to 247 (from 250 in August), while sales agreed remained at a stagnant low of seven per branch.
According to Colin Shairp, the chairman of the association's Solent region, "the September housing market simply never kick-started after the summer holidays". And the next few months are not looking much better.
For sellers, being realistic about price is more crucial than ever. "Right now, it's a case of time vs price," says Melfyn Williams, the association's past president. "Some sellers are prepared to stick to the initial asking price because they have time to sit it out, but others will have to make their homes appear to be bargains. This means dropping the price to about 10 per cent under the average value of other properties on the street, or even 20 per cent for a really quick sale."
But sellers seemingly have some way to go in swallowing this fact. While Halifax reported a significant 3.6 per cent slide in average property values during September, the Rightmove house price index for October showed that asking prices actually increased by 3.1 per cent. "What sellers and their agents will eventually come to appreciate is that buyers are now in the driving seat," says housing commentator and former estate agent Henry Pryor. "The internet has made the marketplace more transparent and buyers can see for themselves what is really happening."
Once you have taken the necessary hit on price, you'll need to take your share of responsibility for how your property is marketed. As 90 per cent of properties are listed on Rightmove.co.uk, go a step further and push your agent for a "premium listing" on the site. This will give your property a visual edge and extra photos. It will cost you or your agent an extra £125 but, according to Rightmove's data, will generate 21 per cent more enquiries.
Rightmove recently launched a "featured property" facility which places your home in its own box at the top of the page after search criteria have been entered. Prices for this will vary. "The fact is, there are plenty of homes on the market but they are not selling," says Rightmove's spokesman, Tom McGuigan. "You will need to take every opportunity to make your property stand out online where the vast majority of buyers start their search."
Buyers are more discerning than ever, so present your home accordingly, says Tracy Kellett, the managing director of BDI Home Finders. "I would suggest that sellers do their own 'mini-survey'. Have the roof checked by a professional; have central heating systems serviced and ensure drains do not cause an issue with the survey. Paint over any old leak stains – they worry buyers even if they're historic. Refresh exterior paintwork; ensure gardens are tidy and de-clutter to make the property more spacious."
Even once a sale has been agreed, the conveyancing process – the legal work in transferring the property between buyer and seller – typically takes between six and eight weeks, according to Claire Parker, a partner at Wilkin Chapman Grange solicitors. "Things only really start moving when the seller's solicitor has passed the 'contract package' – which includes copies of title deeds and fixtures and fittings forms – on to the buyer's solicitor," she says. "This should only take a couple of days so sellers in a hurry should call and check it's gone."
Keep abreast of the process by calling your solicitor regularly, says Ms Parker. "Delays often occur with leasehold properties as managing agents can take so long to come back with a copy of the lease. One client drove round to pick it and delivered it to our office. Being aware of what's going on isn't hassling – it means you have the information to unclog hold-ups."
Wider measures are also under way to improve Britain's notoriously slow conveyancing process. In January 2011, the Law Society is launching a Conveyancing Quality Scheme (CQS), a kitemark that will be awarded to solicitor firms that demonstrate "high standards" of service. The scheme will include a transaction protocol which it claims will speed up conveyancing for all parties. Until then, it's a case of every man for himself.
Linzi Chapman, Creative marketing manager
Linzi Chapman, 34, and her partner, Dave Hole, 35, suffered at the hands of the property market as they tried to move from a flat to a house. In May, Ms Chapman put her two-bed flat in Wandsworth, London, on the market for £485,000 and reduced the asking price in June by £10,000. "After lots of viewings, we finally found a buyer in July who offered £470,000," she said. "But he pulled out at the last minute after making unreasonable demands that he wanted all the furniture thrown in too."
They are hoping to find another buyer before Christmas and, if necessary, would lower the asking price to £465,000. "This time I would push for a very quick exchange as I have been stung once already," she said. "If we still have no luck, we'll try again when the market looks healthier."