Property: A change of heart

The Parsons were looking for a semi, but ended up with a boat. By Rosalind Russell
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Jennifer and Donald Parsons provide are a classic case - house hunters who give a detailed brief to an estate agent and end up buying something different. Preparing for retirement, the couple had decided to sell their Kent home and look for a smaller house, perhaps near water and with a decent piece of land around it. A couple of years passed, but nothing came up.

"Then one day we had a trip to Henley and got talking to some people who lived on narrow boats," says Jennifer. "It changed our lives."

The Parsons booked a holiday on a narrow boat and read every available piece of information about them. Then they rang Calcutt Maclean to say their search was over... and commissioned a Devizes boatyard to build them a 50ft narrow boat.

"It'll be ready in March and we're setting off to travel around some of Britain's 2,000 miles of canals. It's a great way to see the countryside without the pressure of traffic on the roads."

They won't miss the comforts of their old four-bedroom semi in Petts Wood. The new boat will have a fitted kitchen, a bathroom and a sitting room with a woodburning stove. A name has yet to be decided upon. Donald wanted to call it Miss Piggy but Jennifer favours Andante, the musical term meaning walking pace, which is the speed the boat moves at. They may compromise on Porcillus - Latin for female piglet.

"There is a great community spirit among those who live on narrow boats; people stop and talk. I don't suppose it will be all roses and may take a while to settle down. You can pay up to pounds 80,000 for a narrow boat, but ours is more basic. You can have washing machines and tumble driers but I think that rather defeats the object."

Estate agents, if they are honest, are not immune to a change of heart. "I've lost count of the number of applicants who have stipulated a period cottage in the country, but who have eventually bought a newly built townhouse," says one weary agent. "When people realise they may have to compromise, often it forces a complete rethink. Or the practicalities kick in."

In James Boucher's case, the practicalities kicked out. Having sold their flat in London very quickly, he and wife Gail felt they would be in a strong position as cash buyers for a substantial period house in Kent. Agents Calcutt Maclean were enlisted to find the dream home and the Bouchers moved into a rented cottage for what they thought would be a brief stay. Two years later they were still there.

"We were looking for a four- or five-bedroom period house, possibly listed and with a lot of character and with up to three acres of land," says James. "There was just nothing for sale. One house we were keen on fell through. One of the houses we went for was on at pounds 235,000 and went to best and final offers at pounds 275,000. In the end, my wife was annoyed and I was frustrated. So I gave up and thought to hell with it, I'll buy a classic car instead."

An Aston Martin DB4 ate up a hearty slice of the money earmarked for the house and the estate agents instructed to downspec the price range. James claims his wife was so relieved he was happy again, she didn't demur about the cost of the car. Ho hum.

"To be honest I get a lot more enjoyment out of the car than a house. But we've just exchanged contracts on a house for less than pounds 300,000 - my maximum before buying the car had been pounds 400,000.

The Bouchers have bought a yeoman's hall house with a 1950s extension ... but no garage.

According to Knight Frank, 16 per cent of house sales which fall through do so not just because of a dodgy survey, but because of a change of heart. One family buying a terraced house in Barnet rang the agent on the day of exchange, to say they would not be signing after all. They had been back to the house that morning and measured the width of the hall. They would not, said the head of the household, be able to wheel his son's motorbike through to the back garden. The deal was off.

Anthony Cane, of Strutt & Parker, always maintained that if you work in London, it is sensible to live as near as possible. He would never, ever, buy a house in the country and become a commuter. The Cane family now owns a newly renovated farmhouse in 30 acres of Devon countryside. The house in London was sold and a flat bought for weekday use. I am London born and bred. When I was 12 my brother and I used to go and watch Chelsea play. If you told me two years ago I would have a house 200 miles from London, living 600ft up with views over Dartmoor, I would have said `never in your wildest dreams'."

Before Sue and Anthony Cane bought the property, it was almost derelict. "At least I can't be proved wrong this time," says Anthony. "When buying our last two London houses, I said `oh there's no point in paying for a survey, they are perfectly all right'. They both turned out to have dry rot. This time the place was in such a state, it had to have everything."

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