Faced with the reality of selling privately, most people find the prospect pretty daunting - though there are more than a few who do go it alone. Tempted by a market such as the present one, where prices are fuelled by a shortage of good properties, owners who believe they have a saleable home feel they have nothing to lose. Obviously, agents would point out that vendors have a great deal to lose. They explain that skill is needed in today's market; that they earn their 2 per cent or so because a private seller cannot really know the ins and outs of an area. He doesn't have an idea of how many people might be interested and so is unlikely to be able to squeeze that bit extra out of the buyers. Not only that, they say, it's the agent who takes the flak when things go wrong.
So how easy is it for the private vendor? At random, we selected a variety of houses being advertised privately and asked the owners how well the sales were going.
Neil Marshall has a pretty Edwardian terrace house in Barnes, west London. Jobwise, he has time on his hands and - a common factor among those we spoke to - no urgent need to sell. Within a week of advertising, 11 couples have viewed the house. "I thought I would just test the water and I am amazed at the amount of interest so far. We did put it on a bit high to begin with - not that people batted an eyelid - but have come down now from pounds 310,000 to pounds 300,000. Most of those looking know the area and know what to expect. We've done a lot to the house, such as putting in a wooden floor in the kitchen and an Aga, and opening up the fireplaces, so we'd like get something back for that.
"I'm really enjoying selling it myself and I suppose that's because I know I can. If the house had a problem - such as being on a main road - I would have put it with an agent, but why pay a fee for no reason? I haven't had a firm offer yet, though a lot of people have tested me. I think they are quite shocked by how straightforward I have been. Agents tend to keep pushing the price up, whereas I'm happy with the price we're asking. As soon as I accept an offer that will be that. It might be nice to get a few extra thousand pounds, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth to let someone down."
In Dorset, Julian Wiseman is selling his Thirties harbourside family house in Poole. These properties are in limited supply, and it is a marketing dream: five bedrooms, overlooking the Blue Lagoon, a good-sized garden leading down to the water. It has been advertised in the local and national press over the past month and a half, and yet the response has been poor. "Our details are not as enticing as an agent's - since we did them on a word processor. I didn't use an agent because it was a bugbear with me that when we first approached them they would not give us a clear-cut valuation. They were very keen to market our house for us but, I felt, at too low a price. Ours is on the market at pounds 450,000 and I know a similar property sold for more than that. I also found it irritating that they would not be flexible on fees.
"It certainly hasn't been exhausting. I've sent out particulars to about 30 people and some half-a-dozen have looked around. Unless we get an offer soon, I think we will end up using an agent, but I felt it was worth giving a private sale a shot."
Unlike these two first-timers, Hans Phillips found selling his house in the London area such a straightforward exercise he is about to do it again. At the end of the Eighties, in a market not dissimilar to the present one, he sold his house so quickly that he was able to cancel the third advertisement. "I arrived at my own figure after agents came in to give their estimates. I took into account their fees in the range of 1.5 to 2 per cent. Among the first four or five calls, two sounded very hopeful and, in fact, one of them turned out to be the eventual buyer. We negotiated on the day they came around. I got 99 per cent of my price.
"I felt, and still feel, that estate agents get money for old rope - I made a saving of about pounds 5,000. It was a very saleable property and we got the wording just right to make it seem desirable. Of course, at the time we sold the property market was on the crest of a wave. Even so we were elated at the speed and ease of the sale and had to make a mad dash to buy somewhere else. This time it should be even easier, as we will be downgrading and will be happy to rent for a while if necessary. Everyone should give it a go."