Property: The house-buyer's lot

The housing shortage is encouraging mainstream buyers to auctions.
It's like panning for gold. Nothing sexy about page after page of repossessed semis, seedy flats above dry-cleaners and boarded-up ex- council houses. Yet among the dross there are gems. House auctions used to be solely the haunt of the hard up and the speculative. But the current shortage of houses to buy is encouraging mainstream buyers to risk rubbing camel-haired shoulders with professional developers.

"I don't know where they're all coming from," says a bemused David Tribe, of Winkworth Auctions. "They are armed with cash, so must have been in the rental market. There is enormous optimism and confidence. At our first auction of the year, every available seat and standing area was taken. Bidding was fast and competitive. Of the 51 lots available, only four didn't sell on the day."

Lot 34 didn't even make it to the auction room. The pretty stone cottage in Wiltshire, a 10-minute drive from Bath, was snapped up by Rachel Sheraton, a marketing manager, who heard about it through her local Black Horse estate agent.

"The moment I saw it I knew I had to have it. I had been looking for a year and a half and had watched prices rising substantially."

In the next four days, Rachel found a solicitor, had her check the paperwork, organised a survey and a mortgage valuation and persuaded Barclays Bank to offer her a mortgage - all while holding down a busy job. She exchanged contracts four days later and moved in on 24 January, the day of the auction. The cottage cost her pounds 56,000, marginally more than the guide price. It was too late to take it out of the catalogue. When copies hit the desks of all who had ordered one, Black Horse took more than 150 phone calls about the property.

This is the kind of story that brings a bitter snort from the rest of us, frustrated by being strung along for weeks by surveyors with the reactions of a slow loris, and solicitors who never return phone calls. As a first- time buyer, with no chain to work through, Rachel had a head start, she concedes. But the real secret is organisation.

"I'd done all the legwork in advance. I had the deposit, I had decided which solicitor I was going to ask to act for me, and I'd rung up all the mortgage lenders for details of their packages. I made a matrix - a list of all the lenders at the top and down one side all their fixed, variable and endowment deals. It was easy then to see which was best."

You do not, insists Rachel, have to be Nicola Horlick to work out the maths. "I got a bargain. The cottage had been on the market at pounds 90,000; some offers were made, but fell through. It had been at auction before and an offer made, but that fell through too. It was waiting for me."

She is now the proud owner of a 200-year-old, two-bedroom cottage in a quiet village, 10 minutes away from Bath. It has an inglenook fireplace, a pitched tile roof and a sun trap garden. Hidden under one carpet was an immaculate parquet floor; under another, the original old flagstones. Kitchen and bathroom will need replacing at some stage, but not immediately. "If you want something badly enough you can do it," says Rachel.

You are only as fast as your weakest link, she advises. Deal with that as a matter of urgency. Ask all the right questions and don't let anyone off the phone until you have the answers. "Someone at Barclays commented: `You don't argue with her', but they were great.

"Doing the research is mind-bogglingly boring, but it makes you feel more in control. You are the customer, you tell them you'll shop around ... and then come back and they'll give you a better rate. It's not that hard."

Winkworth holds its next auction at Kensington Town Hall on 27 February. Among the lots will be a large mid terrace Victorian house in Urmston, Manchester, with a guide price of pounds 28,000. Next door to the fish and chip shop, it is three storeys high, with two reception rooms and three bedrooms. It is less than a mile from the railway station.

"You'd need to spend between pounds 10,000 and 15,000 on it," says David Tribe, "but it's in a smart area and has a lot of potential."

Some guide prices have yet to be fixed, but Winkworth expects a lot of interest in a two-bedroom brick-built cottage near Whipsnade Zoo, in Studham, Bedfordshire.

"Very pretty, in a pretty village, but no central heating kitchen or bathroom," says David Tribe.