The sweet way to sell

In the first of a four-part series, Rosalind Russell shows how to display a house at its best
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The house was immaculate. Bowls of fragrant pot-pourri stood in the hall, the paintwork was bright enough to warrant Ray-Bans and the master bedroom looked show home perfect. Upstairs in the drawing room of the honey-coloured barn conversion, the Turkish rugs, antiques and plumped-up sofas could have featured in a magazine spread. But something niggled. Having prepared a textbook house sales pitch, why did the vendors have the kitchen radio blaring so loudly that we could barely hear ourselves speak? The answer lay in the garden. As soon as we stepped outside, the roar of the M1 half a mile away - impossible to disguise, even with Radio 4 at full volume - shattered the peace of the Hertfordshire countryside. The owners were clearly distraught when another potential buyer said thanks, but no thanks.

To overcome a blighted location, there's little you can do except lower the price to an irresistible level. Fortunately, other flaws are cheaper to fix, and most can be dealt with for less than pounds 250.

Toys should be tucked into cupboards, beds made, clothes picked up off the floor, kitchen and bathroom kept spotless and old newspapers thrown out. It does not add charm to have an unrestored classic car rusting quietly in the garage alongside a cobwebby barbecue and old paint tins. The detritus of other people's lives is deeply unattractive. If it's not moving with you, throw it out; if it is, pack it in a case and stick it in the attic.

"Carpets should be cleaned," says Judith Wilson, a stylist with Homes and Gardens, "Very important. It can make the difference between someone thinking 'Good, I'll negotiate those carpets in with the price' and, 'Oh God, we'll have to replace those grubby carpets. It'll cost a fortune.'"

Stylists should know. The reality of famous homes as featured in the glossies often bears little resemblance to the finished photo session. Stylists bring in vanloads of flowers, cushions, sofa throws, lamps, dainty china - even scones and jam. Seemingly fragile stars have shown a surprising determination to hang on to these extras once the shoot is over. Sadly, this service is not offered to the house-selling public, surely an unexploited gap in the market.

"Flowers are terribly important," agrees Judith. "And you'll notice show homes often have magazines such as Homes & Gardens in the sitting room to give the impression that you're buying that sort of lifestyle with the house."

New cushion covers - plain, not patterned - pull together the colours in a room, as will Habitat's new plain, off-the-peg tab-headed curtains, says Judith. She applied her advice to her own home and swept all the clutter off the mantelpiece, replacing it with a single vase of flowers.

"It looked brilliant," she recalls. "Put a bowl of fresh apples on the dining table. And if you have a poky bathroom, remove the blind and you'll find the room looks lighter."

Taking the "Beware of the dog" sign from the front gate is also advisable.

Sellers used to be urged to grill a few coffee beans, or stick a loaf of bread in the oven, and hope that viewers wouldn't notice the mushroomy smell of dry rot.

Hoary old chestnuts both. The latest gimmick is a foodie room spray. Made by the Devon-based firm Heathcote and Ivory, Country Kitchen room sprays have been launched in the Carpenters and Superdrug chainstores at pounds 1.99 a pop. They come in four flavours: freshly ground coffee, lemon meringue pie, apple pie with cinnamon, and pink grapefruit. In scent-sensitive Japan, demand has been enormous.

I have to report that the coffee spray smelled more Tia Maria than Kenco, but the dog licked his lips for half-an-hour after the testing.

"The idea came from male customers who said they didn't like the traditional peach or rose scents," says the sales director, Paul Lane. "We toyed with the idea of a bread spray, but in all the tests it comes out smelling like burned toast."

No such frivolities for David Bedford, an East Anglian estate agent. He thinks a quick, successful sale is all down to the survey. More crucially, a pre-sale structural survey commissioned by the owner. It is made available to all potential buyers, then assigned to - with the cost reimbursed by - the eventual purchaser.

"We advise clients selling a property more than 50 years old to have this done," he says. "It can reassure buyers, or at least show them where future problems and expense may lie."

Of Mr Bedford's clients, 30 per cent take the same view. And the firm claims far fewer sales fall through when this survey exists. It also tends to discourage buyers using a survey as a last-minute bit of arm-twisting to knock down the price. "In our experience, buyers try to knock off pounds 20,000 for work that might cost pounds 3,000."

Sellers have the option of acting on the survey and having repairs done themselves.

The legal position is that although the seller commissions the survey, it is done in trust for the as yet unknown purchaser.

"Everybody talks about the Scottish system of property sales being better," says Mr Bedford, "but there you can waste a fortune on several surveys and still not get the house. Their system [where once the offer is accepted you are legally bound to purchase], combined with this pre-sale survey, is the dream ticket."

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