Enterprising sellers repair broken chain: When a house sale collapsed, an unusual remedy ensured a happy ending. Andrew Bibby reports

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The Independent Online
A HOME-BUYERS' chain involving three families and four houses was in danger of collapsing but was saved by the family at the top of the chain buying the house at the bottom, when its sale fell through.

The tale begins, however, with every seller's nightmare. Andrew and Jane Waters had arranged to sell their pounds 44,000 house in Drighlington, near Leeds, to first-time buyers.

The surveyors had been, the mortgage was arranged, but on the day appointed to exchange contracts the buyers pulled out: they had secretly put an offer on a second house, and had decided to go for that one instead.

Their decision had immediate repercussions. The Waters had undertaken to exchange contracts the same day with Andrew Mather and his wife, Naheed Arshad-Mather, for a pounds 67,000 house in nearby Gildersome.

The Mathers, in turn, were exchanging contracts with Jim and Joan Walters, the couple at the top of the chain, for a pounds 130,000 house near Huddersfield. Suddenly, without warning, the chain had collapsed.

The Waters, at the bottom of the chain, have two young sons and were looking forward to moving to a larger house with a garden.

Mrs Waters said: 'I was absolutely devastated, in floods of tears. I felt that all we'd gone through would have been for nothing. And of course, we'd have lost a lot of money.' The Mathers were similarly left in the lurch, while Mr and Mrs Walters were already committed to moving to a new house, which they had had built for them in Lincolnshire.

Mr Walters, an electronics engineer, had been forced to take early retirement because of ill health. 'The logical thing to do was to move to a smaller house,' he said. He still owed his house-builder part of the total pounds 47,000 cost of the new house, but planned to invest the remaining equity to tide him over until his pension began in two years' time.

The crisis, which blew up over the August Bank Holiday weekend, has now - a few weeks later - been resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

All three families have moved house. In the process, the Walters, at the top of the chain, have become the owners of the house the Waters were selling in Drighlington.

The decision to break the chain in this way was worked out at an informal meeting between the families at the start of September, the first time the Walters and Waters had met.

Mr Mather said: 'We came to the conclusion that it would cost each of us if our sales were to fall through, so we agreed that we should share the extra costs involved. We felt we all trusted each other.'

Although the Walters have bought the house outright, the other two families have undertaken to share the expenses of re-selling the Drighlington house, and also the other costs such as insurance, electricity and council tax charges while the house is empty.

The Mathers and the Waters are also contributing to help make up some of the lost income that the Walters face through not having capital available to invest, calculated at a nominal 7 per cent per annum. In total, the two families expect to pay about pounds 1,000 each during the six months that the arrangement will last.

In the same spirit of pragmatic self-interest, the Walters' estate agent has agreed to charge just 1 per cent for selling the house, and their solicitor has also agreed to charge reduced fees for the work on reselling the empty house.

Mr Walters said: 'We were in a fairly strong negotiating position. Only the estate agent originally employed by the Waters has proved uncooperative and is demanding to be paid now that the house has technically been sold. They had sole selling rights. I find it quite annoying. The very fact that the buyer they found was unsafe has put us in this position,' he added.

The Walters accept that, as the owners of an empty house 70 miles away from their new home, they are taking the greatest risk.

The process of purchase was helped when they were able to acquire the surveyor's report and search information originally used by the abortive purchasers. However, the insurance premium has turned out to be more expensive than expected because the property is empty.

After six months, the Walters will be on their own. 'It would have been unfair to younger people to tie them to an open-ended commitment, so we put a time limit on it,' Mr Walters said. He feels that their new property will eventually sell but says that an alternative will be to find tenants.

'I'm hoping it will work. Obviously I'm concerned that we're pounds 44,000 adrift, but I've achieved what I wanted of moving to a smaller house with lower running costs,' he said, adding that an agreement like this one depends on being able to trust the integrity of the other families involved.

Mrs Waters, now busy with unpacking in the Mathers' old house, is delighted at the outcome. 'It was a wonderful idea. We couldn't believe it - how often does something like this happen?' she said.

(Photograph omitted)