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Your Money: Clear run for housebuyers

IN THE end it will be market forces that determine whether clear-run agreements become part of the house-buying process.

The Independent, our sister paper, has joined with Nabarro Nathanson, the city law firm that has produced a standard lock-out agreement for home buyers to present to sellers.

This will give them the right to be the only ones striving to buy the property during the lock-out period. No one else is allowed to view it, have a survey - or even agree to buy it at the end of the period during that time.

In return, the buyer will sign on the dotted line to pledge all haste in organising a survey, arranging mortgage finance if necessary and raising any queries on the contract.

There are benefits for both buyer and seller, but it must be admitted that the advantage lies with the buyer. So while buyers still have some clout in this soggy housing market, it is the right time for lock-out agreements to become the norm.

Once sellers and their agents accept that their word should be their bond - and back it with a legally enforceable agreement - it could be seen as part of the normal house-buying process.

These agreements can never eliminate gazumping - they cannot force the buyers to buy, nor the sellers to sell. In times of rapidly rising prices (remember them?) it is always open for the seller to withdraw from the sale and enter the fray anew at a higher price after the time limit expires.

But for buyers and sellers who believe that an agreement should stick unless there are outside changes, this agreement can offer some solid comfort. The seller will have to pay the buyer's costs - legal as well as survey and architects' fees - if the agreement is broken and others are allowed to muscle in during the run-up to exchange. The buyer will have signed an agreement to make haste in preparing to proceed.

This part of the agreement has not been tested in court, but potentially it could be expensive for a dallying buyer who does not stick by his word, if the seller loses another buyer as a result and seeks financial remedy in the courts.

Buyers and sellers used to get into all sorts of trouble over the fixtures and fittings. The buyer perhaps would assume that every light fitting, towel rail and corner cupboard would remain, while the sellers considered them all part of the moveable feast.

There are now standard forms that encourage the seller to specify item by item - right down to the light switches - what is being left and what is going. Once the conditions of the sale are made explicit, there is little scope for muddle. In the same way, buyers who have paid for a survey and are choosing colours for the paintwork can sometimes assume that the sellers are as committed to deal as they are. It can come as a nasty shock to discover other potential buyers tramping through 'their' new home.

A lock-out agreement shows mutual good faith and should benefit buyers and sellers alike.

Readers who would like to buy one of Independent/NN forms should write to Lock-out Agreement, Independent Reader Services, PO Box 60, Wetherby, LS23 7HJ, enclosing a cheque for pounds 1.50 made payable to 'The Independent'.

The Child Support Agency was supposed to rope in irresponsible runaway fathers and get them to pay some maintenance for their children.

It was seen as a thinly veiled attempt by the Government to save money by getting lone mothers off benefits. The middle classes thought that it had nothing to do with them. Wrong.

The agency was falling behind its targets and began going for the soft option - fathers with money.

Now the political lobby is gathering to try to change the legislation, but in the meantime fractured families are going to have to bear the state meddling.