Chains, delays, dishonesty and gazumping. The evils of house-buying come under government scrutiny

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The Independent Online
It wasn't supposed to be like this. With a pounds 30,000 deposit and a guaranteed mortgage, Claudine Sturdy should have been every vendor's dream - a first- time buyer with no chain and an overwhelming desire to move quickly.

But, like thousands of others, she soon found that estate agents, building societies, surveyors and sheer bad luck conspire to make buying a house as difficult as catching a greased snake.

Yesterday, the Government made the first moves towards finding out what causes buyers pain and stress and how the process of buying a property can be made simpler, quicker and less frustrating.

A steering group representing lawyers, agents, consumers, lenders and other professionals met to draw up guidelines for researchers who will track 1,000 sales to find out which ones go wrong and why.

So far, Ms Sturdy, 28, a film production co-ordinator from south London, has encountered all the problems that the group, set up by housing minister Hilary Armstrong, will be studying - chains, delays, dishonesty and, perhaps most frustrating of all, gazumping.

"The first place I saw was a dream and a real bargain, a three-bedroom flat for pounds 70,000 in Brixton," she said.

"The people I was buying from were buying something else in Norwood and everything was going smoothly. But then there was a small legal hitch involving the lease and, unfortunately, the vendors had incredibly slow solicitors.

"A job that should have taken four days took them four weeks and in the meantime my vendors lost their place because their vendor wouldn't wait any longer. And someone nipped in and gazumped them by pounds 2,000."

But worse was to come. Ms Sturdy found another place, a two-bedroom flat in Streatham, for pounds 90,000.

She offered pounds 85,000 but was told by her agents that the vendor had placed it with a second agent at pounds 95,000.

"My agents told me that if I raised my price to pounds 90,000 then I could have it," she said. "Then they - not the other agents - went and sold it for pounds 95,000.

"I am absolutely fed up with the whole business.

"Everyone tries to rip you off all the time and no one keeps their word and I feel insulted that anyone could possibly think that you believe anything they say. We need protection for vendors and buyers so one isn't waiting too long for their house to be sold, and so the other's offer is honoured."

Ms Armstrong said she was determined to provide protection for people like Ms Sturdy and promised to act on the results of the study, which should be finished next summer.

"The Government is determined to identify the root causes of delays and other problems which cause distress and misery to home-buyers and sellers," she said.

However, given the diversity of the steering group - with representatives from the Office of Fair Trading, HM Land Registry, the Law Society, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the National Association of Estate Agents, the Incorporated Society of Auctioneers and Valuers and the Consumers' Association - vested interests are likely to make agreement possible.

One option, to adopt the Scottish system whereby an offer, once accepted, is binding, already seems to be losing its appeal.

"It does prevent gazumping once an offer has been accepted," said Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents.

"But before you can make an offer, you have to have your mortgage offer and survey in place.

"If your offer is rejected, then all the money you have spent on your legal fees and survey goes down the drain. Theoretically, that could happen two or three times before you get a property."

The Consumers' Association wants to see some form of protection available for buyers but feels the best way to avoid disappointment is to speed up the way the system works.

"Gazumping takes place between an offer being made and the completion of the transaction," said Sophie Gumpel, a principal researcher with the association.

"If the whole process were made faster, less convoluted and more of a `one-stop-shop' process, there would be less time for gazumping to take place."