Autumn Property Survey: Builders offer bait to keep market moving: Buyers should check incentives before accepting them, warns David Lawson

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The Independent Online
There is one sure sign that builders are worried about lack of buyers: out comes the perennial 'free' car. Sure enough, Wimpey was offering a 'sparkling' new Toyota to buyers on a development in Rochdale, Lancashire, earlier this month.

In the general optimism of last spring, few buyers might have expected to be offered this sort of bait by the end of the year. In fact, some builders gave up during the summer and watched the fish jump ashore all by themselves.

But the haul is beginning to look thin again since interest rates went up.

Free cars are still rare - and usually apply only to the last few properties in a development builders want off their books, but they show buyers that it is worth bargain-hunting.

Almost every new home offers some kind of deal on kitchens, bathrooms, curtains and carpets. Some even boast a landscaped garden, and the bait is likely to get juicier as builders try to enliven the traditional dead period running up to Christmas.

But it is worth looking these gift horses in the mouth. The quality of fittings is very important, as thin carpets on the stairs and in the living room may wear out within a couple of years. Even if they remain pristine, when you resell they will be valueless to buyers.

Try adding up what you think they are worth and discount that from any profit you may expect to make before reselling. Early birds could even try bargaining with builders, asking for the value to be taken off the price.

Remember, however, that if you need the carpets and so on, builders can buy them much more cheaply than you, because they get them in bulk.

Getting in early can also produce a bonus. The retirement specialist Pegasus, for instance, allows buyers to choose their own colour scheme if they act soon enough. CALA goes even further, shaping rooms to your needs where structurally feasible.

Financial help is more patchy - again often depending on whether builders have a few homes they wish to move quickly. Crosby, for instance, may cover legal expenses for first-time buyers in the Midlands and North-west, while Pegasus sometimes offers to pay legal and removal costs.

Fairclough has a more general policy for first-time buyers in the South, providing a loan for the deposit and covering legal and survey fees. It also offers to knock the equivalent value off the price.

Barratt has a slightly different approach. Recognising that first-timers may struggle to meet even the 5 per cent deposit, it has a scheme that enables buyers to save this while living rent-and mortgage-free for up to 20 weeks after paying a pounds 250 reservation charge. This is on top of the carpet-and-curtain extras on many homes, and may also be supplemented by help for other purchase costs.

But the most widespread incentive is not aimed at first-time buyers.

Part-exchange has become almost universal among builders as they try to winkle out those who are having problems selling existing property.

According to the New Homes Marketing Board, more than 60 per cent of sales by Galliford in the South-east and more than 70 per cent by Persimmon in Yorkshire are due to part-exchange schemes.

Again, this needs looking at carefully, however. Some builders will take only property near the new home, and exclude homes over five or 10 years old. They may insist on knocking 10 per cent or more off the value of the existing property to cover the risk. Most also demand that buyers are trading up, with a leap of 30 per cent or more between the prices of the homes.

Barratt is a major exception. The company pioneered exchanges in 1971 and has clocked up 30,000 since then. It offers up to 100 per cent of the value of homes, and many of its moves are over long distances. Fairclough also extends its boundaries across the country by putting exchanged property in the hands of Cornerstone or Countrywide agencies.

The service builders offer is sometimes more complex than a straightforward exchange. When chains break or deals become snarled, a large company can use its muscle to get things moving, says Barratt's chief executive, Frank Eaton.

Both Barratt and Wimpey, for instance, try to help those trading down by employing hundreds of their own site offices to sell an existing home. They will also step in to buy a property two or three places removed in the chain so that all the other deals can go ahead.

One St Albans couple saw the power of employing these big guns after spending four years trying to sell before turning to part-exchange. Barratt took over their existing cottage and sold it within a month.

Other builders offering some kind of part exchange include Laing, Ideal, Croudace, Countryside, Crest, Wainhomes and the retirement specialist McCarthy & Stone. But buyers should check each carefully, as schemes tend to wax and wane according to the state of the market. Some apply to specific sites - or even specific homes on those sites. Others have time, price and other restrictions.

Remember, also, that builders will sometimes part-exchange one of the second-hand homes they have taken, so it is not always necessary to buy a brand new home.

One dark cloud has emerged over this whole area, however. A year ago the Chancellor decided to grab even more money from housebuyers by imposing stamp duty on exchanges - a loophole which had provided a useful saving in the past.

Tough-minded buyers can shift at least part of this burden to builders. In fact, every buyer should take this kind of stance over incentives. Work hard to get as much as you can, as all builders are open to deals, even those who do not advertise incentives. So get what you can while it lasts.