By Easter, it'll be too late

The seasons for buying property have undergone a radical change
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The Independent Online
By Easter, it is almost too late to put your house on the market, said an experienced estate agent last week. In 1990 he would have been taken for a fool. Now many wise heads would nod in agreement. Easter used to mark the opening of the buying and selling season. You put your house on the market in April, sold in the summer and were in your new home by the start of the school year. If you missed Easter, you waited for the second seasonal lift in September and tried to complete by Christmas. In the winter the market went into hibernation.

This year agents up and down the country are reporting their busiest January and February since the recession. Last year saw a reasonable start but activity fell off dramatically at Easter when the new taxes kicked in, and it never recovered. There has been no autumn market since the Budget moved to November.

The estate agent who warned that Easter might be too late was John ffoulkes, who runs Hamptons' office in Sunningdale, Berkshire. His office opened to a flurry of enquiries between Christmas and New Year and has not slowed down since: "Out of 20 luxury flats in Ascot we only have four remaining. Easter used to be the time when the market was buzzing. Now, as soon as people want to move, they go."

The figures produced by the Corporate Estate Agents - those owned by financial institutions - support the theory that the market has shifted forward. In 1994 sales fell from more than 33,000 in June to just under 12,000 in December in an almost continuous line. New instructions rose sharply from 30,000 in December 1994 to 68,000 in January 1995 - only a thousand short of the April figure. The number of sales in February and March last year was actually higher than in April, May or June, traditionally the strongest months.

Given the temperamental nature of the property market over the last three years, it is difficult to judge whether the new pattern for business to be done earlier in the year is permanent. John Husband, of the country agents Humberts, believes the market is dependent on the timing of the Budget. "When we had only one budget in March, it fitted in well with the start of the spring selling season which generally commenced at Easter," he said. "The market tended to be extremely busy from April through to the end of July, when the holiday season took over, picking up again mid- September through to November. With the introduction of the November budget, the change in pattern has tended to spread demand more evenly across the year."

Other agents cite the impact of the Budget on interest rates as the decisive reason for the shift to an earlier market. Neville Casingena, of Goldschmidt & Howland in north London, says home owners are more influenced by political and economic factors than the desire to move house, with falling interest rates the crucial factor.

In prime central London, the market has always depended more on who was in town than on what the Chancellor says. Most agents saw a very busy December, with at least three deals being done on houses worth more than pounds 4m. Anthony Lassman, of Lassmans, said: "Many wealthy international buyers come to London for the Christmas period and some will buy more than one property. Vendors don't want the new year to start with their properties unsold, therefore they are more inclined to negotiate on price."

Another explanation for the improvement in the market in January and February is that home owners fear it will take a long time to complete their move. The average house sale is now taking five months, according to the February Home Report from Black Horse Agencies. That figure masks large regional differences. In the South- east the average sale takes three months, whereas in the North-west the figure is seven months. Anyone putting their house on the market at Easter is taking a gamble on being in by the start of the new school year in September.

Some estate agents will still advise owners to wait until the Spring to sell, when the garden is at its best. That argument might well have applied to Ryders Wells House near Lewes in East Sussex, a Grade II listed six-bedroom house in four acres, which Strutt & Parker put on the market last week.

"There is such a dearth of good country houses down here at the moment and such a strong demand for anything realistically priced, that we advised the owners to get on with it now," said Tim Page-Ratcliff of Strutt & Parker. "We have got a lot of buyers sitting in rented accommodation who are anxious to buy now." His office put one country house on the market at the end of October last year and sold it within five weeks: "There was a time when we would never have done that, but now anything realistically priced and properly marketed is going to sell regardless of the time of year."