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The Independent Online
POST-ELECTION BUY?

I am looking to purchase a property. Should I wait until after the general election?

Lilian Page

Wass, N Yorks

This is a question asked frequently by first-time buyers. The answer is no. Now is a great time to buy for a number of reasons. Interest rates are low and, in many areas, so are house prices, which are showing sustained signs of recovery. In addition, incomes are rising and unemployment falling. This means homes are more affordable than they have been for 20 years.

Looking specifically at the effects of the election, it seems that the two main political parties share much common ground on policy towards owner-occupiers. It is hard to see, therefore, what there is to gain by leaving any purchase until after 22 May - the last possible date for a general election. Some purchasers and vendors will decide to hold off because of the possibility of a new party coming into government but those who do so may find their purchase costs them more. This is because interest rate rises, suppressed in the run-up to an election, may increase - irrespective of which party is in power - while house prices are expected to continue their steady upward trend.

WHO TO TRUST

Should I rely on an estate agent's advice on a valuation when I understand some vendors are getting more than their asking price?

Andrea Williams

Romford, Essex

lt is true that some highly sought- after properties in prime locations are attracting enormous, immediate interest resulting in some vendors receiving offers above market valuation. Indeed, there have been some reports in the press of prices rising by up to 10 per cent in certain areas. But this is the exception and does not signal a widespread return to the heady days of the property boom years of the late 1980s.

Having said that, there is a general trend for vendors to receive offers much closer to their asking price than has been the case since the start of the decade. Obtaining an estate agent's valuation is important because your agent is in a good position to know the local marketplace.

But how do you know which agent to trust when some of them will talk up price deliberately in order to get your property on their books?

What you should do as a vendor is quiz agents on how they arrive at their valuation. Ask them for evidence of why they are suggesting a certain price. They should be able to show you details of similar properties they have sold in your area. If they can't they won't have that all- important first-hand experience of the market. They won't know the likely demand for your home and what price you can reasonably expect to obtain. By all means obtain a number of valuations, but ask each agent for the explanation behind their price.

SELL FIRST, BUY LATER

Should I sell my property before I look round for somewhere to buy?

Thomas Madigan

Windsor, Berks

Although we are now in a fast moving market, this question does not present the dilemma that it has in the past. The number of properties coming on to the market has failed to keep up with the heavy and growing demand from prospective purchasers. This is the case in most locations, for most types of properties, across all price ranges. In certain areas, for particular types of property, the shortage is acute. Towards the end of 1996 and continuing into 1997, properties, particularly well- presented three-bed houses, have been selling very quickly often before they can be advertised in the local press.

Because of this shortage, it pays to be in the strongest possible position when you come to make an offer - ie having sold your own place. If you have not had any firm offers on your property then you can expect to be pipped by first-time buyers, or someone who can pay cash. By all means look around, get a feel for the market and even draw up a short-list of properties that you like. But definitely sell first.

FROST DAMAGE

Considering the recent cold weather, are there any tell-tale signs of property weakness I should be looking for when house hunting?

Louise Cabbie

Aston Clinton, Bucks

Yes. However, while some problems will be visible (I will come to these), there may be other far more expensive faults that you won't be able to see just by taking a cursory look at the property. In particular, be cautious in properties that have been empty and where the heating has been turned off. Unbeknown to you the water may not have been drained down during the recent cold weather and as a result, the pipes may have frozen only to burst during the thaw. So when you move in, you start springing leaks. Ask to have the water services (and ideally the gas and electricity as well) checked out by a specialist when you arrange your property survey. The additional cost is likely to be significantly less than any repair to your damaged pipes, boiler or water tank. Don't forget, a property valuation only protects the lender's security in the property and therefore won't necessarily include the non-operation of services which may not be material to the overall valuation.

Check in the loft for adequate insulation. If the property you are looking at is the only one in the street without snow on the roof, then the insulation is likely to be lacking. In addition, look at the windows for condensation. This is often a sign of poor ventilation and is a cause of damp. Where possible check behind furniture like wardrobes, which may have been strategically placed to hide black patches. In addition, look out for stained ceilings - sometimes a result of inadequate loft ventilation, caused by warm, moist air trapped in the roof space, which condenses on the ceiling as a damp patch. In older houses check that the roof is lined as fine, powdery snow can blow in under the tiles/slate, drifting in the roof space and appearing as damp patches on the ceilings. Similarly, leaks in valleys and parapet gutters tend to come to light when snow thaws.

Answers were supplied by a panel of experts at Woolwich Property Services and Ekins, the group's surveying services subsidiary. The panel is headed by Alan Oliver, managing director of Woolwich Property Services, and will answer published queries in future weeks on buying and selling, valuations, surveys, and market factors such as price trends.

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