House hunting with Santa

Christopher Middleton asks estate agents if the Christmas holiday is a good time to snap up a bargain
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According to conventional estate agent wisdom, the only person interested in viewing properties over the Christmas period is Santa Claus - and he prefers to call unannounced.

According to conventional estate agent wisdom, the only person interested in viewing properties over the Christmas period is Santa Claus - and he prefers to call unannounced.

As for buyers coming through the front door rather than down the chimney, forget it, say most property people, pointing to Hometrack statistics that show the number of homes sold falls by 15 per cent over the months of December and January.

Though, it seems this finger-twiddling time of year offers a window of opportunity, through which determined purchasers - and vendors - can throw themselves headlong. "I've sold a house at 4pm on Christmas Eve, and I've sold a house at 11am on Boxing Day," says Christopher Hall, the president-elect of the National Association of Estate Agents, and owner of a small East Anglian-based chain of estate agents. "I know that traditionally a lot of big corporate estate agents close down over Christmas, but I think that's a mistake. This is a great time for buyers and agents to get out there and get an edge on the competition.

"Let's face it, we live in a 24-7 environment these days. I've been out putting up For Sale signs at 7.30pm on Christmas Eve - I mean, who knows might be passing that way over the Christmas period?"

It's a matter of attitude, agrees property economist John Wriglesworth, who two years ago defied the odds by selling his five-bedroom home in Cobham - on 24 December. "We'd had the house on the market for five or six months, and the estate agent still hadn't found us a buyer," recalls Mr Wriglesworth. "Towards the end of November, I told the agents that unless they sold the house by Christmas, we'd be taking our business elsewhere. And would you believe it - we exchanged contracts on Christmas Eve. It was either a sheer coincidence that the most perfect buyer happened to come along at that precise moment, or else our ultimatum encouraged the agents to make more of an effort."

This get-it-done-by-Christmas approach is quite common, says Notting Hill estate agent Mark Chick, of Bective Leslie Marsh - and helps keep December property sales only two or three per cent below November levels (it's in January that the real downturn occurs). "The threat of impending Christmas takes both buyers and sellers in the same way", he says. "They get the bit between their teeth, and become completely determined to sort the sale out before the New Year."

Those who don't quite get their feet under the table by turkey-carving time spend the rest of the holiday period building up their strength for a New Year assault on the property market. Added incentive often comes from the spell of enforced closeness they've just been through with their family.

"Come the end of the Christmas holidays, a lot of husbands and wives emerge with frayed nerves, saying: 'We're going to have to get a bigger place for next year'," says Henry Holland Hibbert, a director of Lane Fox's country house division, for the southern Home Counties.

The second half of January sees the start of what Lulu Egerton, from Lane Fox's Belgravia and Kensington office, calls a "feeding frenzy" - as buyers emerge from festive limbo, brandishing not just their New Year resolutions to move house, but (in the case of City folk) their great big juicy Christmas bonuses. "The commonest pattern is that people are told in December what their bonus is going to be, they spend Christmas discussing with their family what they're going to do with it, and then in January or February they actually get the money", says Egerton.

"The bonus phenomenon isn't just a myth. Our market is almost entirely driven by levels of corporate profit and perceptions of City job security. The lion's share of our homes are bought by people who not only earn a lot of money but borrow a lot, too. The average lend is £1.2m."

While that's definitely Premier League money, the theory is that this bonus-fuelled buying bonanza kicks off a chain reaction which, over the coming months, benefits those operating in the lower divisions of home ownership. It also means that the most propitious period in the property market - when the biggest number of buyers is aligned with the biggest number of sellers - falls during the first seven months of the year, from January to July. "If you've got the luxury of choice, then you don't put your house on the market in August or December", says Henry Holland Hibbert.

"Down" periods can provide buyers with vital leverage. "If people are selling in December, they're doing so for a reason - they need the money, or because they're worried about the security aspects of leaving a house unoccupied", says estate agent Oliver Davenport, from Douglas and Gordon. "They're not going to want to sell at a ridiculously low price, but they are going to want to sell quickly."

So forget the down-the-chimney route; Christmas could provide a perfect opportunity for buyers to get into their new property via the back door, while no one's looking.