Know your mind . . . then change it: David Lawson finds that people with fixed ideas about a dream home often end up with something else

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The Independent Online
There is nothing like spending a holiday weekend home-hunting, particularly when you know exactly what you want. Strict instructions are left with agents: it must be a two-bed flat, on the ground floor and cost about pounds 90,000. North of the river only, please, preferably within walking distance of the West End.

Information from half-a-dozen agents has already spilled through the letterbox. Dozens of one-bed flats, a few three-bed flats and a smattering of houses and maisonettes.

Several one-bedders eventually emerge from the dross, but they are walk-ups. Two look interesting, except they are south of the river and another couple look perfect, but cost more than pounds 100,000.

Why do agents do it? Don't they listen? Or do they think they know best?

Actually, they do think they know best. And to make things worse, they are often right. Eight out of 10 buyers happily end up with an entirely different home from the one they first thought of, according to Peter Rollings of Foxtons. So it can pay agents to send out information on properties that do not quite meet the brief.

One woman insisted that she would look only at a first-floor, two-bedroom South Kensington flats worth pounds 180,000.

'She is now more than happy with a one-bed basement flat bought for pounds 185,000, says Mr Rollings. 'But going by her original criteria, it was something she would never have contemplated. We persuaded her it was worth a look.

The lesson is that you should not get too stuck in a groove about what you want. This is important in areas of central London where property is in short supply. 'You are invariably reducing your opportunities.

Plenty of agents use this as an excuse to fob off potential buyers with lists of totally unsuitable properties. The good ones, however, make a science of compromise. In fact, willingness to take buyers around properties which appear at first sight to be off-limits is generally a good way of choosing an agent. Owners also benefit by getting more people through the door.

'You have to take people around a few places, says Nicholas Pearce of Beany Pearce. 'You get a feel for what they are really after and can start to offer something slightly different.

A buyer's top priority is location, according to a survey by Foxtons. Yet Mr Rollings says that may simply be because they know the area or have friends there. Extending into an adjoining borough could produce something more suitable.

Further down the list comes the number of bedrooms, number of reception rooms, gardens/patios and which floor a flat is on. Price is the sticking point, however. While buyers are willing to compromise on other things, Foxtons says it is not worth their time showing off homes much different from the guide figure.

There are exceptions. One buyer looking for a pounds 400,000 home ended up paying pounds 4m, says Charles Ellingham of Property Search. But he insists that is unusual, as he usually knows exactly what buyers will accept after a couple of meetings.

Like Mr Rollings, he points out that there is no such thing as a perfect home, so some kind of compromise is inevitable. 'I try to pin down three factors on which buyers will not budge. Then I know what they will allow. Most people buying expensive property come from professional backgrounds where they are used to analysing information and making decisions. 'So they usually have a clear idea of what is feasible, says Mr Ellingham.

To prevent any glitches, he recommends they go out and look around themselves. With big country houses, that can take up to a year, although in London they may need only a weekend.

People can be a lot more fickle lower down the price scale, however, particularly since most are in no hurry to buy nowadays. The average number of homes visited by customers has soared into double figures since the Eighties, when people grabbed the first thing that was half-way decent. This is one reason why estate agents rarely get involved in home-hunting, leaving it to specialists like Mr Ellingham. In other countries it is common for agents to find as well as sell property, but buyers pay higher fees - between 5 and 10 per cent of the purchase price. Just as important, they accept the fact that they must pay for wasted time if the right place does not turn up.

Much lower fees in the UK do not cover the risk of an agent tracking down property and then not completing the deal. Every firm has an apocryphal story of the client who turned down scores of two-bed flats, only to announce he would pay them nothing because he found something himself. It just happened to be a six-bed house in a totally different area.

This pattern of setting strict rules and settling for a compromise is not restricted to amateurs, however. Experts are just as vulnerable.

Mr Pearce got out of his big family house in Fulham after a divorce. 'I had a clear idea about what I wanted, he says.

It would be a one-bed, easily maintained flat which he could walk into without worrying about redecoration or renovation. A patio for parties and barbecues was essential, so it had to be on the ground floor.

Instead, he bought a two-bedroom maisonette on the second-floor. It was 'in appalling condition, requiring more than pounds 35,000 of work. 'But I was besotted as soon as I saw it.

And he remains perfectly happy with the choice, so at least he can speak from experience when he edges clients into the same sort of compromise.

(Photograph omitted)