Mortar, mortar everywhere

... but just try buying somewhere to live in central London.

It never seems the right time to want to buy a flat in central London, but now seems an especially wrong time. Even with cash in hand, nothing to sell, and the most pressing desire to buy - not to make money, but to have somewhere to live - you attract more sympathy than enthusiasm from the capital's estate agents.

Either (in the case of W1, WC1, SW1) there is nothing on their books because no one is selling: "We didn't even bother to compile a list for January," they say, "there's nothing coming in." Or (W8, SW3, SW5) everyone is run off their feet showing flats around the clock. If you ring, there is no one in the office because they're all out with clients.

Any half-habitable flat is said to be "flying out of the window" even before anyone has had time to type out the details. "We're just so busy. It's wonderful for us," confided one receptionist against a cacophony of ringing phones. It's not so wonderful for us.

On the surface, London seems to be back in the vicious circle of 1988: too little to buy, too many people chasing after it and everyone well into gazumping mode. Perhaps it is worse. Last time, there was a temporary and quite specific reason for the frenzy: the new restrictions on mortgage interest tax relief. The bubble soon burst.

This time, the common wisdom is that we are experiencing the biggest boom since the late Seventies. Interestingly, a dissenting voice comes from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors whose spokeswoman gives a number of reasons why an enduring boom is unlikely: the cautious budget, the election, a probable reduction in MIRAS and no change in stamp duty.

Estate agents and vendors understandably prefer the boom theory, which helps to explain our problems as buyers. Why should anyone sell their flat when they can expect another 15 per cent for it next year? And if they do sell, why should they settle for anything less than a price that anticipates that rise? Whether people are prepared to buy at any price, just to have a stake in the supposedly rising market, is another matter. After a long weekend of concentrated flat viewing in central London, I was left with the suspicion that the current "boom" may be artificially fuelled by some estate agents and vendors and that it is not a real reflection of the market.

The agents concerned will object that the market drives itself, that any flat is worth just as much or as little as someone is prepared to pay for it, and that there is a real shortage of properties. All that is true. But it takes a genuine bidding situation and genuine information to judge what is a fair price, and not the febrile imaginings of the sale- hungry.

Taken to see a couple of flats last week that were still being renovated and not yet on the market, we were told that if we wanted to make an offer, "think of a number, the price hasn't been set yet". We were effectively invited to take part in an auction with no reserve and no guide price. That's how hot the competition is supposed to be.

At another flat, also being renovated but advanced enough to have an asking price (though no printed details), we were told: "We've already had an offer at the asking price, but we haven't accepted it." The renovator (and owner) muttered in the background that he thought the asking price too high.

Some agents are shamelessly encouraging gazumping. I was taken to see two flats in one block. One, at what seemed a very reasonable price, was under offer. The other, which seemed overpriced by comparison, was not. To the agent's horror, a family was waiting in the lobby (the family, it transpired, that thought it had bought the first flat). I was whisked past, rushed to the flat in question, raced around it (to be gone before the family arrived to measure up), then taken to the other flat.

A justification for this comedy might be the usefulness of comparing the size and price of the two flats. But the subsequent conversation contained a strong invitation to bid for the first flat, with the asking price "as a floor". Maybe the agent thought that the buyer, who wanted several flats in the block, would either increase his offer or switch to the more expensive flat - to the mutual benefit of agent and vendor.

The saga has a sequel. We made an offer for the larger flat, which was rejected. Spun tales of spiralling prices, vicious bidding for other flats in the area (but not for this one), we upped the offer. A misdirected fax subsequently made clear that, first, this was 10 per cent more than any similar flat in the block had ever fetched and, second, that the price had recently been de facto increased by the removal from the package of several parking spaces (hitherto included in the same price).

We withdrew; the vendor, a company, is prepared to wait. But the experience prompts some thoughts.

Perhaps the statutory duty on estate agents to provide accurate particulars should be augmented with a requirement to state when a flat was put on the market, at what price and on what terms. Ideally, the prices achieved at sale should be published, as they are in some countries. Then we buyers could judge the market for ourselves and not find ourselves unwittingly driving it.

And, contrary to what you may hear, there are central London flats on the market. Some of them have been there for a good many months now, unsold because of their poor condition, their high service charge or their less than ideal location. They are available because sellers and agents will not reduce the price, anticipating that the market will "rise to meet them". Maybe it will, but the fact that buyers are resisting shows that we still have a modicum of common sense.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee