On your marks. Get set. Sell!

Don't wait for spring. Now is almost certainly the best time to put your property on the market, say the experts

A smoother ride lies ahead: this is the consensus of opinion in the property world. The ups and downs of the past 18 months will flatten out into a period of more modest but steady growth. Prices are predicted to rise nationally from between 4-6 per cent over the coming year.

A smoother ride lies ahead: this is the consensus of opinion in the property world. The ups and downs of the past 18 months will flatten out into a period of more modest but steady growth. Prices are predicted to rise nationally from between 4-6 per cent over the coming year.

Reassuring though that forecast may be, how does that translate into a personal decision of whether to move, when to sell or what to buy? Crystal ball-gazing is not a science, but a few sound tips from those in the know can be rewarding and could reduce the numbers of us who look back over the past year and mutter regretfully that if only we'd known and how we wish we had done this, that or the other.

Just before Christmas more than a few would-be sellers took their properties off the market hoping that by March they would have more buyers snapping at their heels. "A suicidal move," is the opinion of Ed Mead of Douglas and Gordon, the London estate agents. As 2001 dawns he suggests those homes go back on to the market as soon as possible. "January is about the best time to sell. People are cashed up and ready to go and have a new year resolution to go out and buy. There are fewer properties for them to choose from and anything that is compromised in any way has a much better chance of selling now. There are about 30 per cent more buyers looking at one place in January than there are in the spring. Anyone who is thinking of taking their property off the market is missing out on a real opportunity. They should hang in there."

For those who have resolved to leave city life and move into the country, now is the time to look for small farms, says Rupert Bradstock of Property Vision, which advises buyers.

"Country houses on the edge of villages within an hour or so south and west of London will remain as much in demand as ever, but where I believe there is real scope is in those properties with a couple of hundred acres. Farmers already at the end of their tether who were unable to get their crops in the ground are attracted by the prices they can get for their properties. The houses have not had money spent on them for a long time and someone who is prepared to take on a rundown farmhouse will be able to create something special, paying around £1m-£1.5m.''

For a different area and price range, Quentin Jackson-Stops of Jackson-Stops and Staff, believes house-hunters would do well to look in south Northamptonshire, where much of the countryside is as pretty as the Cotswolds but cheaper. "It is a good spot for a weekend cottage because to travel to London is easy. It is sandwiched between the M40 and M1 with a 40-minute journey by rail from Milton Keynes to Euston. A detached four-bedroom cottage in a village can be bought for £250,000-£275,000. For those who want the reverse, a larger five- or six-bedroom village house would cost between £500,000-£750,000."

In the buy-to-let field, investors who were tempted by the low prices in the mid-1990s have seen the capital growth exceed even their most optimistic expectations. Many cashed in during the market's high point in the earlier part of the year. So if they and new investors are tempted by the forecast of stability and growth in rental yields, where should they look to buy?

Simon Agace, chairman of the Winkworth group of London estate agents, expects most of this business to fall into the £150,000-£200,000 band. "A key consideration is convenience. Tenants want to be close to good transport and that means the Underground. In the area around Paddington and Queensway, there are some extremely nice, large but old-fashioned flats that represent value for money. Something in good condition would be £400 a square foot, compared with £600 a square foot for a new-build. New regulations covering small hotels are likely to result in the closure and sale of many of them. In south-east London, Blackheath and New Cross look like becoming very popular parts for renting. In New Cross particularly, the architecture is great and the transport links are vastly improved. A two double-bedroom flat in a period building would cost around £120,000, with a monthly rental of £900. ''

In the new development market, the UK buyer is now dominant, says Linda Beaney of Beaney Pearce estate agents. "There are relatively few large-scale developments of good quality in first-class areas. Predictions that Armageddon was nigh deterred a lot of people from buying off-plan. A feature of the coming year will be prestige schemes in Belgravia. South of the river, between Albert and Battersea bridges, early purchasers of new homes will secure some of the prettiest views in London overlooking Cheyne Walk. It is also well worth buyers looking at secondary locations where early sales amount almost to underselling. A smart development can make a silk purse of a sow's ear, and the effect on older properties can be quite dramatic."

Outside the capital, Paul Belson of Knight Frank's residential research department, tips Bristol as his city of 2001. "Until now there has been no development in the central part of the city, which is a long way behind Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds in urban regeneration. But along the waterside, in the city's heart, there is going to be massive change. Mixed-use projects will attract residents along with restaurants, shops and businesses. Beaufort Homes has a phased scheme at Broad Quay Central, starting at £150,000 for a one-bedroom flat."

When it comes to borrowing money, look out for some interesting products in the next couple of months, says Simon Tyler, managing director of Chase de Vere, mortgage management.

"Interest rates are likely to drop in the first quarter after the longest period of stable bank base rates for 30 years. There is real pent-up demand for lenders to be innovative and they will try to build up their market share early in the year during the main house-buying period. There is a danger that an over-protection of buyers has denied them the chance of some good products. Not everything with redemption penalties that go beyond the period of a mortgage is wrong. Don't write it off without checking whether it suits your own circumstances,'' he says.

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