Overview: Time to step in with a bold offer

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The Independent Online

Slowly - very slowly - it is beginning to dawn on city dwellers who hanker after a rural lifestyle that the grass on the other side really is greener. It has been a long time since they have been spoilt for so much choice when it comes to finding a new home in the country, yet the message is only just filtering through.

Slowly - very slowly - it is beginning to dawn on city dwellers who hanker after a rural lifestyle that the grass on the other side really is greener. It has been a long time since they have been spoilt for so much choice when it comes to finding a new home in the country, yet the message is only just filtering through.

When it does though, the effect is startling. A couple who have just sold their large family house in south London for a satisfactory price (sensible, not inflated) chanced their arm in Oxfordshire by putting in a bid of some £150,000 less than the £1m asking price, and had it accepted. On spreading the news, friends of theirs are now embarked on the same course.

If they are anxious that their decision might prove ill-advised and based on a one-off, they needn't worry. Estate agencies are bristling with brochures of attractive country properties that are not matched by an equal number of buyers. At Hamptons International, David Adams, regional sales director in the south of England, goes so far as to describe the opportunities as "brilliant", with the best supply of autumn properties they have seen for five years. "This is a good time to be trading up with many vendors having to rethink their asking prices," says Adams.

What we are seeing is a fall in prices of between 5 and 10 per cent. Vendors are getting around 93 per cent of the asking price, compared with around 98 per cent earlier in the year. The end of May was a significant date line, says Adams, because that was when the market peaked. All those sellers who are still insisting on sticking to last winter and spring values have missed the boat, he reckons, and unless they are prepared to reduce their prices they will be lucky to sell.

The price bracket is all-important here. The million-pound mark seems to be the new ceiling for buyers worried about interest rates and a further fall in prices. Add to this a supply of new stock and it is clear why this particular sector holds more opportunities for deals than others.

So step in the buyer with a bold offer: while stocks are good they should find plenty of scope for negotiation. This kind of market, where negotiation is normal and a move can be planned without fear of prices running away from budgets, is a stranger to many people. It is not only the buying public who must become accustomed to this, but those in the business too - Adams is having to school his new staff in the skills of old-fashioned brokerage.

The problem is that we persist in looking at any correction or fall in price as a failure. Buyers and sellers are liable to take fright and rather than possibly make a mistake as prices shift, they prefer to sit and wait. Even that might be a mistake if Adams is correct. Once prices have settled at the end of this year he doesn't believe they will alter in 2005, in an election year. But this is not the whole story. At the same time as vendors in the £500,000 up to £1m are having to adjust their expectations, those homeowners at the very top end are not having to make any discounts. If you are selling a country house in a great location, with land and all the expected facilities, buyers will be beating a path to your door with that £2m-plus in their pockets. It's a very simple market economy: there are plenty of buyers with the wherewithal to snap up such houses, without a glance at interest rates. But there are very few houses in the bracket actually on the market.

At the bottom of the property ladder, first-time buyers are finding prices still beyond their reach. And there is no sign of the two-bedroom cottage falling in value. Perhaps public confidence will be self fulfilling. The latest survey from assertahome.com shows respondents expect prices to rise 2.2 per cent over the next 12 months, down from 6.6 per cent in May. Is that really such a bad thing?

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