Peek through the Net curtain

Fantastic! You can now snoop around houses without leaving your chair.
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The Independent Online

The great British Sunday. Newspapers, fresh coffee, a late breakfast. Timewasting. It wasn't too long ago that the regular day of contemplation was frequently taken up nosing around houses we had no intention of buying, and probably couldn't afford. We got to see how tastefully - or badly - our neighbours' homes were decorated. Oh, how we laughed at the pampas grass, the copper fire-place, that smoked-glass fish on the mantel-piece (and that was only last year). And how we coveted that river view as we lay on an Eames lounger. But there was a downside to this pursuit... the tiresome and unnecessary use of your legs.

The great British Sunday. Newspapers, fresh coffee, a late breakfast. Timewasting. It wasn't too long ago that the regular day of contemplation was frequently taken up nosing around houses we had no intention of buying, and probably couldn't afford. We got to see how tastefully - or badly - our neighbours' homes were decorated. Oh, how we laughed at the pampas grass, the copper fire-place, that smoked-glass fish on the mantel-piece (and that was only last year). And how we coveted that river view as we lay on an Eames lounger. But there was a downside to this pursuit... the tiresome and unnecessary use of your legs.

But no more! The advent of "e-homes" means you can now snoop around other people's houses without leaving your chair. Ignore the estate agents' websites - they are created for the unnatural act of buying and selling property. God forbid. Go straight to the "free-home" sites that are springing up. These are basically blank cyberpages, offering free advertising for people hoping to sell their property and an alternative to those murderously expensive estate agents who are after a quick buck. The sites are usually set up by e-entrepreneurs who are, um, after a quick buck. For the relentlessly nosy casual browser like myself, (if I dare to be so non-PC) they are the decorative equivalent of Readers' Wives, affording a mischievous peek through the Net curtain.

For me, there is no longer any sustainable pleasure in aspirational surfing, no real delight in looking at yet another John-Pawsoned chalk-white loft. These sell-it-yourself websites offer a far more entertaining insight in to how Britons really live but what have these people been doing with their evenings for the past three years? Don't they watch Changing Rooms, Home Front, Ready Steady Ragroll or Carol Vorderman's Better Cushion Covers? At a time when every three-bedroomed semi in the land has felt the influence of Laurence's Gothic flounces, or Anne McKevitt's "let's just saw off the legs and paint it orange" approach, can it be that so many online homeowners are stuck in a decorating timewarp?

Sitting at my desk, cruising the interior of a Georgian house in upmarket Greenwich only last week, I flinched at the sight of a powder-blue leather, scallop-backed sofa, proudly displayed as the focal point on its owner's web page. Powder-blue leather! Unimaginable that such a travesty of colour and texture could be combined in just one piece of furniture. And a mere 10 minutes later, inspecting the interior of the kind of Bermondsey warehouse conversion where you expect to find the last word in downbeat chic, I was greeted by an explosion of gold-trimmed faux-hide sofas, china leopards and tigerskin throws - as if Dorien from Birds of a Feather had got drunk and then busted her credit-card limit in a soft-furnishings store.

It's truly fascinating. If ever you need reassurance that being the owner of a five-year-old Habitat sofa doesn't automatically banish you to the bottom rung of the interior-decorating ladder, this is where you'll find it. These homes are out there, and you are now welcome to step into them without fear of being caught laughing at the bedroom curtains. Simply click-on and prepare to spit your coffee all over the keyboard. No need to walk over Shake'n'Vac-ed nylon carpet, no need to discreetly hold your breath in the vicinity of well-seasoned cat-litter trays.

These sites must be like pornography to the set designers of "gritty-realism" TV dramas. It's easy to imagine them crouching wide-eyed over a PC in search of authentic inspiration: "Hmm. Smoked-glass fish on the mantelpiece..." And perhaps one day, when the time comes for me to sell my own home on the Net, they'll scrutinise my oak-and-taupe shrine to minimalism and think, "now there's someone who couldn't bear to have her own taste called into question". They'd be right.

Fancy a Net-twitch? Go on, you know you want to.

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