Property: A sure sale, if the price is right: The market has stabilised and sensibly priced houses are being snapped up, but buyers outnumber suitable properties, says Anne Spackman

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'ALL BUT the most desirable and keenly priced properties are proving very difficult to sell in a market where the buyer is king.' (3 August 1992).

'Since Christmas, estate agents have been reporting growing levels of interest and activity among potential buyers as the slide in prices comes to a halt.' (28 February 1993).

'As buyer confidence returns, activity ebbs and flows but the tide continues to rise.' (31 August 1993).

These three comments come from one of the most comprehensive guides to the property market. Each month, about 130 estate agents in England and Wales report to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors: they describe their business over the previous three months and compare the price of similar houses sold at the beginning and end of the period (right). With the autumn market in full swing, hardly any are reporting that prices are still on the slide. Good homes in the most popular parts of London and the South have risen in value by up to 10 per cent this year. Even the 6 per cent of agents who say prices are still falling tend to apply this only to certain kinds of home.

Across the country a broad picture of stability emerges, with agents everywhere expressing the same golden rules. First, anything sensibly priced is selling. Second, anything which is even marginally overpriced will not get a look-in. And third, there is a nationwide shortage of good homes on the market. This means more buyers chasing fewer homes, which in the short term means prices are firming up and in the long term should mean they will rise.

The crucial question is: what is a sensible price? In London, the South-east and East Anglia it is likely to be 35 per cent less than it was four years ago, and the further into the hundreds of thousands the prices go, the greater the drop. In the North-west and North-east, prices have fallen by 10 to 20 per cent on 1990 figures. The Midlands, Wales and the South-west come somewhere in between.

The great surge in house buying at the start of the year continued through the summer, but for many agents September has proved frustrating, with buyers queuing up for houses that are simply not available. There are now almost two parallel markets in operation - one for the good period houses, where prices are stable or edging upwards, and one for the poorer houses, usually modern estate properties, where supply still exceeds demand.

The word to buyers is that they must hurry to get the best properties, and make offers very close to the asking price; the advice to sellers is that by pitching the asking price right, they could actually exceed it if the demand is there.

In the North-west, Gascoigne Halman's two offices paint a typical picture. In Alderley Edge, one of Cheshire's most sought-after villages, Tim Jackson says: 'All the signs are encouraging, but we are still finding it very difficult to get houses on to the market. I have just sold a Cheshire brick three-bedroom cottage for pounds 156,500. If we had eight more we could sell the lot of them. But if I had put that property on at pounds 10,000- pounds 15,000 more, we wouldn't have heard a dicky bird.'

In the office in the popular commuter area of Wilmslow, John Halman says: 'We are selling considerably more than we were last year. Sales have increased dramatically in the lower to middle range. We might well look back in six months' time and say prices have risen a bit, but at the moment they are no better than 12 months ago.'

Here, as everywhere, the properties that have fared worst in the slump are the modern estate houses. Mr Halman cited the example of a modern detached house he has sold twice. 'I sold it for pounds 115,000 at the top of the market. I resold it for pounds 82,000 12 months ago. I would try something like pounds 89,950 now and I might get pounds 84,000 or pounds 85,000.'

In Carlisle, those who have suffered worst from the slump are also in modern housing estates. Peter Hayward of Peter Hayward Associates says: 'There is a mass of these houses sitting unsold. A lot of them are in need of major repair - garages need work on their flat roofs, windows need replacing and kitchens are often looking a bit long in the tooth. The people who live in them have also been the hardest hit by the recession. '

Mr Hayward describes a state of mind to which many might privately admit. 'People accept that properties have dropped in value, but they live in splendid isolation, thinking it is happening to everyone but themselves.'

Twelve months ago, one of the few optimists around was Yolande Barnes, who heads residential research at Savills. When she first mentioned property shortages in central London last October, everyone thought she was mad. She feels central London picked up last autumn. Spring saw the positive effect spread across the capital and into the Home Counties. Now, she says, agents in the North are in the same position as those in the South were three or four months ago.

Her Budget prediction is that, if taxes go up, interest rates will come down - having a neutral effect on the home-owning public. 'All the signs are good,' she says. 'Confidence seems to be improving and it should lead to a reasonably strong autumn, barring any problems such as major lay-offs.'

It is towns that have seen major lay-offs that stand out as black spots in the otherwise fairly buoyant South. Hatfield in Hertfordshire, where British Aerospace is shedding thousands of workers, is a typical example.

One of the most positive reports comes from Islington, north London, where Conrad Mazen of Copping Joyce reports: 'Those selling at the present time are benefiting from the shortage of properties. As a result, many sales are being agreed at the asking price or above.'

In the smart parts of London - Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge and Mayfair - agents estimate that prices are up by 10 per cent on this time last year. The same goes for the market in large country houses in the South. It should be remembered that this is the area where values have often more than halved since 1990.

This sector of the market, which takes off at around pounds 500,000, has a dynamic all of its own. Its resurgence is apparently not fuelled entirely by foreign buyers, but by prudent British families who have been watching their money grow in deposit accounts.

James Laing of Strutt & Parker said there had been a complete transformation in the market this year. 'My view is that in the South of England we have seen an uplift which could be 10 per cent. Since January we have known that if we put something on at a sensible price we should be able to sell it within three months.'

If you are thinking of buying or selling a house, you would do better to listen to your local agents than go by the latest Halifax and Nationwide statistics due out early next week. Even with a regional breakdown, their figures for London, for example, still lump together every district from Tower Hamlets to Mayfair. If you are selling in either of these places, or in somewhere completely different, an average figure for the whole capital is not terribly helpful.