Property: Agents face some critical home truths

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The Independent Online
'SOD the Budget]' shouted one agent down the phone. 'I can live with Lamont's cock-ups. I'm more concerned about whether some sloppy receptionist and nit-picking buyer is going to land me in the slammer before the recovery takes off.'

Tough controls come into force next month banning agents for doing what comes naturally - puffing property. If after 4 April they want to claim 'easy access to shops', someone will need to test the theory by strolling down for a pint of milk. Otherwise a disillusioned customer and dyspeptic judge may have them behind bars before their well-polished shoes touch the ground.

But before buyers get too ecstatic that the Property Misdescriptions Act will bring a breath of truth into the biz, remember that you will also be sellers one day. 'My biggest problem is getting people to tone down the prose on their homes. They might think the place is paradise, but I'm the one who faces ruin if it can't be backed up,' says the harassed agent.

That is not the official line. 'We welcome the Act and feel it will do much to improve the image of estate agency,' says Paul Raymond of Chestertons Residential in London. But that has not stopped him sending every manager, negotiator and secretary on courses to learn what they can and cannot say. Everyone must pass a written exam before being allowed back, as it only takes a slip of the tongue to bring these draconian new laws crashing down on them.

All this takes money, and Mr Raymond fudges whether costs will be passed on to sellers. But agents rarely do something for nothing. Michael Hobbs in Bath is less circumspect, warning that fees will soar.

I would welcome tales from readers about how they have been duped by past fictions. Then we can see how much this change was really required.

BUYERS should keep a close eye on special deals being floated by lenders, as they will disappear at the first sniff of a real recovery. The Cheltenham & Gloucester, for instance, is now offering first-time buyers rates as low as 4 per cent for the next year on loans up to pounds 70,000. The Nationwide is also flogging off repossessions with a two-year fixed- rate of 4.25 per cent.

Both need 10 per cent deposits, however. This demand for up-front money can be a general stumbling block for second-time buyers in the negative equity trap. Their savings are eaten up by the difference between the value of their home and the mortgage, so they cannot meet the big deposits demanded nowadays for a new loan. To overcome this hurdle, The Household Mortgage Corporation has brought back the 100 per cent mortgage. But it is only for 'safe' borrowers who have lived in their current home for two years, kept up with the loan payments and have a basic salary above pounds 10,000 a year.

BUILDERS are also coming up with some imaginative schemes to help clear the decks of unsold homes so they can concentrate on the impending revival. Hunting Gate is betting against buyers who feel prices will continue to fall. It allows them to hold back 15 per cent of the purchase price for up to five years. A pounds 100,000 home will cost pounds 85,000 today and if it falls to pounds 90,000 by 1998, then the builder can claim only another pounds 5,000 - in effect, an insurance against plunging values.

Fairclough Homes has tapped special tax incentives to provide a different form of pay-later scheme. Buyers postpone their purchase by renting houses and flats for up to pounds 65 a week ( pounds 96 maximum in London Docklands) until 1997. They are committed to buy then - but only at today's values. A third of the 750 homes involved have already been reserved, says Fairclough.

REMEMBER those ambitions to own a home in Mayfair one day? Fell apart during the boom, didn't they? Well think again. A studio in Grosvenor Street is on the market for offers over pounds 40,000. And at 20ft by 11ft 6ins, this is no broom cupboard, says Philip Jackson of Chestertons. But if you miss next Thursday's deadline for offers, he happens to have a nice alternative penthouse nearby where the drawing room alone is more than twice the size of the whole studio. It does cost pounds 1.5m though.