Property: I can't tell you how boring it is

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The Independent Online
STANDING in a Barratt sales office the other week, I heard a potential customer ask if she could have the keys to see the showhouse on the corner of the development. The salesman said he was very sorry, but she couldn't, because of the Property Misdescriptions Act.

The woman glanced at me, eyebrows raised, to see if this was some kind of joke. The salesman explained they had no remaining completed houses like the showhouse, though they were in the process of building some more in exactly the same style. He was not allowed to let people see the showhouse in case the builders had to introduce any minor alterations in the next phase of development. This struck all of us as absurd. It was not as if the woman was going to hand over any money on the basis of what she saw.

The next day I was talking to Anglia Secure about a development in Arundel, West Sussex. I asked the saleswoman where the site was. By the river, overlooking the castle, so the views were very pretty, she explained. Then she added quickly: 'Of course, I shouldn't say the views are pretty, because that's my opinion. So we'd better just say it's by the river overlooking the castle.'

The Property Misdescriptions Act became law last April and, like all new laws, it will take a while to settle down. At the moment it seems agents and builders feel obliged to reveal less, rather than more about the properties they are selling to escape prosecution.

So far there has been just one prosecution, but that was enough to increase agents' nervousness. Ian Sinclair, an estate agent in Norfolk, was prosecuted for failing to change a card in his window on a house where the client had dropped the price. On the written particulars the price was correctly changed. Trading standards officers pointed out the error to him on a Monday morning. When the card was still incorrect in the afternoon, they charged him.

No one doubts that agents have been guilty in the past of seriously exaggerating the charms of the houses on their books. That was why the act was necessary. But if it is not to fall into disrepute, it should only be used to prosecute cases where there has been a genuine intention to mislead, rather than a technical error. A case is pending involving an agent who described a house as having central heating when it hadn't.

Trading standards officers are charged with enforcing the Property Misdescriptions Act. If they are looking at showhouses they might suggest builders include a TV in the living-room to give buyers a real, rather than a misleading idea of how the place might be furnished. I have yet to see one on any new housing development.

IF YOU prefer your houses old and steeped in history, two very handsome examples have just come up for sale. One is the Manor House at Tolpuddle, Dorset, made famous by the martyrs. This 17th-century stone house, with the River Piddle running through its grounds, has four bedrooms, four reception rooms and two bathrooms. The grounds include a dovecote and an old packhorse bridge spanning the river. It is being sold for pounds 370,000 by Jackson-Stops & Staff in Dorchester (0305 262123).

In Highgate, North London, Black Horse Agencies is selling Byron Cottage, where A E Housman wrote 'A Shropshire Lad' (a blue plaque testifies to the fact). The house is set back from the road and has a walled garden and garage beyond. With four bedrooms and two reception rooms, it is priced at pounds 400,000 (081-348 8131).