Property: The second worst thing in the world

A new survey shows that buying or selling your home can be more stressful than divorce. So how can you move, and stay sane?
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It sends you mad, and that's official. The Government has even set up a task force to tackle a process which it believes "causes untold stress and misery". But why should buying or selling a house be more stressful for some than divorce?

"It's the uncertainty and lack of control," says Elizabeth Hilliard, author of Perfect Order, a book prompted by her own experience of moving with three children from a large listed house in Yorkshire to a smaller 1970s house in Lincolnshire. "It's like waiting in an airport: you can cope if you are constantly updated about delays but it is far worse if you don't know why."

Caroline Atkins, editor of House Beautiful, agrees that the worst part of the process is waiting for exchange of contracts. Her concerns about the stressful effects of moving led her, together with the DETR, to survey 1,000 readers to find out more: "It was partly because of my own experience of buying and selling, which I feel particularly vengeful about, and also because I get so many letters on the subject."

The survey results were surprising. Asked to assess stress levels for different life events, 46 per cent of respondents rated bereavement as the most stressful occurrence with buying and selling a startling second at 25 per cent.

Divorce was considered by just 11 per cent of readers to produce the most stress, leading to the sorry conclusion that divorce is preferable to putting your property on the market.

Experience does not necessarily help when it comes to moving house. Most respondents had bought three or more properties but described their most recent purchases as more rather than less stressful than earlier moves.

Susan Barr, featured in last week's "Stepping Stones" column, has bought 12 properties in 22 years. She agrees that it doesn't get easier. So why do it? "We get bored, so we move on." Susan admits to finding the process stressful "although we quickly get over it", with solicitors at the top of her list in the stress stakes: "They don't inform you of what's going on or keep in touch with your buyers, so even if you start on friendly terms by the end you're not."

Twelve per cent of House Beautiful readers, when asked what they would change about the system, gave top priority to making gazumping illegal - although the DETR found little evidence of this practice in their survey last year. Eleven per cent wanted accepted offers made legally binding, with 9 per cent of readers wishing to making estate agents and solicitors more hardworking and honest.

Caroline Atkins pinpoints professionals as a stress-inducing factor: "Most people are nervous about wheeling and dealing, which agents do constantly. We're not starting with a level playing field and end up feeling incredibly vulnerable."

Kevin Meacher, a partner of Granvilles, a firm of agents, agrees that his profession is partly to blame. But he believes that his personal service outweighs the sausage- machine mentality of rival larger firms: "Many agents are only interested in getting commissions, but if you put in time and effort then sometimes you can help."

Mr Meacher sees even the "chirpiest of clients become less chirpy" as the tortuous process unfolds: "It is nerve-jangling right up until exchange of contracts."

Granvilles' Bayswater office is occasionally a place where grown men have been seen to weep. This isn't an aspect of the job Mr Meacher enjoys: "I've seen people in tears when their offer has been gazumped and it's a horrible experience." He maintains that gazumping should remain legal: "It's your house and in a rising market like today's your property could be worth 20 per cent more after three months. No one in their right mind is going to turn down pounds 20,000."

Admitting to suffering personally - "I'm in a constant state of stress" - he believes a good working environment helps. A feng shui consultant regularly visits his office and Mr Meacher does his bit: "I wave my little bell around to clear negative vibes and light my incense stick each night. We've had a great year so I'm sticking with it."

We may feel powerless in the face of solicitors, estate agents, surveyors and the many other parties which invariably come between us and our new addresses, but the key to regaining control may lie within our cupboards.

Self-confessed optimist Elizabeth Hilliard argues that a deadline such as moving can be an incentive to organise your possessions and therefore your life, hence Perfect Order's philosophy: "Be positive and make hard decisions. It may be time to part company with old presents that you have kept out of guilt; the same with photos. Choose the best and throw the rest away."

She offers this advice for moving day: "Label all rooms with bedroom one, bedroom two, office, etc. It's tempting to start carrying things in but don't. Instead stand by the van and direct the removals people - things come off the lorry awfully fast."

Elizabeth admits that her own move still took until two in the morning, including an impromptu trip to the pub to placate the removals men. She may have had her own "massive clearout" when she moved, but the period before exchange of contracts, cited by most movers as the worst time, is still fresh in her mind: "I was climbing the walls because of the start of the school term, but in the end we made it with just three days to spare."

Children add a whole other stress factor when we move, but in our own maelstrom of emotions it is easy to overlook their apprehension.

Angela Matthews recently moved with six-year-old Lily. Despite constant reassurances, including reading Shirley Hughes's Moving Molly, Lily still felt the strain: "She was panic stricken. I reminded her that she would lose nothing by moving, but she said: `That's right mum, just my home'."

Angela's children found it hard to see themselves as separate from their home. So she involved them in the packing and gave them a role. "Lily was concerned about friends finding her, so she did the moving cards."

Granvilles: 0171-221 4935; `Perfect Order' by Elizabeth Hilliard pounds 17.99