Property: When hunting a house, recruit a special agent

There are many ways of finding a property. One is to register with every estate agent in the area you want to live in - and risk receiving piles of dross in the mail. Another way is to define the kind of home you need and find the agent best suited to deliver it. Ginetta Vedrickas examines several potential house-hunting scenarios to discover who are the movers and shakers in that field.

Years ago a house-hunting mission led me to Hamptons' Dulwich branch in London. A helpful agent took my requirements: three bedrooms, garden and as near to the village as possible.

Then it came to the crunch question. How much would I like to spend? I muttered feebly, quickly adding pounds 10,000 I could not afford, and it became clear that Hamptons and I were incompatible. Had I said pence rather than pounds? Feeling like someone looking for lard in Harrods, I shuffled off to a, shall we say, less sought-after area where agents did not pale at my paltry price range and have lived here ever since.

There is clearly an art to choosing the right agent. It is pointless registering with Savills, the serious end of the market, if you are after a bargain repossession.

Mary-Anne Crafter describes her company, Hamptons, as "middle to upper market". Currently on the books is a pounds 5m home in Mill Hill, north London. It also has "good quality period cottages" for pounds 150,000. Hamptons has no minimum price but would it market a cheap and nasty home? "If we believed we could do it justice," Ms Crafter says.

Weary home-hunters, on any budget, could do worse than access a central database which holds thousands of property details. Director Hilary Wade says Winkworth is London's largest agent: "We have offices from Streatham to Knightsbridge and can send a tailor-made list matching your financial specification and location."

Price range is not everything. Strutt & Parker, Knight Frank, and Aylesford may dominate established, wealthy areas such as Chelsea and Belgravia in London. But the uber-chic are turning elsewhere in pursuit of "space" in the emerging residential areas on the City's edges.

Manhattan Lofts is a prime mover in the push to change industrial space into home. Pioneers of the now-deeply trendy Clerkenwell, over half of its apartments in N1's The Factory (a reference to Mr Warhol) have sold and many to "bankers and lawyers".

Surely Andy didn't approve of day jobs? Ice Wharf, a canalside development is being marketed by Pilcher Hershman and its site, "Gateway to Europe" - King's Cross to you and I - is ripe for development as aspirational properties replace the area's more notorious industry.

A friend viewed a canalside apartment but found "it smelled like the Ganges and that was in December". Development is not the only thing which should be ripe by next summer.

Shell-seekers can choose from an abundance of agents jostling for position in their quest to sell the next important space. A company's name often divulges its market which is why you will not find terrace houses on offer at Clerkenwell's Urban Spaces.

"We don't have washing lines full of details," says Merope Nelson, anegotiator. "Our market is non-traditional so we're redefining how we sell. Our clients want to know about light and square footage, they're not interested in exteriors and often don't mind where they live as long as the space is right."

Urban Spaces' windows have concepts rather than property details. Space is defined as "living, work, raw or shell" for the benefit of creative clients, designers and photographers, who want large living and working areas which they can style themselves. Lettings form a considerable slice of its market and because spaces can be idiosyncratic Merope looks for clients "who appreciate designer German doorknobs".

Who will find that cosy retirement bungalow by the sea when you can no longer manage the urban loft's stairs? Fort Knox of Frinton, which could be named after its clients' love of security, operates through word of mouth rather than advertising. "In Frinton, if they know you they'll come to you," says Shauna Heal, a negotiator.

Other local agents rely on recommendation. "Elderly people don't like things like Internet, they haven't even got computers," says Gordon Suckling, whose company has been selling retirement homes for more than 25 years. Seventy per cent of his clients are elderly and are looking for large bungalows.

Why Frinton? "They've been coming here on holiday all their lives," Mr Suckling says. "It's their ambition to retire here for peace and quiet. People don't want to be pestered and you can't even buy an ice cream on the beach - it's virtually an island." He becomes guarded as he remembers a previous scandal to hit town: "That hoo- ha about [the council] banning the fish and chip shop, some newspaper chap had a bee in his bonnet about Frinton."

Renee Everett first used Gordon Suckling's services 28 years ago and has bought and sold through his company ever since. She has travelled but prefers Frinton. "It's my favourite place. When I'm away I can't get back fast enough."

When her husband became seriously ill they decided to sell their large house and buy a flat there. "Gordon did everything he could to make life easier for us," she says. Mrs Everett, whose husband later died feels settled in her flat and relieved to live in a community where the local agent plays a strong part. Frinton may move at a slower pace but what it lacks in technological advancement it makes up for with personal service.

Hamptons: 0171 8248822; Savills: 0171 7300822; Winkworth: 0171 7271117; Strutt & Parker: 0171 629 7282; Knight Frank: 0171 629 8171; Aylesford: 0171 351 2383; Manhattan Lofts: 0171 631 1888; Pilcher Hershman: 0171 486 5256; Urban Spaces: 0171 251 4000; Fort Knox: 01255 674099; Gordon Suckling: 01255 851185.

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