Property: You can't always get what you want: Sound family houses in good locations are in such demand that, despite the slump, agents can't get enough of them. David Lawson reports

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FIRST the good news: one corner of the property market is flourishing. If you wish to sell a particular kind of large family home (price range, pounds 150,000 to pounds 500,000), you can be confident of considerable interest and brisk success. Now, the not so good: if you want to buy such a home, join the queue.

This may seem surprising in a market clogged with more than 200,000 unsold houses, but big family homes in good locations are proving hard to find, and those that do come to light often sell before agents have a chance to put up a board.

Ian Campbell has experienced both sides of this conundrum. Three bidders jumped at the chance to buy his home, Hammill House, in Thorpe, Norwich. It sold within three months for within 5 per cent of the pounds 295,000 asking price. The move was a wrench because Ian built the seven-bedroom mock-Georgian mansion; but that allowed him to set an attractive price on a house that might have been worth pounds 400,000 at the peak of the property boom.

He is now looking for a house close to his Norwich business, and big enough to hold a couple of teenagers and an eight-year-old. 'But while the good ones are in the wrong place, those in the right place are no good,' he says. 'And the really good ones are not even on the market; their owners are waiting until prices recover.'

Robin Tillett, is in the same boat. He has a couple of teenagers crammed into a Kent village house and, being an estate agent, might seem well-placed to solve his problem. But in these straitened times, he cannot move up the market. 'We really have to aim sideways,' he says, 'and there is huge competition in that area.'

Agents Knight Frank & Rutley have found that almost half the buyers on the books of its national chain of offices are looking for family houses below pounds 500,000.

Many people seeking to move up from the traditional suburban semi have stayed in their present homes for a decade or more as their children grew up. They have little fear of their houses being worth less than the mortgage and, in fact, they often have enough built-in profit to cut the price, win a buyer and trade up.

But they are competing with other groups for the same homes. Almost every customer who approaches Mr Tillett's KFR office in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, wants to move sideways, or down market, into his band of housing.

Like him, many have children at private schools and need cash to make up for the loss of boom-time salaries. 'We recently sold a house at around pounds 400,000 for a family now looking in the pounds 250,000 range,' he says. 'The principal reason for moving was to free equity for education fees.'

Mark Stewart, of Bidwells in Norwich, who handled Ian Campbell's sale, says that new, well-located properties such as Hammill House are perfect for professionals with growing families moving into Norwich's swelling financial sector.

These people scour the villages for older property in unspoilt settings. Walnut Tree House, a seven-bed property in a village 14 miles from Norwich, sold within weeks at close to a pounds 185,000 asking price because of its peaceful location. 'If I had 10 old, five-bed rectories, each with a few acres of land, I could sell them overnight, as long as they weren't big draughty places,' he says.

Mark Smith, of KFR in Oxford, has a similar tale. He was inundated with inquiries when Little Manor in Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, came on to his books. 'We had 23 viewers in August, in what are usually the quietest three weeks of the year. It sold within four weeks at the asking price of pounds 240,000.'

Another factor is raising the popularity on these larger homes. 'As interest rates fall, people who have rented for the past couple of years, are starting to buy,' Malcolm Phipps, of KFR in Hertfordshire, says. 'They think prices will not fall much further and their money is not doing as well sitting in the bank.'

And the prospect of a bargain brings them out in droves. More than 35 toured a repossessed five- bed home in Hadley Wood that had been cut from pounds 795,000 to pounds 475,000, and three people ended up bidding more than pounds 450,000. 'All were in rented homes with nothing to sell,' he says.

This sort of demand is not limited to the South. Mergie, a fortified 16th-century house in Rickarton, near Aberdeen, attracted 150 inquiries before going for more than the asking price of pounds 310,000 within six weeks. 'Ease of access is generally more important than price in Scotland,' William Jackson, of KFR, says.

In the Shropshire area, about 70 per cent of buyers are looking for family houses worth between pounds 250,000 and pounds 400,000. Location and price are well ahead of condition on their list of priorities, Archie Hunter, of Balfour & Cooke, says. 'Extra pressure is coming from families with younger children looking for better lifestyles by moving out of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the South- east.' Recently he sold a six-bed Georgian house, in 20 acres, within a month for close to the asking price of pounds 350,000.

Sydling Court, a listed country house near Dorchester, stimulated 200 inquiries and went in three weeks for little short of the pounds 650,000 asking price, says Michael de Pelet, a Sherborne-based estate agent. 'We have had a good run lately from people looking for new lifestyles and ready to spend again,' he says. 'They rushed for Sydling Court because it was unspoilt. People prefer something to be untouched rather than half-finished or badly converted.'

Sellers, however, should beware of raising their hopes as the backlog of potential buyers begins to switch out of renting. 'You have to have the right house at the right price,' says David Mitchell, of Dreweatt Neate, who handles big family homes throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire. If there is even the slightest problem, it may require hefty discounts of 20 per cent or more to attract attention. 'Even then, netting a buyer can boil down to a large slice of luck.'

(Photographs omitted)

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