It is that dismal time of year, when sellers have to contend with marketing their properties under grey skies, with bare gardens at their most stark and unappealing. But in a pretty corner of the Essex and Hertfordshire border, there is an additional factor adding to the gloom - the announcement of a second runway for Stansted airport, which for many was unwelcome, if not totally unexpected.
The initial impact on the property market has been uncertain. January is notoriously quiet as the market emerges from its seasonal hibernation, while announcements heralding dramatic change elsewhere have tended to result in an initial period of stunned silence. David Milligan, who heads Knight Frank's office in Hungerford, Wiltshire, recalls events surrounding the controversial Newbury bypass: "After the go-ahead was announced there was uncertainty, pessimism and the inevitable endless debate on what the effects on property prices would be."
Economic theory is only a limited help in predicting how events will subsequently unfold in any given property market, which is far removed from the textbook "perfect market" of standardised goods, ease of exit and entry from and into the market, and perfect information.
It is the absence of the latter that is the crucial issue at Stansted. Tony Mullucks of Mullucks Wells, which has agencies in several of the towns in the vicinity of the airport including Stansted Mountfitchet, Bishop's Stortford and Great Dunmow, says, "So far we know there will be a second runway and where it will be, so those living on that land know with certainty that they will have to leave their homes."
In these cases, the effects will be dramatic. Two years ago, Paul Jarman, residential director of FPDSavills' office in Bishop's Stortford, sold a desirable period property within the area of the proposed runway for £750,000. "Clearly, there will no market for such properties, although owners could rent them out in the interim period - the rental market in the area is still very buoyant. Otherwise, it is a matter of waiting for the compulsory purchase process to proceed," he says.
For Mullucks, there is a sense of déjà vu: his company acted for many of the homeowners seeking compensation in the 1990s as Stansted rapidly metamorphosed from a small local airport into an international one. "Ultimately, house owners who are affected by this new phase will receive compensation, but the UK Compensation Acts review and changes in the land compensation rules added to the general uncertainty."
The biggest unknown, however, remains the precise location of the new flight paths. The area as a whole may be relatively sparsely populated, but this is scant comfort for those directly affected by the rumblings and grindings of the aircraft overhead. "The level of depreciation in properties affected by expansion, such as those at either end of the proposed runway, is difficult to estimate," Mullucks admits.
Optimists may point to the case of the Newbury bypass. "Totally unforeseen factors, like road-building materials that reduced noise, meant the impact was less than feared, particularly on the Western side of the bypass where the prevailing wind is a south-westerly," Milligan recalls. While it is stretching it to imagine an equivalent technological cotton-woolling of aircraft noise, it does indicate the need to consider actual effects at micro level.
Jarman agrees. "For buyers to avoid the whole area around Stansted is too simplistic. We already know that Stansted village, for example, will not be greatly affected because you can't fly over it - you can't turn an aeroplane on a pin. It is a similar story with Great Dunmow. Even so, general nervousness will inevitably [cause us to] lose sales."
Buyers with an eye for a bargain are likely to be disappointed. The announcement in July 2002 that Stansted was one of the areas being considered for expansion has already given the market enough time to absorb the shock and make some adjustments. "Prices have already fallen by around 20 to 25 per cent in the areas perceived to be most affected," Jarman estimates. "That inevitably had a knock-on effect for those areas near to these locations, even though they will be unaffected, so for purchasers looking for a good buy in a beautiful area that is where any 'bargain' will be found."
Even places under a flight path can show some resilience if buyers can be distracted by its other charms. Thaxted, an attractive Lovejoy village of thatched cottages and an ancient 14th-century guild hall, lies beneath the existing landing flight path. "Prices would have been 5 to 10 per cent higher without the flight path," says Mullucks, "but being a honeypot village means it has much going for it to regardless the flight path. Other places might not have been so fortunate."
Over the longer term, annoying though the new runway may be for those forced to leave their homes, not to mention the destruction of irreplaceable tracts of countryside, there is the promise of benefits in terms of jobs and business. "Over the next 20 or 30 years, as a result of the airport growth, there could be some 30,000 to 40,000 people looking to buy in all price bands," says Jarman.