Thousands of homeowners are struggling to sell their properties because Britain's runaway property market has finally ground to a halt in the wake of a string of interest rate rises from the Bank of England.
Estate agents across the country have found themselves swamped with houses for sale because potential buyers are very reluctant to commit themselves due to widespread fears of a further hike in the cost of borrowing.
According to a study by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the number of properties on the market has rocketed by almost a third in the past year and now stands at its highest level since May 2003.
Experts don't expect the outlook to change anytime soon. Simon Rubinsohn, chief economist at City institution Gerrard, believes interest rates may even rise by 0.25 per cent in May which will act as a further brake on the housing market.
"The housing market has stood up very well so far because it has been supported by factors such as strong employment figures," he says. "However, a further interest rate rise will be another signal that the market will be weaker during 2006."
Official figures from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister reveal that UK house prices fell 0.1 per cent in January which means the value of the average property has now slipped back to £178,796. However, Mandy Bradley, director of website propertyforecasts.co.uk, believes there's no reason to suspect the property market is going to crash and insists homeowners will still be able to make modest profits during 2005. "Whether prices rise or fall really does come down to a case-by-case basis," she says. "Similar houses in neighbouring streets can be sold for vastly different amounts depending on the house itself."
So how can homeowners increase their chances of clinching a sale?
According to Melfyn Williams, a former president of the National Association of Estate Agents who runs the agency Williams & Goodwin, the most important consideration in today's volatile marketplace is the price.
"A couple of years ago you could get away with asking a premium, but that's no longer the case," he says. "If people want to sell their houses they will need to price it reasonably and be willing to listen to sensible offers. As long as they follow their agent's advice then they should be okay."
Simon Waterman, who runs the independent agency Waterman's in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, agrees. He believes forging a good working relationship with your agent is crucial, as well as making sure you don't turn away potential buyers.
"You have got to choose your agent carefully, have confidence they will work hard to promote your house to their clients and then work closely with them," he says. "Sellers also need to be flexible about viewing times, even if people want to look around at inconvenient times. It's certainly worth putting the extra effort in."
It's worth considering giving your house to more than one agent. Normally this means having to pay a higher commission when it's finally sold, but don't be afraid to bargain hard. It's sometimes possible to persuade two agents to agree to a joint sole arrangement. Either they will split the commission between them or whoever finalises the sale will take the lot.
Peter Toothill, manager of Dacre, Son & Hartley's office in Guiseley, West Yorkshire, says the golden rule is to remember that first impressions count - and sales can be won or lost on how good a property looks from the road.
"You should always keep the exterior clean and tidy," he says. "Remember to mow the lawn, sweep the path and consider hanging a flower basket. You need to welcome the buyer into your home."
It's a similar story inside the property. The buzzword in estate agent circles at the moment is "de-clutter", which means making sure each room is well maintained, clean and tidy.
Dirty windows and dishes needing a wash will not be selling points, although it could be worthwhile leaving a few magazines scattered around to give a lived-in feel, as well as switching on lamps to brighten up dark rooms.
Some sellers undertake major construction work such as building a conservatory, says Michael Thompson, director of estate agency Gascoigne Halman in Hale, Cheshire, but that won't be right for every case.
"If someone can put in a downstairs toilet for not much extra cost then that might be worthwhile, but it probably wouldn't be financially worth putting in a loft conversion," he adds. "It's more important to make sure it looks good as the more memorable - in a good way - it is then the more likely you are to find a buyer."
For those who have no luck going down the traditional estate agency route, however, there are some alternatives.
An increasing number of sellers are marketing their houses privately - either through placing adverts in newspapers and magazines or by advertising on one of the specialist property websites which have sprung up in recent years.
One such example is Homes by Web which was set up a few years ago by entrepreneur Ken Dickson. For a one-off fee of £100, sellers are provided with their own web page on which they can post a 300 word description of the property - including contact details - and up to four photographs.
A good tip before deciding to go down this route is to spend time surfing the internet to find out which property sites are most accessible. If you can find one within a few key strokes you can guarantee your potential buyers will see it as well.
'We even put in a new driveway'
Alan Hydes, an artist, has invested a few thousand pounds into redecorating his beautiful four-bedroom detached home in Leeds over recent months to make sure potential buyers will be impressed.
Alan and his wife Susan, who are both 58, have lived in the former wool merchant's house for over 20 years but have reluctantly decided to put it on the market as they are spending an increasing amount of time abroad.
And the couple, who are selling the 1830s property through Dacre, Son & Hartley, realised that even unique houses must look their best in order to attract buyers, because of the sheer number of properties which are currently on the market.
"I have been using one of the south-facing bedrooms as a studio for years, so that room has now been totally transformed," says Alan. "We have also had the decorators in to make sure all the paintwork is fresh. The old tarmac driveway has also been replaced with gravel, which looks far nicer."Reuse content