Sandstone and thatch: what am I bid?

It was like a scene from Thomas Hardy as locals gathered to see the auction of Church Cottage in Studland, Dorset. Anne Spackman joined them
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More than a hundred people packed into the village hall at Studland in Dorset last week to witness the very public spectacle of the auction of Church Cottage. Packed in under the rafters still decked in old man's beard from the harvest supper, they were like the audience at a public ducking - curious to get a good look. Would the buyers be wealthy folk from London looking for a weekend place? Foreigners, perhaps, drawn by the chocolate-box charm of thatch and cobb with a sea view? Would they care for the garden, tended for 50 years by the Battrick family, stars of the Studland village flower show? How much would they pay?

Michael Ferguson, owner of the popular Knoll House Hotel, had taken 230 bets in his sweepstake on the sale price. The highest was from his mother, Pauline, at pounds 300,000; the lowest was from his girlfriend, Claire, wishful thinking at pounds 120,000. The professionals involved in the sale - the estate agents and solicitors - ran their own card, with the smart money placed around pounds 218,000.

Why so much interest? Studland is a special place. It lies on the eastern coast of the Isle of Purbeck, a ferry ride from the busy beaches of Poole and Bournemouth, in the ancient fossil-rich heathland of Dorset. The architecture is period sandstone and thatch, the weather is kind, the landscape beautiful and unspoilt.

Studland was one of the villages on the 7,500-acre estate that the Bankes family left to the National Trust in 1981. Few village houses come up for sale on the open market. One of the only other landowners in the village is the church, which owns the cottage between the Norman gem of St Nicholas and the sea.

Built of cobb and sandstone, probably in the 18th century, the cream- washed cottage nestles under a thatched roof. It stands on the edge of the village, looking out to sea. From almost every room there is a view all the way along the headland to the rocks of Old Harry, a mile away.

Inside, the cottage has two living-rooms with vast fireplaces, a kitchen, three bedrooms, a bathroom and not a single straight wall between them. Outside it has half an acre of lush grass. As Doreen White, who lives over the road, remarked at the auction: "It needs a bit of love."

Elsie Battrick rented Church Cottage from 1942 until she died. Her son Mark, who was born there, hoped to take it over, but the church trust wanted to sell. There are those in the village who feel he had a strong moral claim to the property, while others wanted to see the church get the best price possible - the proceeds of the sale are to be spent in the parish, rather than poured into the general diocesan coffers in Salisbury.

Inside the village hall the green-and-gold penant of Knight Frank & Rutley hung incongruously from the trestle table on the stage. Behind it sat the auctioneer John Inge, a senior partner in KFR, and his brother George, former chairman of Savills, who was clerk. The big guns had returned to the village where they grew up to lend the proceedings a touch of wit and class.

"The king is risen," whispered Doreen White's friend Margaret as John Inge rose to his feet. "Studland," he announced impartially, "is one of the loveliest villages in England. George, did you learn to dance here? Yes, me too."

He took the crowd gently through the rules of the auction game and then the bidding began. The agents had set a stiff guide price of pounds 175,000. Around 70 people had gone as far as asking for copies of the conditions of sale. Now it was down to about eight serious candidates.

The youngest was Charles Dean, his partner, Lucy, daughter and 10-week- old baby. They live in London where he is a senior accountant for River Island and Lucy works for a local authority. It would be easy to caricature them as typical weekenders. But Charles Dean understands the hostility that attitude provokes. "I was brought up in a village and I know that people feel very protective towards it and wary of people coming in. All I can say is I love this area, I respect it and I want to be a part of it. If we are successful, this cottage will be the place we think of as home, even if we have got to be in town during the week."

His preparations for the sale included a survey, a structural engineer's report, consultations with a cobb expert and local conservation officials. He had talked to people about how to bid at auction and arranged bridging finance should he be successful.

The bidding started at pounds 150,000 (the local surveyor's valuation price). It rose slowly in leaps of pounds 5,000, with a little gentle encouragement from John Inge. By the time the price hit pounds 200,000 the Deans were out and it seemed a straight contest between the Squires on the left and the Simkins on the right.

Then suddenly a new bidder, Brian Richardson, came in at pounds 212,000. Sitting directly behind the Simkins, he matched them thousand for thousand, the auctioneer extracting each bid a little more painfully than the last. It seemed all over, when suddenly a confident hand shot up at the back. "Two hundred and sixty thousand pounds," said Terry Anderson. The crowd gasped. Mr Richardson went one thousand further, but the stuffing had been knocked out of him. "Sold," said Mr Inge, "to the gentleman at the back for pounds 262,000."

Who was he? Gradually snippets of information were passed around the hall about Terry Anderson and his wife, Irene. They had sold an old rectory in nearby Poole. They were planning to live in Studland full-time. His hobby was restoring period houses. She was a keen gardener. Everyone was delighted. "May I be the first to welcome you to Studland," said one lady. "Hello, I'm the only alto in the church choir," said another.

Mr Anderson, a semi-retired company chairman, said he had only bought once before at auction and swore never to do it again. His tactic this time had been to wait until the last possible moment. "People exhaust themselves," he said. "Uncertainties creep in." Mr Anderson had no such doubts. Before he came to the sale he had made another significant purchase. "I have just ordered a boat, a jet-powered fishing boat," he said. "I intend to use it to commute from Studland to Poole."

HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL AT AN AUCTION

One consequence of the high numbers of reposessions has been the huge growth in auctions of residential property. Auction catalogues are now dominated by properties marked By Order of the Mortgagee. Anyone interested in buying at auction should call the leading houses (numbers below) and ask for the catalogue for their next residential sale. It will include a picture and brief - usually frank - description of the property and its more obvious warts. If you are interested in buying, you call the auction house for the guide price - a very rough estimate of its value - and arrange to view. Most of the large residential auctions take place in London, on average 10 times a month, though Manchester has also become a popular venue.

Gary Marsh of Allsop & Co, one of the big auction houses, says the current audience at auctions comprises two-thirds dealers and one-third private buyers. He says most auctioneers will slow down for the private buyers, allowing them more time to consider their bids. But it is still a highly- charged occasion. "We've had underbidders burst into tears and others so delighted it's taken five minutes to calm them down," he said. His advice to novice bidders is to adopt the boy scouts' motto - Be Prepared.

Some Golden Rules

The first rule of bidding is to do your homework. By the time the sale arrives you should be in the same position as a buyer ready to exchange contracts - survey done, mortgage arranged, solicitors ready with all the documents. Never bid for a property you have not seen and checked out thoroughly, however low the price.

Set yourself a limit and stick to it. It is all too easy to be swept along by the speed and excitement of the sale into paying thousands more than you can afford. Remember the auctioneer is acting for the vendor.

Get your hand up. Contrary to the myth that any sudden movement can render you the unexpected owner of an Old Master, it is up to the bidder to make sure he or she gets noticed. In a large sale each lot will go in under five minutes, so you have to be quick.

Arrange insurance from the day of the auction. If you are successful you are responsible for insuring the property from the moment contracts are exchanged.

Should you make a dreadful mistake and wish to pull out of a deal after the hammer has fallen, the auctioneer, in practice, is unlikely to force you to go through with the sale. However, you are wide open to be pursued through the courts by the vendor.

Further information

Faxwise is a subscription service providing information, catalogues and results of all auctions held in London (0171-720 5000); Allsop & Co (0171 437 6977) publishes a four-page buyers' guide which can be accessed automatically by fax on 0336 413704; Barnard Marcus 0181-741 9990; Winkworth 0181-649 7255; Ashberrys 0171-702 8311; Edwin Evans 0171-228 5864.

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