So, what's the word on the street?

For Terry Watson, spying on the neighbours is all in a day's work. This ex-policeman will suss out an area for potential homebuyers.
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The Independent Online

Terry Watson's skin must be very thick. Unannounced, he could turn up on the street where you live, watch the goings-on of you and your neighbours and make a note of who parks where, how many dogs are barking and who plays their stereo loudly. He may even knock at your door and ask you what the neighbours are like. It's all in a day's work for Terry, an ex-policeman, who is paid by potential purchasers to "survey" the area where they intend to live.

Terry Watson's skin must be very thick. Unannounced, he could turn up on the street where you live, watch the goings-on of you and your neighbours and make a note of who parks where, how many dogs are barking and who plays their stereo loudly. He may even knock at your door and ask you what the neighbours are like. It's all in a day's work for Terry, an ex-policeman, who is paid by potential purchasers to "survey" the area where they intend to live.

You will pay out thousands to surveyors, solicitors and estate agents when you move home but none of this cash will go towards telling you what it's actually like to live in the street where you've bought. What happens in the local park during the evening, will you be able to park your car outside your house after six and do school children and their parents' cars invade the street at 3pm?

"People can view a property with rose-tinted glasses," says Terry. "Usually at a time that's convenient to the vendor, which may just happen to be when the neighbour is out exercising the noisy dogs that live next door."

Terry works for Homecheckuk and could find himself in London one week and northern Scotland the next, sussing out people and places. First on the agenda is a visit to the local police station, where his police credentials are a bonus. Here, he gleans information on local crime statistics, as well as any potential problems such as drinking and drug taking in the park after dark - not so obvious on the sunny day when you visited with your toddler.

Terry will visit nearby pubs and tell you what sort of person goes there and when and, most importantly, if there are any function rooms with licensing extensions that could mean late-night noise.

All the information provided is within the law and complies with the Data Protection Act - Homecheck does not give details of individual people's criminal records. This confidential report costs around £250 and could also include covert camera coverage, as proof of a problem, if necessary.

Does Terry get a lot of doors slammed in his face when he starts to ask questions? Surprisingly, the answer is no. "People are only too happy to tell you about their patch," he says. "It's important to be happy and casual so I can throw in questions like are there any neighbours from hell?" If residents ask him for ID it shows they are good neighbours and if they call the police station to check him out it's even better, they'll find out he's bona fide.

As the numerous TV docu-soaps show, having a bad neighbour can be a living nightmare. Local authority statistics show that more than half of complaints about noise relate to barking dogs, 24 per cent to loud TVs and 18 per cent to DIY.

As we rarely visit our intended new home more than twice, it's not just bad neighbours that you can fail to spot. According to Terry, seemingly innocuous features can hide potential problems. Footpaths may run conveniently to the station but just how many people will be walking alongside your house at regular intervals throughout the day? And what if an alleyway leads to a less salubrious housing estate where its residents use it for unsociable behaviour after dark, such as urinating, drug taking or as a lovers' lane?

To get the full picture Homecheck makes several trips to the area at different times of the day. "I'll drive around at busy times to monitor traffic flow,then tour the neighbourhood on foot, knocking on a few doors or just having a chat with people I meet in the street or the corner shop," says Terry.

Primary schools could mean noisy playtimes and traffic jams in the morning as children are dropped off by car, while secondary schools could mean large groups of teenagers in high spirits invading quiet streets every afternoon.

Beware of the quiet cul-de-sac during the day. It could turn into a football pitch or roller-skating rink when the schools are out. Perhaps that's reassuring if you have children, but for a retired couple it could become a nightmare.

So who seems most likely to want someone to investigate an area before they move there? Terry says all sorts. "Busy people who haven't the time to go walkabout themselves, others who don't want to be saddled with a house they can't sell on." Retired folk are also keen to make the right decision, as are people who have had a bad neighbourhood experience before. Terry's recent appearance on BBC television's All The Right Moves brought a flurry of enquiries.

"The worst part of my job is giving a client a bad report about a property they've fallen in love with, it can break their hearts," he says.

Graham Harris, newly elected president of the National Association of Estate Agents, welcomes the idea of a detailed report. "The more accurate information anyone can provide the better it must be for everyone. It's the estate agent's job to turn negatives into positives, if an area is seriously blighted then that must be reflected in the price of the property. They can also make capital out of pluses like schools at the top of the league tables."

Estate agents are not obliged to give detailed information about a neighbourhood but some will provide a buyer's pack with basic local amenity information. Mr Harris sees any extension to what is currently on offer as crucial. "Anything that adds value to a service is a useful tool."

Most of the factual information in Homecheck's report is already available to the public. The seller's solicitor should provide a form filled in by the vendor answering some standard questions covering neighbours but considering more than half of all vendors would not reveal noisy neighbours, it could be down to you to do your own investigations. A leafy road with smart cars can be the target for car theft. Living near a hospital, fire or police station can mean the regular and noisy presence of emergency vehicles; a corner shop or doctor's surgery could give rise to constant activity during opening hours. Badly positioned street lamps could illuminate a bedroom during the night.

Michelle Ross had a few reservations about buying her house as it was set back from a main road but, even so, she didn't notice the bus stop directly outside. "After a few days I realised that at 5.20pm every day a queue formed along the wall of my garden and everyone seemed to be intent on peering into my front room. We've had to move our living room to the dining room at the back of the house. When we sell, I'll make sure people are shown the house with the bus timetable in mind."

DIY investigation checklist

* Visit at different times.

* Talk to neighbours and the local shopkeepers.

* Visit the local authority website and look up relevant environmental information.

* Ask at a local police station for local crime problems.

* Read the local paper to get a feel for the community.

www.homecheckuk.com

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