Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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Once upon a time, a Californian interior designer called Ann Maurice made a television programme called House Doctor, and the phrase went on to become part of the English language. In fact, it's even become a verb - you hear people talk about House Doctoring their property before they put it on the market.

I can't believe there is anyone who is not familiar with the House Doctor make-over programmes, but just in case, it goes like this. Tough-talking US lady arrives at your bijou residence. She casts a disparaging eye over the clutter in the entrance hall, the stained carpet in the living room, the spare bedroom full of junk. She tells you that your flat or house - languishing on the market for 18 months - requires a serious amount of elbow grease and reorganisation.

She doesn't spend shed loads of money (House Doctor is about making the best of what you have in order to maximise the profit from your sale), but she may add the odd cushion here or new curtains there. Then the furniture is rearranged, everything gets a good polish and, hey presto, the property sells.

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? But I can tell you that it works, and my stepdaughter can prove it. She House Doctored her flat and sold it within 24 hours.

Until she completes, she's too superstitious to let me use her real name, so we'll call her and her partner Ms A and Mr B. Their flat's in a very nice road, in south London, and it's got two bedrooms, a living room, a separate kitchen and a bathroom. Ms A has done quite a bit of redecorating during the past few years, and the flat always looks smart and stylish but at the same time feels warm and comfortable. So when they put it on the market 18 months ago, all their friends thought it would sell in a flash.

It didn't. Viewers came and went, but without anyone showing any serious interest. The estate agent murmured something about the hall looking a bit cramped, but it is very tempting to think that estate agents are just making excuses when your property isn't selling, and that a bit more effort on their part might secure a buyer.

Finally, Ms A decided to take a long, objective look and try to see the flat through a buyer's eyes. She realised that Mr A's massive record collection (vinyl, indeed, not CDs), which was housed on shelves in the hall, was making the entrance look narrow and uninviting. Not only that, but the second bedroom was set up as a study, with a desk instead of a bed.

It is a classic rule of House Doctoring that if you're marketing a two-bedroom property, you present it for sale with two rooms that are ready to sleep in, not one room with a bed and one room that can be converted into a spare room once you've cleared out all the junk, moved several bits of furniture and unfolded the sofa bed.

It is also a classic rule that first impressions are the most important. So if your entrance hall looks cramped or cluttered, this is one of the first places you should make changes. Ms A decided to make big changes.

The record collection was banished (to our garage) along with the shelves that housed it. The study was rearranged as a bedroom, complete with double bed. And a sideboard in the living room was also removed, to make the flat look more spacious. Hardly had Ms A finished delivering the last box of records to our house, than the flat sold. Yup, the very next day.

Of course, it's not just a question of waving a metaphorical magic wand over your furnishings. You have to research your market. Ms A realised that, given the price of her flat, she would probably end up selling to a professional couple (ie two incomes). And whereas that might mean a couple living together, it might equally mean two singles who'd decided to share a mortgage in order to get a toehold on the property ladder. In which case, a second viable bedroom is of the utmost importance.

So the next time you watch a property make-over programme and are tempted to scoff, think of Ms A. She'll be laughing too - all the way to the bank.

Ann Maurice's new show, 'Interior Rivalry 2', begins on 22 March at 8pm on Five.