Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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When A neighbour, or someone in a neighbouring street, puts their property on the market, the temptation to have a nose round verges on the irresistible. For most of us, this results only in a casual wander past the window or the website of the selling agent to see what extortionate price the house or flat is expected to fetch. Some of us might even linger for a moment to see if there are any interior shots, or pictures of the garden.

Some people go further, posing as buyers and ringing up the agent to ask for details. And some - quite a few, in fact - even make an appointment to view, so they can assuage their curiosity with a thorough inspection.

This isn't quite as shameful as it may seem. I know friends who, when contemplating a loft extension or a basement conversion, have gone to view properties that are identical in layout but also have the relevant addition. It's a good way of seeing how someone else has dealt with the various problems of where to put the stairs or the doors or the loo and so on.

If you live in Edinburgh, of course, you don't have to bother with the charade of ringing up the agent and pretending to be a buyer. Open viewings are a long-standing tradition in the city - usually on a Thursday evening between 6pm and 8pm and on Sunday afternoons, advertised in the property pages of the local press. Once the vendor thinks they've had quite a bit of interest, and a serious buyer has made themselves known, a closing date is set and the deal is done.

In America, too, open-house viewings are the norm, usually held on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, too. For the nosy neighbour, they're a delight - but there are lots of benefits for the vendor and the agent, as Savills, who have quietly begun to introduce what they call Open Hour viewings in London, can testify. I suffer from chronic nosiness, so when an invitation to one of these Open Hours plopped through my letterbox, I practically ran round the corner to have a look.

The first thing that strikes you at one of these viewings is that you can see instantly how much interest there is. The vendor was absent (probably just as well: judging from the number of brightly coloured plastic toys and bunk beds in this particular house, they appeared to have around nine children), but a quick flick through the visitors' book afterwards will have told them how many people came round, and where they were from.

This is good from the agent's point of view, too. Very often, a potential buyer simply doesn't believe that he or she might face competition for the home of their dreams and will shrug off a warning that a bid of fifty grand under the asking price will not impress the vendor. They just assume the agent is bullshitting in the hope of getting a higher price, and thus a higher commission. The sight of four other couples, all discussing where they'll put the telly or deciding which child will have which bedroom, concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Does it work for the vendor? Well, you don't have to keep your house looking immaculate all the time, just in case someone turns up to view. And - according to Robin Chatwin of Savills' Wandsworth office - you tend to get a quick sale. Of the 30 Open Hours he's been involved in, 20 of the properties have sold within a week, very often above the asking price.

The property I went to see last week was a fairly unpretentious semi, which had been nicely extended to provide six bedrooms, two bathrooms and a huge open-plan ground floor. The vendor has since had three offers, all over the asking price, and a sale has been agreed.

So what about the nosy neighbours? Why do Savills go out of their way to invite people in the surrounding streets, most of whom have absolutely no intention either of buying or selling? Well, having been to one of these things, I can see exactly how people would succumb. "Goodness," you think to yourself. "If they're asking a million for this, I wonder what mine would fetch?" Before you know where you are, you're on the phone to the agent to book a valuation.

Don't believe me? One of the offers on the house I saw was from someone who lived in the same road.