Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

I am going to confess to a secret vice. I am a devotee of Ann Maurice, the Californian presenter of the property makeover show House Doctor.

I am going to confess to a secret vice. I am a devotee of Ann Maurice, the Californian presenter of the property makeover show House Doctor. Excitingly, I actually bumped into her the other day in Russell & Bromley in the King's Road. Unfortunately, I was recovering from laryngitis at the time, so I could only mouth "Love the show!" before being led away, firmly but sympathetically, by a shop assistant.

I feel emboldened to make this confession because last week, in this very newspaper, none other than Jeremy Langmead, the editor-in-chief of Wallpaper* magazine, admitted that he, too, was a huge fan. And if the boss of an uber-chic style journal is prepared to risk his credibility, then so am I.

The format of the show is quite simple. Householder can't sell house. House Doctor arrives. She comments on ghastly decor, dog turds on floor, garden that looks like landfill site. Vendor looks sceptical. Vendor is shown video footage of potential buyers viewing house. They comment on ghastly decor, dog turds on floor, garden that looks like landfill site. Ann Maurice repaints ghastly decor, removes dog turds, grasses over landfill site. House sells.

As far as I'm concerned, House Doctor is televisual therapy. After a chaotic day at the office, I can go home and watch someone else take charge of a project, brushing aside any arguments, demurrals or lack of enthusiasm without, very often, bothering to be incredibly diplomatic or polite. But what particularly intrigues me - and Mr Langmead - is the fact that many of the houses involved are so incredibly filthy.

OK, so it's difficult, especially when you have children, to keep things pristine all the time. The longer your house is on the market, the more of an effort it becomes. If you lose the property you were after but still have to spruce up the one you're stuck with, it becomes downright demoralising.

But it does annoy buyers when they find they're expected to spend £50,000 over the odds for a house that hasn't had hot soapy water over any of its surfaces.

In the past five years, I've viewed houses that have unflushed loos, kitchens encrusted with grease, mouldy bathrooms, cracked windowpanes, and dining tables still displaying the detritus of that morning's petit déjeuner.

These homes were not derelict, bargain-basements - fixer-uppers, to use that wonderful American phrase. They were middle-class homes costing upwards of half a million.

What goes through the heads of their owners? Do they look around at the tatty kitchen units, the stained floor, the dripping shower and think: "Someone's going to walk through the door and fall in love with all this"? Good grief, who - Shrek?

"Oh but surely," the people on House Doctor bleat, "the buyers have enough imagination to see past all that." This is the point at which Ann Maurice slaps their wrists (figuratively speaking) and tells them, no, buyers don't. Buyers assume that what they see is what they'll get.

I didn't quite believe this myself until I happened to be chatting to a friend who's an estate agent in Clapham. During the time he's worked there, he's seen lots of properties, particularly in the flat sector where there is a faster turnover, come back on to his books at least once and sometimes twice as people marry or move on.

Very often, he says, when he goes to value the flat for resale, the current owner will have furnished it in exactly the same way as the previous owner. The sofa, the coffee table, the TV and so on will be positioned in exactly the same place. They will look identical in style. Sometimes it is the same sofa and coffee table - apparently some buyers ask the vendor to sell them the furniture along with the property.

You may scoff. You may think this is taking "what you see is what you get" to extremes. So here's a little house-selling mantra for you. Think of it as "what they see is what YOU get". If they see a fabulous home, you get a premium price (and possibly a tentative offer on your B&B Italia sofa or Noguchi coffee table as well). If they see a landfill site, you get another 18 months on the market. To use the House Doctor's favourite phrase: "It's not rocket science, people."