Where have all the sellers gone?

Family homes are in such short supply that wanted notices are springing up in agents' windows.
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The Independent Online
Spring and early summer among country estate agents is normally a time of blossoming business. Gardens are looking good, sunlight brightens the gloomiest of rooms and the neighbours begin to shrink behind a fresh wall of green. And with this year's new buoyancy in the market, what better time to sell?

Yet the question nagging frustrated buyers and agents is: where are the sellers? Like Yorkshire reservoirs, they seem to have dried up.

There is a shortage of property for sale across the board. In a survey, Black Horse Agencies have found that 65 per cent of their buyers do not have a property to sell, because they are renting. As only 35 per cent of that number are first-time buyers, the supply of family homes simply cannot meet the demand. But where the shortage is really acute is among houses with character in a good location. It is not unusual to see "wanted" notices springing up in agents' windows.

Of course it is a vicious circle. People are looking around, finding nothing they like, and deciding not to put their own house on the market. But those who are determined to move are making things happen. Gone are the days when they sat in a chain waiting for solicitors to thrash out the details, resigned to losing a buyer or their next home should a link break altogether. Now they take control.

Jan Dougall is one of those whose flexibility has paid off. She and her husband have just sold their family home in Kent and are living with relatives before moving into their next house. At one stage they had been prepared (with their greyhound) to move into their camper van, where they are now storing most of their belongings.

"There was a chain of only three, and we all agreed that we would not allow a longer one to form. Our buyer had to move to Kent with his job and wanted to complete within seven weeks. Their buyers took a bridging loan, and in turn, we agreed to pay an extra sum of money to the owners of the house we were buying so that they could afford to rent for a while. We were all being practical and reasonable; we agreed to share the suffering to keep things moving."

The Dougalls were clear about the kind of house they wanted and had looked at about 30 properties before putting their own on the market. The one they are buying was the 73rd they saw. "We wanted an older property in a quiet place. So many houses we saw were flawed; historic mills blighted by either road or rail extensions; beautiful houses on busy roads or a lovely place but with part of its land parcelled up for development," said Jan Dougall.

As agents are warning, she also found that the nicest houses sell fast. In fact the Dougalls were not surprised to receive an offer for their house within five days of putting it on the market. They knew they would have to move fast themselves when they found a house they liked.

So what were the strong selling points of their old house? GA in Maidstone found themselves inundated with inquiries as soon as the board went up. "The house is pretty, well-maintained, in a hillside position with gorgeous views, just the kind of place people go for," said Andrew Harwood, a director of GA's Town and Country section which handles property in excess of pounds 200,000. Anything with a problem, though, is sticking, however competitively priced, he added.

The speed at which the Kent chain moved was due not just to its participants working pro-actively, but also to their good fortune in having properties with unique and attractive qualities. Olive Beard and her husband, who have bought the Dougalls house, found no problem in selling their own house just outside Chester. "We put it up for sale on a Thursday and had an offer by Sunday. It was a converted railway station on a disused railway line and very private. A local man wanted it so much he bought it before selling his own house."

Meanwhile in Hampshire, pressure on sellers is so great that there is hardly time for chains to form. The area has always been popular for families wanting to escape London. According to Tim Garne, of Hampton's Alton office, the majority of those on their books looking for country property are from south-west London - some nine out of 10 in the pounds 200,000 to pounds 400,000 bracket. He is finding that the dearth of such properties for sale means more people are prepared to go for sealed bids. "When you have made a big family decision to move to the country, nothing is going to stop you. This is putting enormous pressure on the sellers who suddenly find, within a few days, they have a buyer ready to move in. In some cases they are having to fend them off."

Keen buyers are waving readies at reluctant sellers. Many of them have chosen to rent after selling their own homes so they can move quickly when the right property comes on the market. The strong rental market has made it easy for them to find a stop-gap and stable house prices has meant there is no panic to get on the ladder. Short-term tenants are not living in fear of prices spiralling out of reach. In fact Mr Garne finds the buyer is very price sensitive, even where demand is greater than supply. Tip the price over the top and they'll lose interest. "The great difference now is that people are buying houses to live in. They are not moving for the sake of it, as an investment."

But a market that is waking from a long slumber is sending out confusing signals. "You cannot say whether it is a buyer's or a seller's," says Tim Garne. He also believes that people are emerging from having taken some knock-backs over the last six years, more hard-nosed and less gung- ho than before.

Along with those waiting for the right house, though, he might wish for a little more optimism among potential sellers. Caution is one thing; sitting tight and refusing to move is another.