This is the time of year when property instructions tend to drop off, agents’ listings start to empty and ready purchasers feel ever more frustrated. There has been a distinct lack of available property this year, especially since the Brexit vote and there are an awful lot of buyers who have secured sales earlier in the year, but can’t find their next move.

Market conditions apart, however, November through to March are often seen as the quiet months of the year for the property market. There is no particular rationale for this, given the unbroken demand from buyers, but grey skies, bare trees and bracing winds will invariably influence the actions of those who are planning to sell. Unless you have to, why not wait until the spring?

The property market, though, does soldier on. Under some circumstances there is little choice as to when to sell a property so these are the houses that come to the market, but it can also be a perfect time of year to quietly float a marketing campaign without full exposure. There is no measurement of how many deals are softly concluded in this way; the majority will be at the top end of the market, but in the middle market we are certainly no strangers to arranging a deal from the bottom drawer. Indeed, this winter we have been instructed to quietly promote a number of houses, without open marketing, but simply by offering them to those buyers who we know would be interested.

Success in these sales ultimately relies on the buyer. If they are motivated enough to register with us then they will be in the frame to receive confidential information; if not then how will they ever know? We are fortunate enough to be well known for covering the Salisbury valleys to the west, as well as further afield, so keen buyers will invariably get in touch with us and our register is currently splitting at the seams – which makes selling property under the covers so much more straightforward. No advertising, no property portals and little fuss.

We don’t have a crystal ball and 2017 will no doubt be a hesitant year, but at least we know that vendors are speaking to us about marketing their properties either quietly now, or openly in the spring and with the buyers that we have on our books our market must remain resilient.

This has been a year when normality has been all but forgotten. Traditionally one would have expected a slow impetus in the earlier months building towards a bustling late Spring and Summer market, falling back for the holiday period and then pushing ahead again in the Autumn.

The housing market in 2012

2012, however, has been turned on it’s head for most of the year. January saw a great deal of activity as those looking to buy in the latter months of the previous year had enough of waiting and took the plunge. We then saw moderate activity over the next few months as motivated sellers went through the process of bringing their properties to the market. All was looking good…until we all downed tools for the pomp and ceremony of the Jubilee, followed apace by weeks on end of dazzling Olympics and Paralympics. There was actually a significant chunk of this period when the phone hardly rocked in its cradle. September then took a good while to get in gear and activity eventually returned in October.

Despite this, the market has remained fairly stable for the most part, if pretty flat. Much of the activity has depended on realistic pricing and location. As always, the houses in the best situations have faired better than those, for instance, on main roads. There has been a steady stream of price adjustments, especially since the end of August and possibly too late in the day due to the distortion caused by our Summer of Sport. These falls in value reflect the recognition that one cannot be too bullish in such a fragile and subdued climate.
Mortgage lending has freed up to a certain extent but interestingly is down on 2011 levels, possibly more a mark of personal confidence and ability. The better news, however, is that we are (for the moment at least) out of recession and although it is far too early to mention those green shoots, there is some positive talk around.

As an illustration of 2012 it is worth mentioning a couple of sales that we were involved in this year. Both very different, but displaying the key ingredients of Price, Location and Marketing.

A: Property X (attractive house in a road affected position), taken over from another agent after four months of little activity, marketing improved and price adjusted we were able to generate scores of viewings over a number of weeks and agree a sale.

B: Property Y (period house in a prime location), priced correctly, marketed well from scratch and a sale agreed within three weeks.

What we expect from the housing market in 2013

And what of 2013? Without the excuses of national celebration it will hopefully pan out a bit more sensibly than this year. A feel better factor of avoiding a triple-dip recession would be great and would surely provide some buoyancy. The market needs the lift that growing confidence can provide. In the meantime, though, people still have to move house and simply need the right recipe to achieve success.

One of the most frustrating and emotive things about moving house is that both buyer and seller can pull out of the deal at any time. There are normally perfectly reasonable explanations, but the retraction can cause a huge amount of distress to the other party, not to mention the incurred costs.

The legal process of selling and buying property

The legal process of transferring property from one owner to another in England is, let’s face it, protracted and fragile, and agreements are not binding until contracts are exchanged. Of course there are many and varied reasons why property transactions fail to complete, but the point is that it can take weeks, if not months, of anguish and stress before there is total commitment to the transaction. So why can’t there be certainty from, or soon after acceptance of the offer? It would make the whole house moving process so much more straightforward and would certainly help to ease our stress levels.

In Scotland the whole process is very different, where pre-offer investigations into a property are the norm, so that when the offer is accepted it is binding. This, however, means that buyers spend out a fair amount before certainty and because the bidding is normally blind they have no idea whether they will be successful or not.

Pre-contract deposits when selling property

What about a pre-contract deposit? Sadly, any Solicitor will tell you that they are not worth the salt and have to be refundable since they cannot be unconditional.

The Government did attempt to speed up the conveyancing process with the Home Information Pack, which in itself was not a bad idea, but its implementation was flawed as it emerged that buyers did not trust the vendor-commissioned surveys and their solicitors did not trust the local searches. It also reined back a free flow of stock to the market due to the up-front costs.

What is the answer, therefore? Whatever it is it won’t be simple and certainly won’t be decisive. A middle ground is to ensure that the possibility of the parties pulling out are minimised through speed of transaction. Transparency about a property is key to this. Making pre-offer information available via the Agents should be strongly encouraged, as should perhaps a scheme for buyers’ contributions to vendor-commissioned surveys, not only acting as a form of deposit, but also freeing the surveyor to act in an unbiased fashion for all parties who contribute. Maybe RICS should be considering this? The Government could also invest in more Council staff and technology to cut the waiting time for searches from several weeks to several days, rather than concentrating on purchase- assistance schemes (controversial!).

Put simply, a pre-offer preparation of the survey and draft contract, combined with speedy local search results could and should cut the whole process to 10 working days. The likelihood of either party withdrawing would then be cut dramatically and a fast exchange of contracts would provide certainty. We can dream, but surely it can’t be that hard!

Having worked in residential estate agency for some 24 years and in rural agency before that, I have seen a few ups and downs in the property market. The current recession is however the deepest and longest that I have experienced and the widely held view is that it will be some time before we see another property boom. The likelihood is that when the market does recover, and no one can be sure when this will be, it will be a long, slow process.

Here in South Wiltshire and North Dorset we are perhaps fortunate in that the right property, sensibly priced and promoted, still continues to attract good buyers.

With the property market in the doldrums one would have expected a few estate agencies to have gone out of business but this has not been the case. This goes to show that the vast majority of buyers and sellers still prefer to use an agent for their valuation, marketing, negotiation and sales processing expertise as well as having someone to act as an intermediary.

A good agent, as well as finding buyers for their vendor clients’ homes, can have an instrumental role to play once a sale has been agreed. It is after all not just about striking a deal but seeing it through to a conclusion; something that at times can be a fraught business that needs to be handled with tact, diplomacy and patience.

So is my job the same as it was back in 1988? There has been new Legislation to contend with such as the Property Misdescriptions Act, the implementation and then cancelation of the Home Information Pack, the introduction of the Energy Performance Certificate and various Regulations but it is still basically the same role, i.e. the marketing and selling of property. What has certainly changed is the way this is done.

As a young land agent, I was surprised that the estate agents in the office that I worked in at the time, would regularly spend two hours in the pub at lunchtime, coming back worse for wear, wreaking of beer and smoke but in those days that was how a good deal of business was carried out. Fortunately the working environment now is very much more sober, slicker and professional.

The quality of agents’ marketing material over the years has improved vastly. When I started out sales particulars consisted of very basic, poorly photocopied information sheets which if you were lucky had a stuck-on mini photograph on the front. Sales details are now much smarter, more relevant and image rather than word led with the better quality agents using floor plans, site plans, maps and plenty of professionally taken photographs.

Perhaps the most radical change during my career has been the irresistible advancement of the computer. With faster technology and ever improving software programmes, managing the marketing and sales process has become very much more efficient, speedier and effective whilst the extraordinary reach of the internet has revolutionised how buyers search for their next home leading to the requirement for an estate agent to have a traditional high street office becoming a thing of the past.

A good illustration of this is that Rural View recently took over the marketing of a house in the Nadder Valley from a well-known national agent that has a city centre office whereas we do not. In the five months that the original agency marketed the property they arranged six viewings, in the three weeks Rural View have been promoting it we have so far had fourteen

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