When I look back on the madness that was 2012, the most stressful part – more than giving birth, more than moving house with a six-week-old and more than flying to a wedding with an eight-week-old – was trying to sell our flat. We knew it wasn’t likely to be easy: with the newspapers full of talk of double dips and impending global economic meltdown, we had to find someone willing to part with a fair amount of cash in return for our tiny little piece of north London.
And it really was tiny. When we started looking to buy – way back at the start of 2007 when the economy was buoyant – we aimed to buy the best we could afford in a nice area. I’ve seen Kirstie and Phil dispense advice enough times to know that buying the worst house on the best street is in theory a good way to go in terms of re-sale. So that’s what we did.
After a lot of searching and lowering of expectations, we bought a very small two bedroom flat in a mansion block on a lovely leafy street in Hampstead. The location was fantastic: less than five minutes from the Tube station, two minutes to the village and ten minutes to the expanse of Hampstead Heath. For the privilege of living there we had to resign ourselves to living in a fairly confined space with no garden, limited parking, far too many steps to safely negotiate with a buggy and the relentless annoyance of communal living.
The ink hadn’t been dry on the contracts very long before the global economy spluttered, shuddered and ground to a halt. It transpired that we’d bought right at the top of the market. We then had to spend a fair amount doing the place up (I can’t be alone in thinking that having a carpeted bathroom is a bad idea, nor that a kitchen tiled with bathroom tiles is a non-starter in design terms). So once we’d decided to sell, the pressure was on to get a return on our investment. Given the choice, there’s no way we’d have chosen to sell up in 2012 but relocating meant we had to sell, and fast. With our second baby imminent and a new job waiting for H up north, time was of the essence. Neither of us had sold a property before, so we were fairly clueless as to what it involved. I consulted the wisdom of Google but for once it came up wanting. As a result, we relied a lot on the so-called wisdom of the estate agents. As we soon discovered, being at the mercy of estate agents is a Very Bad Thing.
The whole process was fraught with problems and, despite being assured by a cock-sure agent that we’d have a stack of offers within the first weekend, went on for months. Meanwhile we had to keep the flat viewing-ready at all times; no mean feat with a destructive toddler in residence. I edged closer to my due date, H edged closer to his start date and we had no offers on the table. We often thought we’d that we’d have to rent it out, which we really didn’t want to do. Mercifully, at what felt like the eleventh hour, we found a buyer and handed over the keys in August, several months after embarking on the process.
In hindsight we made a fair few mistakes along the way. We’ll know for next time. Here are my top property-selling tips, learnt the hard way:
Choose your agent wisely: Assuming that you’re going to use the services of an estate agent rather than trying to eBay your property, choose carefully. The first one I approached was the one that I passed on the nursery run. Convenience was not a good reason to pick them. Personal recommendations are worth their weight. Failing that, I’d suggest meeting a number of agents. Ask them how many buyers they have on their books, how they’ll market your property, what they’ve got on their books at the moment, how they’ll keep you updated and so on. I think it’s important that you like them as a person (or can at least tolerate them) as you’re likely to have a lot of contact. Once you’ve instructed them, keep badgering them – politely – to make sure they’re actively marketing your property.
Negotiate on fees: Agents will take a cut of the proceeds, and will tell you their commission is a fixed rate. This is definitely not the case: we negotiated our first agent’s fees down, and when we had to replace them we negotiated the next two agents down as well. They won’t be happy about it, but if they really want to sell your property then they’ll be prepared to budge.
Contemplate joint agency: We started off with a sole agent, i.e. just one agent selling our flat. They had exclusivity for 8 weeks (negotiated down from the 12 weeks that they wanted). Only instructing one agent was a mistake on our part, as they didn’t do as great a job as we’d hoped but we were stuck with them. At the end of the 8 weeks, we got rid of them and replaced them with two other agents who were much better. Although you’ll pay a higher commission for joint agency, you’ve got two agents working for you so in theory a greater chance of success. Joint agents get quite competitive with each other, each determined that they will get the sale. Within three days of instructing two agents, we finally had an offer.
Get feedback: Our first agent claims to have done seventy viewings of our flat but didn’t manage to get a single offer. At the time this really worried us. As far as we were concerned it was a lovely property with few issues. We asked for feedback so we could do our best to address anything we could change. Some people thought the flat was dark, for example, so we invested in some brighter light bulbs. It all helps.
Don’t spend a fortune on dressing the property: H spent a fortune on fancy flowers for our first viewing weekend, but we got no offers. They looked lovely, but there’s no way we could have kept that up for the months that followed without bankrupting ourselves. A strategically placed candle and some nice houseplants are a good idea, but twenty quid hand wash is unlikely to sway someone into making an offer. Our eventual buyer – a single guy – is unlikely to have noticed any of this. He was far more interested in space and location. Keep it clean and tidy, but don’t go mad.
De-clutter…but not too much: Our flat often looked like a cross between a branch of Hamleys and a launderette. Before we allowed potential buyers to set foot in it, we spent quite a while removing all but the necessary toys and other bits and pieces, storing them at my parents’ house. By the time we’d finished, it looked a bit too clinical so we put a few (tasteful) things back to add some personality and warmth.
Meet your potential buyers: The last thing we wanted to do was spend time showing people around the flat; after all, that’s what we were paying the agent for. However, a scheduling cock-up meant that H ended up showing around the man who ended up buying it. I suspect that this really helped us get the sale as H was able to allay any concerns, explain how much we loved the flat, wax lyrical about potential and give him an idea of the area. I wonder if we’d still be there now if fate hadn’t intervened that day.
So there are my tips for selling. As for buying, I’m not the person to ask. We hoped that we’d move seamlessly from one home to the next – we know where we want to live, we’ve got a deposit, our mortgage is agreed – but we’re still renting. Here’s to 2013 being the year we find our family home.
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