Selling your home: What are you waiting for?

Andrew Cleary and his wife, Nicola, from Worcester, are convinced that now is the time to put out the “for sale” board. The couple, both 44, are serial renovators. They bought their five-bedroom house in the city in April 2007 for £345,000 and have completely refurbished it, as well as adding a breakfast-room extension at the back. After studying prices in the local area, they decided last week to put their property on the market for £485,000.

“We’re trying to be ahead of the game,” says Andrew, an accountant. “We spoke to local estate agents and their view is that it’s an odd market. There are signs that things are picking up, but in the area we’re in, there isn’t a lot of stock around — and that’s why we thought this might be a good time to put it on, before the autumn season kicks in. If we wait until then, with a lot more stock on the market, we feel we’d be in competition with many other properties, so it would be harder to find a buyer.”

Are the Clearys right? All across the country, stocks are at an all-time low, as exclusive research for The Sunday Times by Knight Frank estate agency shows. Compared with this time last year, the number of properties available is down by 32% in London and 31% in the southeast, and has almost halved in the northwest, East Anglia and the northeast. In the same period, the number of buyers registering their interest with estate agents has risen by up to a third countrywide.

“We are a long way behind where stock levels should be at this time of year,” says Liam Bailey, head of residential research at Knight Frank. “If you can sell, do it now, while there isn’t much competition from other sellers.”

In part this is because the green shoots shown by some of the latest surveys will turn out to be short-lived, say analysts. “A lack of supply in the past few months, coupled with an increase in numbers of potential buyers, has been acting as a prop to prices,” says Richard Donnell, director of research at the property-market analyst Hometrack. “A flood of new properties onto the market — in what is traditionally the beginning of the autumn/winter selling season — may actually drive down prices.”

So how soon should you get moving, given that September traditionally marks the start of the autumn buying season? “Timing is everything,” says Mark Oliver, head of residential sales for Savills estate agency in East Anglia. If you want to sell, he suggests that you contact the agent now and start to prepare all the paperwork, photoshoots and details: “That way, it will all be ready by the second week of September, which is the best time to get the autumn season. If you leave it a few weeks, it will be too late. Put it on in October and you may miss out altogether.”

Those who hold out for spring in the hope of getting a higher price may be disappointed, especially if, as expected, stock levels rise further. You should also factor in uncertainty about the economic outlook, which could be heightened by the calling of a general election, which must happen by June 2010. “At best, the market will flatten out, and it may even fall again if the economic situation worsens over the winter, with rising unemployment,” Oliver says.

Inevitably, the situation varies from area to area — in some places, the autumn buying season is already under way — so research the trends of your local market and find out who your buyers are. For example, do not assume that August has been a no-go time because of the summer holidays. “We’ve been telling everyone to get on with it and sell,” says Kevin Boulton, associate partner in the Shropshire office of Strutt & Parker estate agency. He points out that, in his area, many buyers are retired or retiring, and go away outside school-holiday times, leaving summer for househunting. “Stock levels have been improving and things have been selling with a lot of interest — waiting until September would be leaving it too late to get the best deal.”

As an example, he cites a property that came onto the market at the end of July and, after competitive bids from three buyers, sold for more than the £495,000 asking price.

In London, and in areas within commuting distance of the capital, it’s a similar story. Roger Clark, 54, put his house in Esher, Surrey, on the market for £2.395m two weeks ago and received an offer at just under that figure within 11 days. “I felt there was a definite upturn, and that I was getting a good price for the current market,” says Clark, who bought the six-bed property for about £840,000 14 years ago. “The sale went through so quickly, after quite a few viewings, that my feelings turned out to be correct.”

The key is to try to establish the level of stock in your area — perhaps by doing something as simple as counting the number of estate agents’ boards around your street. If yours is the first to go up, you may be in luck.

“If it’s the only house for sale in a year in your village, you can afford to test the market and ask for more money,” says Edward Stoyle, head of residential sales in the York office of Carter Jonas estate agency. “You’re more likely to get £500,000 instead of £475,000 if there is no competition for buyer interest.”

The best time to sell also varies from property to property. If you have a dark house with a north-facing garden, then it could seem more attractive when you show potential buyers around with the lights on and the fire roaring. Larger family houses, especially in southern England, are less dependent on the season, because their supply is most constrained and demand for them is always strong, whereas one-bedroom flats are struggling.

If you do decide to sell, don’t underestimate the time it takes to choose and instruct an agent, commission a Home Information Pack and, if your house is grand enough, have a brochure printed (that is, if you haven’t had the foresight to prepare everything earlier). If you have let out the property, remember that most rental contracts stipulate a minimum of one month’s notice — and it could be more in the case of an unfurnished family home.

The current low stock levels are not all good news, though. Bear in mind that if you sell up, you will need somewhere else to live — which could prove problematic. If you fail to line up that prospective purchase, you will have to rent — or maybe wait for spring after all

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