Sunday, 23 August 2015

Lock, stock and watering can

I have just read an article in the Sunday Times property section in which Rupert Sweeting, head of Knight Frank Country Sales, said that only about 5-10% of vendors include the house contents when they sell their home, walking out with just their clothes and personal possessions. The new owners are obviously pleased to inherit the copper warming pans, carved four-posters, rusty suits of armour (I'd be peeping inside for skeletons - what a great place to hide the victim of an old murder!), oil portraits of obscure 18th Century merchants and china tea services that may or may not have belonged to Duke Didgery of Greater Dodging.

Country piles can contain all manner of interesting collectables, but what about town and city properties? Do vendors get asked, as a condition of sale, to leave behind the non-fitted wardrobe and the horrid brown sofa? I can confirm that they certainly do.

Of course, the buy-to-let brigade might be only too happy to buy up a house or flat and all its contents, as it will save them a few bob when it comes to kitting it out for tenants - providing they all have those labels proclaiming their fire-retardant properties still attached. (I don't know if you saw the recent TV programme on the subject of house fires, but even these labels can be faked. Terrifying thought.)

But how about people who are buying a property to actually live in - a pretty rare occurrence in London at present, so it seems, when investors outnumber genuine home-hunters by at least three to one, judging by my attendance at those ghastly Open House events over the past couple of years. If you keep your ears wagging, you will soon sort out the BTLs from the OOs (owner-occupiers). Of course, some are buying a place for their progeny to occupy whilst studying at a local college, after which they will let it on the open market. Then there are those who already have a place in the country and are looking for a Monday-Friday city pad. There seem to be few people like me, who want to get their belongings out of the storage unit or, in my case right now, garden shed, and create a proper home.

At every viewing, the men in brown suits are hovering. OK, sometimes it might be a dusty grey sweatshirt but you can guarantee it will be worn over trousers that are some shade of brown, ranging from beige to Brazil nut. They hang back from the rest of the viewers and they don't speak much. Often, they take a tape measure out of pockets that are bulging with phones and wallets stuffed with notes - for this type always carries out his business via cash in hand - and proceed to measure the rooms, although the printed details already state the dimensions in feet and metres.

I know what these guys are about. They are trying to calculate where they can put up partition walls in order to cram in the maximum number of beds and tenants. Then they get out their phones, switch on the calculator and do rapid sums to see if the projected profit would make this flat or house a worthwhile addition to their portfolio. They will then sneak up to the agent and offer to line his personal pocket if he will let them have it for £20k less than the asking price. The BTL brown suits tare one extra element amongst the multitude of huge hurdles, the worst one being people with lots more money than myself who offer £20 over the asking price, that makes buying property, in London especially, so hazardous, difficult and disappointing.

But back to my original theme, that of the strange things buyers ask sellers to leave behind. I have bought and sold eleven properties. My first was a first floor maisonette in Ealing, West London. The buyers, a pair of middle-aged newly-weds, told me they would buy it if I would leave behind all the curtains, light fittings and shades, wardrobes, cooker and fridge, the piano, one of the beds and in particular - their eyes glowing with covetousness - the sofa.

Now, this being the first property I had ever owned, I hadn't developed great taste. In fact, you could say that my choice of decor was hideous. I bought the flat in 1979. The '70s were without doubt the era of brown. Especially brown with orange and yellow flowers, a hangover from '60s psychedelia (thank heavens I was too young and poor to buy a flat then!). I had toffee-coloured carpets, I had painted the walls myself in a shade that resembled brown Windsor soup (or, to be utterly accurate, watery diarrhoea) and all the woodwork was glossed in a shade called Banana. Yellow, in other words. I seem to remember the curtains were brown with orange flowers. There was a cheap wooden table parked at the end furthest from the electric fire and resplendent in the middle of the carpet was a dark brown corner unit in shiny Dralon.

Remember Dralon? If you do, the words 'static' and 'slippery' spring to mind. Dralon was a fabric you sat on then slid off. It was stuff that, having sat on it for a while, you could then stroke the cat and see the poor mog's fur stand on end. This seating unit was curved and massive, and pretty useless because, being curved, you couldn't sleep an overnight guest on it unless they liked to sleep bent like  - well, a banana. But this couple had fallen in love with the cow-pat-coloured Dralon monstrosity and that was the chief condition of their offer: no Dralon, no deal.

So I sold it to them, thanking my lucky stars that I hadn't had the trouble and cost of moving it, as it would certainly not have fitted into my next property, which was a poky, but freehold, cottage a bit further west in Northfields. A few weeks after the couple had moved in, I had a phone fall from them. Did I know the flat had woodworm? Of course I didn't. I had lagged the loft myself with rolls of fibreglass, using a nylon scarf as a face mask, and hadn't spotted single bore-hole in the rafters.

"Where was the woodworm?" I asked nervously, wondering if the staircase had collapsed and Mr Buyer was phoning from the depths of his plaster-cast.

"In the cupboard on the landing," he said accusingly. "My wife opened the door and the whole thing collapsed in a heap of dust."

"I'm really sorry," I said, shaking with suppressed laughter. "I never used that cupboard so I didn't know." I hoped the woodworm had wiggled their way into the frame of the sofa... and did they ever encounter the resident ghost, the small brown and white terrier that often appeared in the living room?

I don't think I left anything behind in the Northfields property, apart from a propensity for the drain running under the kitchen floor to block from time to time, sending a whale-spout of water up to the ceiling. I suspected it was being affected by the roots of the weeping willow in the garden, but I never said anything as it was up to their surveyor to think of things like that, wasn't it?

In 2000, I bought an end-of-terrace ex-council house in Muswell Hill with a magnificent paved and terraced garden, complete with fish-less pond. I put it up for sale 18 months later as it was at the foot of a very steep hill, up which you had to climb to reach shops and bus routes and I'd done some painful damage to the ligaments in my left ankle. A young single mum made an offer and the conditions of sale were that I included the fridge-freezer and blinds, three rugs I'd lugged back from Turkey and everything in the garden including the watering can. I was happy to oblige.

When it comes to moving house, plants can provide a sticking point. Some people like to take their favourite pots and plants with them when they move, but I have always been happy to leave them behind (as well as pianos - I have abandoned three). You can always plant another clematis or a rosemary bush. I sold a Kentish Town flat with every pot and plant on the terrace included. And my last pair of buyers, in East Finchley, wanted the wardrobe, a chest of drawers and the kitchen table, but not the beds, even though I offered them. When somebody doesn't want something, it makes you question your taste. What was wrong with my lovely pine bed frame which I had painstakingly drag-painted white, to create a calm, Zen look in the white-walled bedroom?

I sometimes wonder how long it took them to discover something else I had left behind - a redundant, rusty TV aerial sagging from the chimney, which creaked like a haunted house door every time the wind blew. I asked numerous firms to remove it for me, but nobody would, so I hope they didn't blame me for their sleepless nights. At least they couldn't blame my beds!