THE RAMBLING thatched cottage sits at the end of a Hertfordshire lane overlooking fields. It's as quiet as the grave. It is, in fact, next to the old village graveyard. The pub is a short totter away, the station, with frequent trains to London, just a 10-minute drive. It was, said the middle-aged couple excitedly, precisely what they had been looking for. The garden at the back leads down to a stream. At the front, roses scramble over mossy ancient walls, lilac and buddleia smother the gateposts.
"They were so keen to buy," says the owner, Richard Holledge, "they didn't quibble about paying the asking price, which was pounds 210,000. In fact, they insisted I bring forward my moving date by four months. The chap told me his wife was so besotted with the house, she drove up the lane every day to see it." Under pressure to sell quickly, Richard found a new home and paid the initial legal and search fees, some pounds 380. Impatient to exchange contracts, the buyers telephoned frequently. "They even asked if they could come round and prune the roses before they moved in."
Richard decided to grab a few days' holiday. Four days later he returned to find a message from the estate agent. The buyers had pulled out. No reason was given. "They dropped off the face of the earth. I never heard from them again."
Ask any estate agent about house sales that fall at the last fence. It's like striking the bung out of a beer barrel. Anguish, frustration and fury flood out, along with painful memories of commissions evaporating faster than England's cricket hopes.
One couple selling their period home in East Anglia thought their sale was going like a dream. Their buyer was so enthusiastic, he came round and planted dozens of rose bushes. "Forty-eight hours later, he pulled out," says Mark Stewart of Bidwells. "He'd decided the eight-bedroom house was too big. But at least the vendors ended up with newly planted rosebeds."
The problem, Mark believes, is that people get carried away when they are house-hunting. Commonsense flies out of the window. Until the last minute, that is, when doubts creep in over outbuildings with leaky roofs, rusty Victorian guttering or the reliability of the interest rate.
There are perfectly understandable reasons for backing out: discovering an application has been lodged to build an abattoir next door to the house of your dreams (a true story); finding there are plans to build a motorway service station slip road at the end of the garden (also true); a report from the surveyor detailing rampant dry rot, subsidence or rotten roof timbers. A bad survey or low valuation can account for as many as 28 per cent of all failed deals.
"Then there are what we call the 'falling-under-a-bus' cases," says John Gibson of Savills in Essex. John was congratulating himself on finding a buyer prepared to pay an over-the-odds price of pounds 340,000 on a house. "The day before exchange of contracts, the buyer was made redundant."
There are also the mad, bad and expensive to know. "Pseudologica fantastica is how they are described by a lady client of ours, a psychiatrist," says John Gibson. "They come in plagues. People who imagine they are going to buy a property when they don't have the money."
His colleague Tommy de Mallet Morgan in Surrey is well acquainted with the syndrome. "We recently had a case where buyers from abroad arrived and made an offer on a property. They returned to inspect it several times, on one occasion bringing their aged parents to look at the annexe in which they would live. They gave me the name of their solicitor, a well-known firm in the City. We agreed a price on the carpets and the curtains and we even got as far as working out where his collection of vintage cars would go. But when I telephoned the solicitors, they had never heard of the man. And we never saw him again."
Some dithering buyers even go as far as pulling out after exchange of contracts, forfeiting the 10 per cent deposit. …