If you aspire to buy a home some day, it’s probably best not to read the news at the moment.
Not only have average house prices reached even dizzier levels, but booming demand and a lack of supply means the average estate agent only has 12 homes for sale, according to Rightmove.
Yet if you’re lucky enough to have an offer accepted for an overpriced semi in suburbia, this could be the beginning, rather than the end, of your troubles.
Take some good friends of mine. The arrival of an adorable “lockdown baby” prompted them to sell up in London and buy a family home further out of town — a classic example of the “race for space”.
They bid tens of thousands over the asking price to secure the property. But as completion loomed, their seller presented a price list for fixtures and fittings that my friends — perhaps naively — believed were included.
He wanted an extra £1,000 for a Quooker tap (the sort that dispenses ready-boiled and fizzy water), and hundreds more for a digital thermostat and “smart” smoke detectors. My friends pushed back and scored a minor victory when they spotted some of these things were listed as a selling feature in the original advertisement.
But all this added time, stress and expense to the already hugely protracted, anxiety-inducing and wallet-bleeding process of buying a house in England.
The statistics show that it’s a seller’s market, and I wondered if this had made buyers more avaricious. So I asked Twitter for the most extreme examples of greed on the part of departing property owners. (Assuming you’re not trying to buy a home right now, sit back in your chairs, dear readers, and gasp.)
One buyer moved in to find a circular hole in the kitchen wall where an extractor fan had been removed; one said he discovered a large hole in the door that used to be a cat flap
Disputes over white goods and curtains are the tip of a particularly nasty iceberg. The removal of lightbulbs is commonplace, not to mention entire light fittings.
“We moved into a house last Saturday and it was only when it started to get dark that we realised the lightbulbs had gone — and by this time, the shops were shut,” one homebuyer said.
Another moved in to find a circular hole in the kitchen wall where an extractor fan had been removed; one said he discovered a large hole in the door that used to be a cat flap.
Other examples of extreme stinginess included the removal of toilet roll holders (several people reported this) and one seller even took the letterbox with him.
My friend Louise moved into a house to find the owners had unscrewed the brass numbers on the front door — particularly baffling, as they were moving to a property with no corresponding digits.
When it comes to multimillion pound homes, not only do the objets become grander, the levels of greed shift up a gear. “The Aga’s not included” is a phrase buying agent Henry Pryor has heard before.
“Even at the top end of the market, there are still people that will strip a house in a way that would embarrass a swarm of locusts,” he says, recalling a deal where a seller was going to rip out a Jacuzzi and replace it with a standard bath.
In period properties, valuable fireplaces are another danger area, not to mention wood-burning stoves, window boxes, garden ornaments and even plants and trees.
“Sellers could leave the garden looking nothing like what was originally sold in the brochure,” he adds.
So what counts as a fixture or a fitting? “Fixtures” are generally assumed to be included within the price, loosely defined by some conveyancers as requiring a screwdriver to remove, whereas “fittings” tend to mean freestanding items that could be negotiated over at the buyer or seller’s whim. But there are plenty of grey areas.
Integrated kitchen appliances would generally be considered fixtures, but a freestanding fridge or washing machine would not. Carpets and curtains are often disputed. Rows have been had over solar panels. Two people on Twitter confessed they’d had bitter rows over fish in ornamental ponds.
“I have learned over the years, if you can remove it, you can argue over it,” Pryor says.
Jonathan Harington, a buying agent who specialises in country houses, has another rule of thumb: “If you turned the property upside down, what would still be attached?”
Early on in his career, the seller of one house agreed to leave the curtains — but took the curtain poles.
Another multimillion pound deal was nearly derailed when the seller decided that the lawnmower was no longer included. To resolve the dispute, Harington offered to deduct the cost of a new one from his fee. His client accepted, later writing a note of thanks to say he had named the new lawnmower Jonathan.
On the face of it, these items may have scant value, but the anger the negotiations can provoke are perfectly capable of derailing a multimillion pound sale.
An exception came up this week, when a villa in Rome that was expected to become “the most expensive house in the world” failed to sell at auction. Much of its €471m (£393m) asking price was attributed to the Caravaggio mural on the ceiling. In that case, I’m sure potential bidders would have hit the roof if it was chiselled out after they had exchanged!
Caravaggio’s Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto mural failed to attract buyers to a villa in Rome © Zip Lexing/Alamy
Buying agents earn their fees by hammering out all of these details upfront, specifying what they expect to be included in the original offer, when the buyer has the most leverage to negotiate.
Further down the rungs of the property ladder, the TA10 form, listing what fixtures and fittings are included, is commonly completed weeks after the sale has been agreed. Having shelled out thousands for surveys and searches, buyers will be less inclined to walk away.
Given the heat of competition, it is hard for homebuyers to negotiate on fixtures and fittings up front. On viewing days, you often have a 10-15 minute slot to view a property, and are expected to submit your “best and final” offer a few days later.
My social media followers had some advice for negotiating afterwards. Asked to pay £4,000 for various items, Steve Hall told the seller: “See what you can get for them on eBay.” Twenty minutes later, they accepted his (much lower) offer.
Pryor adds: “At what point is it going to cost the seller to rip it out? They might think ‘sod it’ and decide to leave it.”
Still, there’s an easier way to remove all of this unpleasantness. The Scottish legal system is much more specific about what is included. And the increasing digitisation of the property sales process should encourage agents and sellers to be more transparent.
Coadjute, a new initiative to speed up the conveyancing process using blockchain technology, is trialling a pilot scheme where this information is collected up front and shared between the relevant parties in real time.
That way, heated disputes over what’s included would take place between the seller and their own estate agent before homes go on the market, rather than causing buyers to get hot under the collar afterwards.
Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb
If FT readers can top any of the examples of greed and stinginess mentioned in this article, please comment below