23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 62

Subject to non-availability

Rachel Johnson

THE latest issue, weighing in at one pound, was delivered through my door on Monday and had as many pages as the telephone directory for the Taunton and Bridgwater area. With a cover price ('where sold') of a hefty but notional £2 and a glossy coat, it could have come from Nicholas Coleridge's stable at Vogue House. It was, in fact, the monthly edition of Foxtons Magazine, and the cover story was about the agency's website, which had details, apparently, of 4,000-plus houses, maisonettes, lofts and flats.

As it thudded on to the mat, it disturbed my unthumbed copy of Leslie Marsh and Co.'s Lifesiylers publication, issue 12. This month's cover girl is the cutting-edge Westbourne Grove jeweller, Solange Azagury Partridge, who looks out at us stormily from beneath raven locks, while showing off an enamelled, knuckleduster ring.

I chuck out the rest as soon as they arrive, as well as the tear-stained, handdelivered letters we also sometimes get (and also sometimes write): 'Dear Mr and Mrs Smug Owners, We have been renting in the Posh Leafy area for many years, and are now looking to buy a house of our own. Our children attend local schools, we are churchgoing pillars of the community and, frankly, it would be most unchristian of you were you to refuse to sell us your house; at a discount, seeing as we have taken the trouble to write this heartbreaking letter.'

I am sure that I have seen stacks of similar glossy publications from Winkw-orth, Savills, Marsh & Parsons, Knight Frank — they are all doing it. Estate agents are marketing as never before.

So why is it. I wonder, that as other magazines are shrinking or even folding during the worst advertising recession for 20 years, estate agents' pagination is at an all-time high? Which leads us to the much bigger question; let's call it the millionpound question, as everyone agrees that this is the minimum sum required to buy the meanest of hovels in a popular residential area. Given the thousands of pages of advertising puffing the thousands upon thousands of properties, why is it always the case that when the desperate househunter calls to inquire about a property, that particular one is never, um, available?

My mother Charlotte has been looking for a flat since last summer. She is a painter and her requirements are, admittedly, quite exacting. She wants a two-bedroom flat with a large studio room and plenty of light, in a portered block, and she doesn't want to move too far away from her sprinkling of grandchildren in west London.

'It's always the same,' she says. `Savills, Foxtons, Winkworth. I see a flat that I like the look of. I call the day I see the details. I reach an agent who invariably says, "That one's already sold." Then they try to engage me in a discussion of what I'm looking for. It's quite unscrupulous. It's a way of getting people on their books.'

After hearing this, I rang at random three estate agents in different parts of London and inquired about properties in their magazines. Two times out of three I was asked simply to leave voicemail messages, and on the third, the property had already been sold.

Angela Heritage, of estate agents Mountgrange Heritage, says that there are several things going on here. The first is that it's a very hot market again, so, given that the magazines take three weeks to produce. it's not surprising that a high proportion of the properties featured in them are already out of play by the time the magazines hit your doormat.

The second is that there are, by a huge multiple, too many buyers — fuelled by the cheapest money for 40 years — chasing a puny number of properties. Estate agents are resorting to sneaky measures to get the instructions they need.

'Everyone's trying to get sole agency on the properties that are coming on the market, so they have to give the impression that they're the main agent in that area.' says Heritage. So agents are padding out their magazines with pictures and details of properties that are 'very old'. Also when they are asked to give a valuation, they take a picture of the house and they stick it in the magazine, even if they haven't been formally instructed. 'If an agent then rings up the owner and asks if they can bring someone round, it's difficult for the vendor to say he doesn't want to show the house, as he might, by this stage, be turning away a potential buyer,' she explains.

There was a famous occasion, a few years back, when an estate agent was caught putting up a board outside the former Blair house in Islington, claiming to have sold it. It hadn't. But this activity — called fly-boarding — is another trick that estate agents use to gull the public. Houses on main roads or corners are particularly popular fly-boarding sites, and all the more so if the property is empty. Over the last few years there have been reports of dozens of boards suddenly appearing in the front gardens of unoccupied houses. 'It's basically a catchpenny way to get you to put on your property with them,' says one independent agent. 'They did it on my block; it happens all the time with multipleoccupancy houses. The agents just put a board outside saying "Flat for sale". I knew for a fact that nobody was, in fact, selling, but the agency wants to be seen as the agent for that area.' If caught fly-boarding, there is. in theory, a fine of £100. The central London committee of the National Association for Estate Agents (NAEA) is sometimes moved by public complaint to send a letter, but 'nothing usually happens,' says Heritage.

'We advise members that they should add the number of the flat for sale to the board,' says Jim Atkins, president of the NAEA. 'But I do get complaints about blocks with forests of boards outside. It does happen from time to time in some areas. It's really a matter for the Office of Fair Trading.'

As for the magazines, I think that there's nothing to be done. It can't be helped if, as the agents swear, the market is just so hot that properties have shifted before they are even advertised in these proliferating magazines. Jim Atkins denies that padding is a marketing ploy, and tells us — as if we needed any reminding — that it takes ages to buy and sell property in this country. So agents are required to advertise houses that are under offer. But still. isn't a new Property Misdescriptions Act required? It has reached the stage when househunters could not care less whether a property has a wealth of period features, a custom-built, stainless-steel kitchen or a Scandinavian wet-room; whether it is Georgian, Victorian, semidetached, terrace, mews or loft. Whether it's London, Bristol, Edinburgh or Oxford, they want only one thing: availability.