WHEN a friend was selling her flat, she dreaded Sunday viewings. The morning was spent tidying away the detritus of the working week, erasing every trace of human occupation in the bathroom and kitchen, and kicking shoes under the bed, on the principle that viewers might want to peer inside cupboards, but who apart from the contestants on Four in a Bed would lift a bedspread? All other extraneous matter was piled into the car – cats included – by which point the floor space had doubled. Now all she had to do was exude an air of Zen-like calm in time for callers.

She, like so many of us, had been drilled in the first three laws of house selling: military neatness, neutral decor, and creating an illusion of spaciousness. Eager buyers, we were instructed, could turn tail at the sight of a moth-eaten loofah or serried ranks of plastic containers stuffed with cereals, à la Balmoral. It might be good enough for the queen, but she isn’t selling up.

According to an Edinburgh estate agent, however, these rules are suddenly being ignored. Some clients are so worn down by lockdown that their houses look as if they’ve been burgled. In a few cases making room and time for schooling children and remote working has proved so taxing, sellers are still in their PJs when would-be buyers arrive. As the head of Purdie & Co says, “Some adopt a ‘take us as you find us’ approach, which is fine with family and friends, but not with a transaction.”

According to him, books and papers on floors, and laptops and PCs on kitchen tables shrink the place, and have resulted in sales falling through. You also assume that being greeted by folk who appear to be in sleep-mode hardly projects a sense of business-like enthusiasm. If they can’t be bothered putting on clothes, what else have they let slide around the house that could later cause problems?


Yet my heart goes out to those juggling work, children and the pressures of a pandemic at the same time as getting a house onto the market. Apparently, along with unwashed dishes in the sink, the smell of pets is one of the most off-putting factors for viewers. That’s fair enough, but unless you’re talking rancid litter trays, there’s not a lot a dog owner can do beyond cleaning thoroughly and grooming their pets as if preparing for Crufts.

When my husband and I visited one property, the owners thoughtfully locked their hounds up so they wouldn’t disturb us. The sound of their barking – indeed the bear-like clawings halfway-up the doors – bore witness to them in every room, and still we were smitten.

If anything, in the wake of lockdown you would hope that rejigging space to accommodate office and classroom, and keeping their new multifunctional purpose on view, shows the versatility of a property. As for mess, that is arguably in the eye of the beholder. Watching Grand Designs suggests that the impact of many airy new-builds and renovations relies on a clinical level of emptiness to maintain their glamour. Sleek and impressive they might be, but one person’s pared back kitchen might be another’s operating theatre.


While I loathe the sight of clothes discarded on the floor, and hate furniture matted with cat hair, I am a little sceptical about the antiseptic standards professionals would like sellers to attain. Admittedly, when we put our flat on the market we realised that there were only so many books people could be expected to overlook, or step around. Those in bookcases were allowed to stay, but the pyramids, ziggurats and chimney stacks on the floors were consigned to a storage unit in Edinburgh’s boondocks.

When I think of that flat – not dissimilar to the way we live now – it was hung with paintings and photographs, the walls hidden behind carpet to ceiling bookshelves. Minimalist we ain’t, but it had the advantage of allowing us quickly to discern how serious viewers were. If they browsed the shelves rather than the home report, they weren’t going to be putting in an offer. And yet the person who bought it said she knew within five minutes that this was the one for her.

A home that looks like a showroom is like a face that’s had plastic surgery: too focussed on first impressions. As a connoisseur of the lowlands property scene, I can attest that while there can be too much of a good thing – like the cottage whose front door was blockaded from the inside by a kitchen dresser or the one where we couldn’t get into the spare bedroom because it had been turned into a junk store – the touches that make a place feel loved give it personality, and show its potential.


Nobody wants to be conducted around a house fragranced by ancient trainers, but most of us off would not be put off by a surfeit of saucepans or plant pots, by laptops, books or toys. Dirt and squalor, on the other hand, would definitely be a deal-breaker. An unclean house is an unsold house, whereas one that is brimful of signs of life is just waiting to catch its new owner’s eye.

So at what point does a wealth of individuality become worrying? When does one too many bikes in the hall cease being an indicator of character, and instead point to neglect? I’d say, when they get in the way of moving easily from one room to the next, or require crampons to climb over.

I’m guessing it would be possible to look at our superabundance of books and assume that whenever a thorny domestic problem arises, rather than deal with it we bury ourselves in print, thereby accruing deep-seated problems. Yet since you can never read other people’s minds, how can you market-proof your home other than by clearing away the worst of the clutter and making sure it is sparkling fresh? In the end, what house-hunters require is not a blank and soulless canvas onto which they can project their future life, but an imagination. Also, if possible, a full structural survey.

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