Gazundering and gazumping: First person

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 25Nov2008

Gazundering and gazumping are crimes for which no punishment is too severe, says James Trollope

Property rage, at its most extreme, can make you swear like a BBC presenter. Other symptoms of this particularly English disease include a sense of overwhelming powerlessness and a tendency to indulge in elaborate revenge fantasies.

Unlike its close cousin, road rage, it doesn't usually result in sudden violence but it is more inclined to fester. The condition is inextricably linked to the ups and downs of the market.

When prices are rising, sellers are usually the cause: when they are falling, it's often buyers who are to blame. Having been gazumped in the boom and gazundered in the crash, I write from bitter experience.

How clearly I remember that early evening in the spring of 2002 when we were pushing our baby across a park in Brighton towards what we thought was our next home. As we approached, I felt a warm proprietorial glow.

Yes, we had stretched ourselves financially but here at last was that extra space we so desperately needed. It was a nice house, too; a three-storey Victorian terrace sympathetically restored by a charming property developer who, according to our estate agent, had accepted our offer and promised to take it off the market.

We peered through the window and were admiring the marble fireplace and polished floorboards when we heard the sound of voices. "We have had some interest," said the developer to a wealthy-looking couple, "but nothing has been finalised."

Frozen to the spot, we watched until they moved out of sight to another room. After a restless night, it was no great surprise when our estate agent told us that the charmer had received a higher offer which he invited us to match. My reply was unprintable; my desire for revenge, as yet, unrealised.

Fast forward to February 2008 and to the other end of the country. Following my mother's death, we received several offers for her house outside Newcastle despite disturbing headlines about falling prices. We settled on a couple who had already sold. Although we thought they had agreed to exchange within two weeks, a month passed with little progress. The flow of gloomy headlines became a flood and we eventually received a call from our estate agent saying they had lowered their offer.

Reluctantly, we agreed to a drop of £30,000. Then, on the day we were supposed to exchange, a gut- wrenching silence. About 24 hours later we learnt they had withdrawn.

Yet again property rage kicked in. The air went blue, my face went red and my thoughts turned to revenge. Before long, the body count in my fevered brain exceeded the grisliest Shakespearian tragedy with estate agents, doom merchants, fickle buyers and solicitors all tossed on the pyre. Gradually, though, it dawned on me that the English system of buying and selling was largely to blame. Leaving everything up in the air until the last minute is a recipe for property rage. If offers were cemented with non-refundable deposits, as in France and elsewhere, the condition could be cured. And why is it that solicitors and estate agents always seem to discourage contact between buyers and sellers?

After some research on the internet, I found the email address of our elusive couple and asked why they had pulled out at the moment of exchange. They explained, apologetically, that they had been spooked by the grim headlines. We eventually completed the sale at the end of May having accepted a reduction of nearly 10 per cent.

Looking back, I was able to bring my feelings under some control because we weren't involved in a chain unlike a friend of mine who was put in the position of having to accept a £50,000 drop on the day of exchange or lose the house to which he was on the point of moving.

What made it all the more annoying was that the buyer, judging from his fleet of extravagant cars, could have afforded to have bought the place several times over. My friend's initial reaction was to tell him where he could stuff his £50,000, but irreversible arrangements about jobs and schools made that impossible.

With difficulty, we persuaded him against laying land-mines under the lawn, so he came up with a subtler ploy that prompted a phone call some weeks later. "I can't imagine why it won't open," he told the frustrated gazunderer who, I like to think, might still be struggling with the altered code to the garage door.