Why buy when you can just swap?

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 07Aug2004

Buying and selling a house in the conventional way is not only stressful; it is also expensive. Much better, surely, to do a deal that cuts out the middlemen and saves you money and grief. James Trollope reports on the amicable alternative.

Like giving birth, buying a house often combines joy and pain. The difference is that a midwife doesn't usually thrust a bill in front of your nose at the end of it. That's probably why estate agents are so unloved.

Even if they have done a good job, they demand money at the worst time, when you are emotionally and financially drained. So can you do without them? In some cases, yes. The dream, agentless deal is the swap: no chain, no commission and less hassle. But how do you pull it off? As you will see from our two examples, you need some luck and, in the County Durham case, divine intervention.

Alternatively, you can use the internet. Nick Williams, from Southport, has just set up a site (quickbeforeitsgone.co.uk) designed to introduce houseswappers to each other. Over the coming year, he is aiming to have more than 2,000 properties on his books. Compared to the thousands of pounds most movers have to pay estate agents, he is asking just £5 a month. "There will always be a role for estate agents," he says, "because there are people who don't want to negotiate.

But there will also be a lot of people who want to save money." Peter Bolton King, the chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, sounds a warning note. "My main concern is how do you sort it out if things go wrong? Professional help can often prove invaluable." In our two examples, the two house-swappers not only coped without professional negotiators, but also benefitted from a tax perk which Gordon Brown has just withdrawn.

Until the end of last year, you had to pay Stamp Duty only on the higher-priced property (our swappers split the bill). Patrick O'Brien, of the Inland Revenue, explains: "The Government believes that the continuance of the former favourable Stamp Duty treatment is not justified." Even so, if the opportunity is there, we reckon it's still worth trying to swap.

Moving in perfect harmony

You would expect an opera singer to have a good sense of timing and when Jozik Koc heard his cue he didn't miss a beat. On discovering that the owner of the house his wife Helen had set her heart on hadn't himself found a new home, he immediately offered his own place as a possible swap.

"He was very opportunistic," remembers Harold Mourgue. "He said: 'If you're still looking, why not look here?' "

Mr Mourgue, a 76-year-old former deputy chairman of EMI, had lived, with his wife Joan, in their splendid, 1920s, detached, mock-Tudor house in Eastbourne for 15 years. Perched high above the coast in the fashionable Meads district, Myton has a large garden and terrific sea views. It also has 40 steps to the front door - a climb that Mrs Mourgue, who suffers from arthritis and back problems, was finding increasingly difficult. Although the Kocs lived only 300 yards away, their house was on level land and while the garden is much smaller, the rooms are huge and, unlike Myton, neighbours are close at hand.

Meads House is part of a "superior" development, which involved the conversion of a Victorian hotel and some rebuilding to form an enclosed community.

While the Mourgues appreciate being less isolated, the Kocs wanted more space for their daughter, 11, and eight-year-old son. "We were the only ones under 50," said Jozik, "and although they were lovely people we felt there was a lack of freedom for Morwenna and Max." Rules restricting hanging out washing and what you could do in your garden had also begun to irk.

Negotiations were not quick but both parties agreed that the ability to communicate directly was a big plus. Myton was valued at £680,000 and Meads House at £525,000, with the main saving being the shared Stamp Duty, which cut both bills by about £10,000. Because estate agents were involved initially, some fees were paid, although the Kocs negotiated a reduction.

A year on, Max and Morwenna are only a short walk from their school, where Helen teaches, and Harold and Joan Mourgue have made several new friends. Mr Mourgue does, however, admit to missing the views. "If I was 10 years younger, I would be missing the gardening as well."

A dream come true

This house-swap in County Durham - involving a priest, an art teacher and a recently divorced nurse - was literally a dream deal, says a mutual friend of Linda Pitt and Linda Smith. "I dreamt that they would like each other's houses, so I put them in touch.

Now that the swap has actually happened, I've seen them exactly as they were in my dream," says Delicia Quinn, a pupil in Linda Pitt's art class. Linda Smith was going through a divorce and needed to downsize while the Pitts had been on the look-out for something bigger for about . ve years. The Reverend Canon Trevor Pitt, who is attached to Newcastle Cathedral, required more room for his vast collection of theological tomes while his artistic wife wanted a studio, a larger garden and a kitchen that would accommodate a 7ft-long farmhouse table.

Linda's cottage, in the Teesdale village of Hamsterley, ticked all the boxes, but would she like the Pitts' smaller, terrace house . ve miles away in Wolsingham? "I loved it straight away. I wanted to stay in the countryside and it felt the right place, at the right time," said the mother-of-three, who works as a nurse at Bishop Auckland hospital.

Wolsingham, across the hills in Weardale, was also more convenient for her two daughters' schools and because her son had already left home, the family didn't need so much space. The two parties agreed that the Hamsterley property was worth £110,000 and the smaller Wolsingham house £80,000. By sharing the Stamp Duty and avoiding estate agents' fees, the Pitts saved about £3,300 and Linda Smith about £2,700. But the main benefit was the avoidance of stress.

"I kept thinking this is just too lucky and waiting for something to go wrong," says Linda Pitt. "But it didn't." The "matchmaker", Delicia, reckons that it was divine intervention. "I'm a Christian, so I don't take any credit. He gets the credit; it's not down to me!"