Is it possible to flog a family home, packed full of Lego, in a recession?
When we put our lovely London flat on the market, we were confident that a buyer would come easily. Keen to move closer to the local secondary school, and finally live in a house with a garden, we prepared to welcome a host of eager young couples, taking their own step up the housing ladder. Who wouldn't want to live in such a warm and happy home, we thought, with plenty of space to start a family...
Three months later and the only offer we've had is £30k below the asking price. A string of viewers have turned up their noses - and judging by the comments made, there's one clear stumbling block: Eliott, our eight-year-old.
We're fast finding out that the elusive couple we had hoped to snare is priced out of the market. Instead, a string of yuppie house sharers and property developers take one look at the family set-up and run a mile.
From the last minute Lego-dash every time a prospective buyer comes over, to the crushing disappointment when they sneer at the Spider-Man mural on Eliott's bedroom wall, the inability to shift the place is driving me batty.
His room is always tidy, but even stacked neatly on shelves and in his toy chest, the games, action figures and Lego bricks are a massive turn-off.
It's not enough that the smart, nicely decked-out flat has "original period features, a long lease and excellent transport links" – we also need to project a child-free lifestyle.
The most recent advice we've received has been to replace Eliott's cabin bed with a double, take down his superhero curtains and put his entire toy collection into storage so we don't "put people off".
This is the first time we've moved since becoming parents – and I'm shocked that having a family is such a housing hot potato. But having overheard viewers' derogatory comments about the 'child's bedroom' and 'family atmosphere', I'm not sure that we'll ever sell-up without stuffing Eliott, and all his possessions, into the cupboard along with the tea towels and toiletries, whenever viewers turn up.
I understand why this is happening. I've seen enough episodes of Phil Spencer: Secret Agent to know that we are 'selling a lifestyle' not just a property. Perhaps we'd be OK if we found another family exactly like our own to flog the flat to, but the mere sight of life with a child isn't to everyone's taste. Sadly, most buyers lack the imagination to look beyond the Batman duvet cover and consider how they might use the space differently if they moved in.
Annabel Smith, a mum of two and former estate and relocation agent, says that there are two types of buyers - the ones who don't care about the presentation (as they plan to change everything and make a killing) and those who are looking for the perfect dream house to walk straight into.
"I say get out during any viewings and keep the place immaculate," she says. "Box up the toys and store them elsewhere. The less stuff in the house, the bigger it looks, the sooner you get a buyer."
When Annabel sold her last house, she admits that she was obsessive about hiding family life clutter.
"The chances are that a target buyer is probably the 'you' you were when you bought the house. If you don't have kids, everything is idealistic. The realities of how kids change your life (and storage space) is a tough one to face for 'dinkies' when viewing a prospective dream home."
Indeed, when one "dream couple" (wealthy City workers, no kids yet) came to see our place, the girlfriend cooed over Eliott's bedroom and her man went a funny colour. The next five years of his life must have flashed before his eyes. And he didn't like what he saw.
We're certainly not the only family who has struggled to sell. Mum of two Rose Wilkes spent a year with her house on the market. "We took down all our family photos, on the advice of the estate agent," she recalls, "and a ton of cuddly toys went to the charity shop because they looked too cluttered in the kids' room. Our son's wardrobe was rammed full of his toys - occasionally I would hear viewers opening the doors and hoped the toys would fall out onto their nosy heads!"
Tracey Davis has three children and had similar viewing nightmares. "I'd get a call from the estate agent saying they were bringing folk around, usually at the kids' bedtime," she says. "I'd then have a mad rush to hide everything, scrape food off the floor and get them all in bed before they arrived. It was horrible.
"We used to get lots of teatime viewings too. So rather than let the terrible trio eat in/destroy the house, I'd take them out for pizza - sometimes several times a week at great expense. I'd be furious if potential buyers didn't turn up after I'd spent £30 in Pizza Express.
"Then, of course, there were the 'I need a poo' requests during a viewing. Not funny at all. You'd need a lot of fresh coffee/baking bread to disguise that situation. I can't tell you the relief I felt when we finally accepted an offer."
I cannot wait until we get to that stage too - although it seems a long way off.
The most recent feedback offered by prospective buyers was that the flat lacked a 'crisp finish' – perhaps I should have sat Eliott on the balcony with a packet of Hula Hoops after all?
No, to get a decent offer I'm resigned to the fact that we need to paint over Spidey, peel the homemade Bat-signals off the wall and dismantle Lego Hogwarts. You can imagine how popular we'll be with our boy after wiping out all traces of his existence from the family home. But if we're ever going to get our dream place with a garden, spitting distance from the secondary school Eliott longs to attend, it's the price we'll have to pay.
Phil Spencer – eat your heart out.
Our dos and don'ts for selling your family home
DO search for that missing sweaty school sock: it will turn up during a viewing and it will make the prospective buyer retch.
DON'T breastfeed/change nappies/start the weaning process during a viewing: to sell the property you must keep all bodily fluids and pureed vegetables to an absolute minimum.
DO coach boys on their aim in the loo: wee-stains up the walls are not considered 'desirable'.
DON'T allow viewings if any junior members of the family have a runny nose: viewers equate snotty children with the bubonic plague.
DO remove stickers from wardrobe doors/walls/fridges/worktops/skirting boards/mirrors/lampshades/washing baskets/television cabinets/family pets.
DON'T listen to your children when they beg you to leave the bright pink/deep blue bedroom walls alone: if you want to sell, magnolia is your friend.
DO carry wipes at all waking hours of the day and night: once the walls are off-white, sticky fingers are the enemy.
DON'T encourage your children to help you show prospective buyers around the house: what you see as 'cute', house-hunters see as 'the worst thing that has ever happened to them'.
Does all this ring horribly true for you?
More on Parentdish: Why our homes should be lived-in and loved, not immaculate