I have behaved badly. I know this because last week I was emailed a guide to house-hunting etiquette and realised I am a serial transgressor.
By selfishly thinking my house-buying odyssey is all about me, I have systematically defiled the noble expectations of my would-be sellers. Among my more heinous offences, I have asked the wrong questions, lacked generosity in acknowledging the tidiness of the house and, most despicably of all, worn the wrong kind of clothes.
These are serious faux pas and ones for which I will probably end up in some sort of retirement bungalow purgatory. But at least I won’t be alone. It turns out most of us house-hunters, giddy on the high of being in a “buyers’ market”, are causing outrage among our prospective trading partners.
The catalogue of things we should abstain from when viewing a property, but frequently do anyway, is extensive.
Children can be a serious imposition to the seller. Jabbering away in any tongue that is not understood by the seller is hurtful and breeds mistrust. Pulling out a camera phone and disapprovingly snapping the cracks and damp patches is intrusive and tantamount to household happy-slapping. Discussing with a viewing-buddy what changes you’d like to make is the height of bad manners.
According to my etiquette hymn sheet – written by a couple reduced to despair at the total lack of deference prospective buyers were showing them or their home – one of our most oft repeated offences is turning up with the wrong sort of crowd.
Now, I can see that it is unreasonable to turn up to do a viewing with the local heroin pusher in tow. But apparently even minor deviations from the me/me-plus-spouse norm are intolerable for the seller: “It’s best if only you and your partner visit to look over the house. If you need your father/mother/friends to accompany you, perhaps you are not ready for this decision”.
This is absurdly harsh. For most of us, buying a house is a pretty serious commitment that is going to leave us on the cusp of social penury for a long time. As such, we should be allowed to take any ensemble of friends, family, lawyers and religious or spiritual advisers that could help to inform our decision.
The worst thing a buyer can do, though, is turn up in the wrong attire. If you fail to get the clothes right, you might as well signal your arrival for the viewing by urinating through the letter box.
The difficulty is that there is an impossibly fine line between on the one hand being so casual as to look as though you just want a warm place to hang out and, on the other, so smart that you don’t stand a chance of playing the “it’s a little out of my price range” card.
Fortunately, there is a litany of advice on how best to dress for property prowling. The US house finding website Open House (www.openhouse.com) offers perhaps the soundest suggestion: “It’s not a fashion show so leave the Armani suit and Jimmy Choos at home. That said, a tank-top and Daisy Dukes are inappropriate. Keep it reasonable.”
There are even sub-categories of things that, while not overtly rude, are likely annoying and should be avoided where possible.
Whipping out a tape measure on a first viewing – predominantly a male problem – can be a source of acute irritation for sellers. It is like taking a pre-nuptial contract on a first date: it shows you are serious, but is largely unnecessary and risks seeming presumptuous.
The real problem, though, has nothing to do with whether you are wearing penny loafers or lime-green Crocs. Nor is it really to do with whether, mid-viewing, you turn to your child and ask them to hand you the tape measure. Rather, it is about the unique imbalance of emotion that occurs between the buyer and seller of a home.
As buyers, we are invited into the depths of the sellers’ emotional fortress – a place normally reserved only for those they know and trust. But we are taught to be dispassionate. To consider how much it will be worth in five years and how little the owner will be prepared to accept for it. These are luxuries of hard-nosed thought that the seller can rarely afford. Instead, they are battling with the emotion of parting from something that is deeply familiar and very possibly loved.
It is a situation where it is impossible for the prospective new owner – however good their initial offer – to do anything other than displease.
Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent