Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fawlty Towers - Tuesday

‘We were hoping for  bit more than that.’ Says the elderly lady, and her crinkly husband nods in agreement. Either that, or he’s fallen asleep.

I’m sat in another dusty, overheated lounge, shelves stuffed with a lifetime’s mementoes. It’s mostly gift shop tat and doubtless will go in a skip when the beneficiaries get to clear out the couple’s last resting place.

‘Well you did say you wanted a realistic valuation, Mrs Glover.’ I counter gently. ‘And the developer will be needing the same.’
‘That’s true dear.’ Mumbles the man. Reassuringly he’s still alive. Probate can really hold up a sale.

‘It’s just….’ Begins the old lady falteringly.
‘Go on.’ I urge.
‘It’s just that the other two agents said much more than you.’
‘They were barely out of short trousers mind.’ Says her husband. ‘Didn’t like the cut of their jib.’

This is a familiar problem. Ever since I entered the industry I’ve been plagued by over-valuers. Agents who mislead potential clients to get their property on their books - often on a long sole agency - then batter the hapless vendors down to a sensible price once competitors, who were honest and accurate with suggested pricing, are locked out.

‘Well, did they show you comparable properties to yours that have actually sold?’ I ask. 
‘Not really.’ Admits the wife.
‘Told you they were charlatans.’ Croaks the old fella. I’m really warming to him. Just hope he lasts the protracted sales’ process.

‘Yes but it’s thirty thousand pounds.’ Continues the wife doggedly.
Not if you’re never going to get it, I want to shout.
‘And the flat we want is ever so pricey, we need every penny we can get.’ Says the old lady, not unnaturally.
‘Thought we were downsizing,’ confides the husband. ‘But we’re going to end up hardly banking anything once we’ve bought the sheltered flat.’

It’s a pet hate of mine. One that grows with every passing year as I move towards the same dilemma this pair are facing. The largely illusionary safety of an old persons’ home, with built-in security and the comfort of a pull-cord to tug when you collapse on the bathroom floor. In reality any shitester can con a resident to buzz them in to the building and the emergency call goes through to a dis-interested call-centre worker somewhere at the cheaper end of the Commonwealth.

‘What do you think we should do?’ Presses the husband. Damn it, and I really like this couple. I could tell them it would be cheaper to stay put, get a gardener and some home help. Avoid paying , way over what I consider sensible for a one bedroom retirement flat. A flat with punitive service charges, an onerous lease full of pitfalls and unfair charges for the beneficiaries when they come to try and sell, and one that will be worth less than their parents paid for it.

I could open a tourist shop with the amount of fudge I’ve dispensed over the years. We agree to market the home at £20,000 more than I’d like, but £10,000 less than the smoke-blowers have suggested. It’s a win, of sorts.

‘Got the developers of the retirement flat, the Glovers are hoping to buy, on line one.’ Says negotiator S, an hour after I’ve returned to the office and before I’ve even uploaded the sales’ particulars. I tense. I don’t like this lot, but then I deal with people I wouldn’t share a drink with, daily. 
‘Cheers. Put them through.’

‘How much could you sell it for, in six weeks?’ Presses the lady sales consultant. 
I offer her a gift-wrapped, metaphorical, 200gms of salted caramel product.
‘We need absolutes.’ She says curtly.
You don’t get those in property, lady.
‘If we take their house in part-exchange we want it sold quickly.’

I bet you do. And you’ll offer them 85% of it’s actual value - my original price not the over-inflated figure - and expect them to pay, what is about 150% of the true price, for your shrunken square-footage box.

Have a feeling I’ll be needing that gardener’s phone number.


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Huge Issues - Wednesday

'Spare some change man?’ Asks the rough sleeper, propped in a grubby sleeping bag in an empty shop doorway. He looks suitably forlorn and judging by the damp piece of cardboard he’s lying on, the scattering of meagre possessions and the slumbering mangy dog, tethered by a piece of string, he’s genuinely been here all night.

‘Sorry pal.' I say, even before I’ve fully considered my thoughts, and I play out a familiar pantomime of throwing my hands apart, palms up, to signify I’ve no cash. Of course I do have money and if he takes contactless cards payments, as some professional beggars are rumoured to do - because the Big Issue man can seemingly afford a mobile phone - then I could help him with the price of a coffee. But conversely, if I can’t afford to buy my caffeine fix at  Costa or Starbucks why should I pay for his full-fat latte and slice of over-priced brownie?

‘Probably wouldn’t spend it on a hot drink anyway.’ I mutter to myself, as I continue towards the office and stumble across another homeless man, in another empty shop unit doorway. Pleasingly, it’s a commercial unit that not too long ago housed a fledgling, cut-price fee, estate agency firm. I saw them out of business, as I’ve done many others over my career. There are no short-cuts to good service and a good reputation.

‘Can you help me out?’ Pleads the second vagrant, lying on another bed of commercial packaging that isn’t going to be recycled any time soon. He has the sort of impressive beard, that with a little grooming, would put the second-coming hipsters who do buy coffee around here, to shame.

I could help the man out, I could point him in the direction of the job centre and let him know that if he applies himself, takes a bit of pride in his appearance and doesn’t spend all his benefit money on cheap cider and roll-up cigarettes, then I could possibly rent him a studio flat in six months time. But nothing is ever that simple.

‘I’m all out man.’ I tell the bedraggled figure. I’m not. It’s a blatant lie, but I’m torn between wanting to help these people out and the nagging feeling I’m being played. Plus, estate agents do have a reputation to protect…

‘Have a good day anyway.’ Mutters the man into his voluminous beard. Bastard. He’s been on the guilt-trip-close, sale’s course. I’m half-tempted to turn around and give him a pound coin or two, but that nagging article a racist couple showed me in their Daily Mail a few weeks ago, as they bemoaned the country and planned their flight to somewhere sunnier, is lodged like a parasite in my brain.

‘You see that’s what they do.’ Said the husband earnestly, showing me the picture of some eastern European pair, parking their BMW on a meter for the day and heading to the west end of London for a lucrative day’s begging.
‘The country is going to the dogs.’ Echoed his sun-bleached wife. ‘That’s why we’re leaving.’

They’ll be back once one of them gets ill and they’ll doubtless wonder why the NHS can’t help them, because all the non-native care staff have also left the country. I’m not going anywhere. I had the chance long ago, and figured if you can’t make it here, in the birthplace of democracy, in one of the most - until now- welcoming and liberal societies on earth, you won’t be making it anywhere else, just because you need a stronger sun cream.

As I approach the office I notice two more commercial boards above recently vacated shops. A horrible feeling of deja vu engulfs me. I’ve seen decimated high streets before and failed estate agency firms, the whole thing has ominous portents. Maybe the only way to solve the UK housing crisis is for another big property recession? It’s like a turkey wishing for Christmas, I realise, and it could be me sleeping rough if it really bites.

‘Big Issue sir?’ Asks a gruff voice, from nowhere.

Yes it is.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Not Accumulating Here - Friday

‘Here comes the sleazeball.’ Announces assistant manage T, with distaste. We all look across the high street and, unprompted, three people chorus: ‘You got anything for me?’ in perfect sneering unison.

I learnt early in the industry to dislike property speculators. Estate agents have a bad reputation - some of them deservedly so - but I knew instinctively I wasn’t going to like the predatory, slightly underhand tactics of your local dealer. 

A good agent had his client’s interest at heart, and it’s always been a matter of pride to me to extract the best possible price for my vendor. Its why I rage at property porn programmes where the photogenic, totally unqualified, presenter tells the viewers in a stage whisper, ‘the agent tells me they’ll take much less than they’re asking.’ Bad agent. Period.

‘How come we never sell him anything?’ Asks trainee F, gormlessly. You can pay for a expensive private education, but a polished turd is still a turd.

‘Because he always wants an angle.’ Explained negotiator S patiently. She’s too good for this business.
‘And he’ll want to buy at under market value, to make a fat profit.’ Adds T.
‘But he says he’ll give us the property back to sell,’ persist F. ‘Then we get two commissions.’
‘It’s called a secret profit and it’s illegal if the owner is unaware of the implications.’ I snap testily.
‘Bit like flogging crap policies to buyers and working harder for them than the vendor.’ Adds T, nodding towards fat finance-fiddler M’s office. He’s had a couple in there for over an hour, could be a lengthy fact-finder form, or they could be selling pies.

‘If you sell a speculator a property a normal punter could buy, not one that can’t be mortgaged or with structural difficulties,’ continues S coaching F with the patience of a saint. ‘By definition you are underselling it.’
‘Yeh, but you get it back to sell when he’s splashed some emulsion around and put new doors on the old kitchen carcass.’ Persists F. 

That’s why less scrupulous agents sell - often off-market without giving genuine buyers the chance -  to their local pet speculator and if he’ll meet them in the pub later, with a fat brown envelope stuffed with fifty pound notes, so much the better. The only back-hander I’ve ever taken in this business, was from an angry buyer who’d been beaten to a house in a contract race. It stung but I didn't sue - its hard enough to get a lawyer to call you back as it is…

 ‘He’s coming in.’ Says T, as the man in question crosses the street and makes a beeline for our door.
‘Doesn’t take a hint does he.’ States T rhetorically.
‘Don’t offer him anything.’ I mutter through a ventriloquist's smile.

‘Morning guys.’ Announces the speculator as he bowls in to the office, all designer jeans and expensive dentistry. I detest him. And here it comes…..

‘Got anything for me?’
‘Not today.’ Says T, almost too quickly. But not quickly enough for me. I try not to catch the man’s eye, but these characters have hides like a rhinoceros. He moves to my place at the spare desk.

‘Come on,’ he cajoles. ‘You must have something with an earn in it. There’ll be cheeky drink in it for everyone.’

What the f**k is that? I want to demand. A bottle of Sunny Delight with a monkey face on the front? It’s insulting to think, this odious oik thinks I’ll take his money and betray a client. But then he’s clearly finding plenty who will.

‘Deceased estate, need a quick sale. Old lady wants in to a retirement flat and doesn’t know how much her gaff is worth, maybe?’ Persists the man with an over-bright grin. I’m going to be so tempted to key his Range Rover the next time I see it bumped up the kerb outside a cheap refurbishment, with a rival’s For Sale board outside. 

I’m saved when the man’s top-of-the-range I-Phone rings and he starts talking loudly about a conditional contract and a holding deposit. He offers an exaggerated, call me, mime before leaving the office in a fug of cloying after shave.

No chance.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Expert Advice - Monday

‘I’m not too good with exams.’ States trainee F unnecessarily. I’ve seen his CV and for his family to spend that amount of money on a private education, with so little qualifications in return, merits the mother of all refunds.

‘It’s more of a test.’ Soothes negotiator S, in a comforting fashion - she has the necessary equipment.
‘You don’t even know you’re born.’ Contributes obese finance-fiddler M. ‘We have to sit multiple complex exams to sell insurance and finance.’
Only because you all mis-sold for years, I think sourly.

‘You should try being in lettings nowadays.’ Says B. ‘We have to act as immigration officials, gas safety engineers, money laundering snitches and wet nurses, all rolled in to one.’
It’s true, there is a lot of regulation - some of it conflicting - the modern property professional needs to keep abreast of. 

You’d think estate agents would need to be qualified, yet fledgling internet agencies still keep appearing, conning people for up front fees and claiming to have local property experts on hand. If expert means some failed window cleaner from a town forty miles away, who has scraped through a multiple choice computerised learning programme, with the none to subtle prompting of the training company who need the pass rate to look good, then smashing.

‘Why do they keep making us do these ridiculous e-learning courses?’ Asks assistant manager T, grumpily.
‘Because it saves on employing real, touch-em, feel-em trainers.’ Suggests B. Its not the best image, as rumour has it she both touched and felt that married bloke in the training department, who left in a hurry last year.

B  does have a point though. I almost feel nostalgic about some of the trainers we had in the past. True, most of them only trained because they couldn't sell - and I still haven't forgotten that creepy little man who handed out cuddly toys to a circled bunch of bemused and grizzled negotiators, to “help form empathy within the group”. He shouldn't have been allowed within a mile of any infant school. But at least they were human.

‘Saves money too.’ Says T. ‘They only want to cover their own arses as cheaply as possible. If trading standards, tax and revenue, passport control, or the legionnaire’s disease police come after you, head office can claim we’ve been properly trained.’

I tend to agree with T. My bean counter boss spends his life avoiding responsibility, ensconced in his office with a spread sheet and a hard-on, by all accounts. Celebrities might want to expose their butt cheeks to all and sundry, with big Belfie shots published on-line, but head office staff like their rear-ends covered.

‘Who designs this rubbish?’ Asks T, warming to his task. He has the prelude to the latest e-learning trial, on his computer screen. A few example questions are laid out Janet and John style, with four options as answers, for each question. 

‘Some over-priced consultancy who peddle the same tatty programme to all our competitors too.’ I offer, as a shaky hypothesis.
‘It’s a con, that’s what it is.’ Says T.
‘Talking of cons,’ Pipes up F. ‘Is there any way we can get a copy of the answers, beforehand, like last time?’
Almost certainly.

‘Don’t worry.’ Says S to F, as he moves towards hyper-ventilation. He probably hasn’t been this agitated since he was probed behind the bike sheds by his game’s master.
‘I’ve told you, exams don't agree with me.’ He replies shakily.
‘For God’s sake, there are only four options, and two of them are obviously wrong.’ Snaps M, grumpily. ‘And that’s before someone gets a hold of the crib sheet. You try learning what the difference is between APRs, AERs, compound and flat rate interest and how to explain it to a dullard.’

‘I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get it.’ Says F, flatly.
‘That’s why you are the world’s longest-standing trainee.’ Chuckles T.
‘Just remember, you eat an elephant a bite at a time.’ Offers S, with a smile. F looks bemused.

He’d still be a local property expert with some firms though….


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Right To Rent - Thursday

‘She’s prickly today.’ I whisper to S, my negotiator, as I see B the loose lettings lush arguing with a young couple, at her desk. The pair are giving as good as they get, albeit in a sort of guttural slang English, peppered with language richer than they appear to be.

‘She’s been moody all day.’ Confides S, nodding towards B, as the heavily tattooed and heavily pregnant female she’s arguing with - an earlier production model in a pushchair alongside - starts to spout a line about unfair treatment. I grind my teeth. You don’t need accusations of that kind, no matter how false. The paperwork wipes out rain forests…

‘They can’t, like discriminate us, ‘coz we’s on the social.’ Spits the woman, as her neanderthal partner grunts in agreement. He has multiple piercings and a big ring through his nose that I’m thinking might come in handy if I need to lead him, forcibly, from the office. His tattoos are less inky than his girlfriend’s, but do extend up his neck in a fetching manner, that he might think fashionable, but pretty much precludes him from working in any public-facing position.

‘What a pair of retards.’ Offers fat mortgage man M, in a wheezy stage whisper as he waddles past us, en-route to the kitchen.
‘You can’t say that.’ Replies S, bristling, turning to me and adding. ‘Can he?’
Best not to tell her what I was thinking - pretty much a mantra to stick to all the time with S, as it happens.

‘They do seem a little agitated.’ I say to S soothingly. B is now spouting some line about her landlords not wanting tenants who don’t have their own income and employment, to cover the rent. It’s not an unreasonable request, and one I’d want to make if I could ever afford a second property as an alternative to my pitiful pension.

‘It’s f***ing guaranteed.’ Shouts the female, swooping to pick up the soiled dummy her child has spat on the floor. The chubby girl is too old to be sucking on the comforter but as her mother - and possibly her father - are still locked on to the State’s virtual tit, it seems ironically appropriate. 

Actually, when the state paid rent direct to landlords it was a fairly safe vehicle for buy-to-let landlords, but once the benefits were diverted to the tenants first, the problems started. The off-licence and the drug dealer, sometimes got the cash before the landlord. It’s a cliche, but most cliches are rooted in unfortunate fact.

‘You shouldn’t pre-judge people.’ Says S softly, as the argument continues across the office. My money is on B, if the two feisty bitches start to fight. I reckon I can take the pig-nosed bloke if it kicks off, he’s wearing enough ironmongery for me to get painful purchase.

‘We try not to.’ I reply in a conciliatory fashion. And I don’t; I’ve sold enough homes to scruffy-looking individuals who turned out to be loaded, just with poor fashion sense, to know that. But the endless stream of deadbeats, who seem to know more about their rights than contraception, are starting to test, even my loosely liberal, ideals.

‘They just need somewhere to live.’ Continues S. ‘It’s not their fault housing costs in this country are a joke.’ I nod in agreement. She is right, and successive UK Housing ministers who last about as longs as an epileptic virgin on his wedding night, haven’t helped the problem. But this angry couple must have spent six month’s worth of rent on their absurd inkings, they don’t come cheap. And the over-sized baby in the pricey pushchair has managed designer boots and pierced ears, before she has jettisoned the dummy and been potty-trained.

‘I tell you what, I’ll swing for some of these people one day.’ Growls B, after the punchy pair have left, and the office door still rattles in its frame

‘Couldn’t you have found them somewhere?’ Asks S.
‘Would you want scum like that in your flat?’ Snaps back B.
‘I haven’t got one.’ Says S, haughtily.

Probably not.


Friday, March 17, 2017

The Invisible Man - Friday

I’m early to the office again, so decide to pick up the post from the DX drop-off point. Document Exchange is a private postal system favoured by lawyers, accountants and a few quasi-professionals, like estate agents. Our collection point is round the back of a local solicitor firm’s rather gloomy offices. There’s a dank alleyway approach, where you sometimes find rough-sleepers and always hope it’s nobody you’ve evicted from their home.

As I near the venue, dodging the detritus of last night’s takeaway leftovers scattered across the road, the door is just closing. The drop-dead gorgeous receptionist from the law firm at the far end of town, is just leaving, arms full of bulky brown envelopes. I silently curse my luck, just being in the same confined space as her while we unlock our boxes, would have been a guilty pleasure.

‘Morning.’ I say breezily, flashing her my best smile - one designed to convey a friendly, non-threatening in a sexual way - bonhomie. She looks at me struggling for recognition. I tell her my firm’s name and who I am.
‘Oh, yes right.’ She answers flatly. ‘I didn’t recognise you.’

Great. I’ve turned into one of those middle-aged women who no longer turn heads in supermarkets and who would actually welcome a wolf-whistle from a building site, if they hadn’t been banned by the joy-stealers. The last time I was on a construction site the list of health, safety and welfare rules ran all down one side of the portacabin and the only pin-up was a boast about the zero accident rate tumbling from scaffolding.

‘No worries.’ I say to the fast departing girl, who looks as good from behind as the front elevation. It took me all this time to gain some confidence talking to the fairer sex and now all they see is an old bloke who might just be leching inappropriately….

I shrug and punch the four-digit code into the door entrance panel. Turning the handle and thrusting forward I nearly break my nose on the peeling door surface.
‘What the f••k?’ I bellow rhetorically, juggling the knob angrily. The door rattles but stays firmly locked.

‘They’ve changed the number.’ Says negotiator S, once I’ve rung her mobile phone.
‘Why didn’t they tell anyone?’ I ask grumpily. ‘ Did they send a f•••ing fax, or something?’
S laughs, knowing only too well some solicitors still communicate by the ancient shiny copy-paper system, then admonishes me for the expletive which will cost me another visit to the office swear box - and gives me the new number.

Inside the gloomy ante-room there are two walls covered in banks of square wooden boxes, each with a wider than average letterbox hole and a lockable door. I ignore the dank, slightly decomposing aroma, briefly wondering if another wino has pegged it behind the industrial-sized wheelie-bins outside, and open the company cubby-hole.

As I sort through the bulky manilla envelopes, keeping a keen eye out for any familiar franking marks that might be a lawyer’s firm I recognise, sending me a completion commission cheque, the door swings open again.

I look up to see another young woman, I don’t know come breezing in. She’s multi-tasking, by scanning her phone messages, frantically tapping some sort of response  - thumbs moving in a blur - and chewing gum. I can’t see any visible tattoos as she has a long-sleeve coat on, but if I was a betting man…

She might be another junior legal employee or even a negotiator for the latest bunch of cut-fee shitesters to open up in town. After all, in UK estate agency no experience or qualifications are required.

‘Morning.’ I offer, with the same smile that has failed once already.
She looks up startled - I swear she wasn’t even aware I was there until then - and gives me a scowl. I’m just passing pleasantries, I don’t want to shag you, I feel like bellowing, but spooling the scenario forward I can envisage a complaint, some sort of offenders’ record and a police caution, so I leave hurriedly.

I’m too old for this lark.


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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Waterworld Too - Tuesday

The rain is back with a vengeance, as I battle through rush hour traffic for a late viewing. You can see why the more sprightly pensioners head for Spain in their early dotage. I’d advise them to keep a foothold in the UK property market, not sell-up completely for the lure of all day piss-ups and a pool, but you can’t tell them. They trickle back when their health starts to fail and they discover the much-maligned NHS its still better than a paid for clinic, more used to dealing with drunken British teenagers than early onset dementia.

I pull out slightly to avid a great sheet of standing water adjacent to a bus stop. I’m rewarded with a nodded thank you from two people in the queue and a bolshie blast on the horn from some boy racer coming the other way. I open my hands in question at the spotty oik as he speeds past oblivious to the road conditions, and get a single rigid finger thrust at me in return.

‘Tosser.’ I mutter towards the headlining. Not sure if Ford deliberately targeted the Ka at semi-literate retards with more tattoos than brain cells, but they seem to have cornered the market in aggressive kids who have somehow passed their driving test, but have more chance of becoming Prime Minister than successfully parallel parking.

‘Terrific.’ I mutter to myself as I crawl down the appointed street looking for a parking slot. These terraced houses were built just post-war and planners didn’t envisage owners, or more accurately around here renters, with three cars per household. The rain is lashing down still, as I finally find a space half across the double yellow lines, and switch off. As the downpour refuses to abate I wonder how those new houses they plan to build on what everyone who 's lived around here for more than twenty years knows is a flood plain, will fare.

As the car clock approaches five minutes before the appointed viewing time, I twist awkwardly to retrieve my umbrella from the back seat. I’m rewarded with a stabbing pain in my lower back and a view of a slightly soiled squab - that old woman viewing the retirement flat turned out to be as incontinent as her aroma indicated - devoid of anything other than a yellowy stain.

‘F**k!’ I bellow, as a vision of my brolly, sat by the office door still dripping from my earlier failed valuation, swims - appropriately - into view. The car is still rocking from my expletive as a teenage mum, with a toddler on one arm plus twin babies in one of those double buggies struggles past, looking at me suspiciously. God knows what she’d doing out in this weather, unless she’s searching for the fathers….

I stand on the doorstep, clipboard in hand and watch the rain lashing down. The owners are at work, not home until late obviously, how else could they service a mortgage without both working punishing hours? They are, needless to say, childless. I try not to become a Daily Mail reader, as I pogoed to The Clash in my youth, but some days I can feel my angry middle-Englander trying to escape.

Fifteen minutes later I’m still surveying the soggy street and trying to avoid a persistent drip that is determined to get down my shirt collar. I could go inside, I have the keys, but there’s one of those passive-aggressive stickers on the door’s side panel, warning Hawkers, Circulars and cold callers to not knock. They might as well put up those offensive notices from the fifties telling Irish and blacks they can’t rent round here. I’m guessing the woman of the house will know if I’ve lurked around inside without potential buyers with me, and you never know when people have motion sensitive cameras rigged any more. It’s taken all the fun out of the knicker drawer…

‘Have they rung in to cancel?’ I ask when negotiator S eventually answers the office phone.
‘Do they ever?’ She answers, semi rhetorically.
‘They’re not coming are they?’ I say, completely rhetorically.

I’m sinking here.