Friday, November 28, 2014

Sowing The Seeds Of Love


I spot the ancient Volvo creeping along the road belching fumes, while the lady driver looks for a parking spot. I give them a neutral wave as they pass by and notice a bearded man in the passenger seat and two young girls strapped in the rear. Great, I think, kids running wild on a viewing is all I need and as if to compound my nascent opinion of the occupants, I notice a rear bumper sticker championing Greenpeace.

I move to the front door of the Victorian terraced house I’m selling, trying not to laugh at the apparently unnoticed irony of the tree-huggers driving a car spewing out more contaminants than a new Ford or Ferrari.

‘Good morning.’ I call cheerily as the family unpack and I see the man has a ponytail. Someone should tell him they went out when Tears For Fears split up and even then Curt Smith looked a twat. All I need is for him to strap on one of those papoose carriers for emasculated men who can’t breast feed and I’ll know for sure he’s a tit.

‘I’m hungry.’ Whines the older of the two oddly dressed girls. 
‘Just wait Poppy.’ Says the harassed looking Dad - I’m guessing stay at home and self-teaching the kids, type. ‘I have some carrot sticks in the car if you behave.’
‘I’m hungry too.’ Grizzles the smaller of the kids from hell.She appears to be wearing some sort of self-knitted hemp number. The Dad probably made that.

‘Try and control them while we look round Henry.’ Barks the mother, who I notice is about five months pregnant. If I was Henry I’d ask for some DNA testing. He doesn’t look like he could get up in the morning for anything other than making organic muesli.
Trying to ignore my innate prejudice to parents who damage their children in ways Social Services have yet to fathom, I introduce myself.

‘Does the council allow solar panels?’ Asks the wife as the husband parts the two girls who seem intent on pulling each others hair for sport - they probably aren’t allowed iPads.
‘I see no reason why not.’ I answer evasively - apart from the fact they are expensive, inefficient, prone to failure and aesthetically abhorrent. 
‘Stop that now Daisy.’ Pleads the husband weakly as the Satan’s spawn brats continue to bicker.

‘The lounge could be bigger.’ Says the woman haughtily as I start the tour and wonder mischievously if they’ll call the third daughter Rapeseed or maybe Cowslip? If it’s a boy of course, they might take a flyer on Pansy just to cover all bases.

‘It’s a standard size for these homes.’ I say neutrally. The Victorians probably didn’t figure you’d need extra width to accommodate a home birthing pool, I think acidly. One that could double as a eco-pond in the garden after number three has arrived - you wouldn’t even need to scrape the placenta off the side as the frogs would love the nutrients. 

‘We don’t believe in mainstream schooling.’ Confirms the mother as we look round the extended rear reception room.
‘I need the lavatory.’ Wails Daisy insistently.
Wonderful, I’ve had people dump in clients’ homes before and they don’t appreciate a floater when they come home from work. I’ll need to check the bowl and the windows before leaving.

‘I’m a lawyer.’ Says the mother by way of conversation while Henry and Daisy are in the bathroom. God, I bet her firm are delighted she’s about to give birth again. No way they’d dare mess with her maternity rights.

‘Oh really Daisy?’ Comes Henry’s forlorn voice from behind the flimsy bathroom door.
‘A number two?
‘I specialise in…’ Begins the mother as she tries to cover some unpleasant noises from the bathroom.
Don’t tell me I think.
‘…human rights.’
You didn’t need to tell me. 

I’m pretty sure the owners’ rights to clean air are being violated as a sheepish Henry emerges with his daughter. They may be made of sugar and spice but this girl has eaten too much lentils and rice.

‘Did the eco-family like number 12?’ Asks negotiator S on my return.
‘Wrong prevailing wind.’ I tell her.


It’s a blow.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Happy Valley Towers - Wednesday


‘Are the other residents friendly?’ Asks the pernickety daughter as she guides her elderly father along the first floor corridor of the retirement apartment block.
I’ve managed to get in the main door with the communal key and avoided the overbearing manager, who if past experience is anything to go by will try and hijack my buyer into looking at one of the many re-sales the management company - her employer - are trying to flog.

‘Oh they are a lovely bunch.’ I answer, trying to hurry the pair along the never-ending run of patterned carpet and closed sapele fire doors, with those spy holes. I expect a few ancient inmates - I mean owners - are squintily watching our progress along the interminable dark warren that resembles a budget hotel setting. No doubt if the old boy does move in he’ll be in great demand from the predominately female inhabitants. Rumour has it any reasonably able-bodied pensionable male can die with a wrinkly smile on their face, if they can last long enough and get a decent supply of Viagra.

‘What happened to the owner of this one?’ Asks the daughter as we reach the appointed door and I fumble with the keys. It’s not a great question to answer. The clue is in the name with Retirement Apartments, if they don’t get shipped out to a nursing home the occupants usually leave horizontally - on a gurney.

‘I think they went in to full time care.’ I say as vaguely as I can. It could be argued the embalmer constitutes fairly permanent full time care, but fortunately before I’m pressed further I get the door open and we move into the even darker entrance hall.

I swiftly hit the lights, but I can’t hide the musty smell and the hint of stale urine.  Always best to fit new carpets if you buy one of these places second hand. Hurriedly, as hurriedly as you can usher a man with two walking sticks and a heart condition, I bring the duo in to the living room/kitchen.
There is one window at the far end overlooking the car park and the kitchen is as dark as the hall, with just a wheezing extractor unit to pull the pong of piss from the air. I’m not a big fan either…

Window flung open as far as the restrictor will allow - jumpers can wreck the communal morale - I give the highlights of the room. The illusionary safety net of the orange emergency pull-cords that put you through to a call centre where English is a foreign language, and the waist high electrical sockets to stop rickety backs from popping out of alignment.

‘I’d like to know about the service charges.’ Presses the daughter as her father sinks into the one high-backed chair, left incongruously in the middle of the room. The beneficiaries had their pick of the furniture and jewellery and are just bitching about the asking price.

I give the woman the latest set of figures we’ve managed to prise from the managing agents. They want paying for each piece of reluctantly given information and would even charge for a phone call if they could gouge it from you.
‘It seems a lot once Dad’s paid for his electric and other costs.’ Replies the daughter accurately.
She’s not wrong, but then for years the major players who built these blocks owned the management companies as a subsidiary. Allegedly, it’s not so often the case now, but I still suspect there are mutual interest behind the scenes.

If any member of my family wanted to buy a retirement flat, I’d get our solicitor to take a good look at the lease and management costs and to ask about sinking funds and future major expenditure on maintenance projects. Better still I’d get them to hang on in their own home as long as possible. This pair are not blood relations though.

‘Is it good value?’ Asks the daughter as we stand back in the hall while her father tries out the internal bathroom. We can hear every slow dribbling drop of piss the old boy is expelling.

I’d say so.


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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Survey Says - Tuesday


‘Seen the latest property survey?’ Asks assistant manager T when I walk in to the office wearily.
‘Do you want to narrow it down a bit?’ I snap back sarcastically.
‘Appointment didn’t go well then?’ Counters T.
As it happens, no. The owner had already sought the “ expert” advice of three of our competitors and had been horribly mislead on price by two of the usual culprits. Blinded by the numbers they just wouldn’t accept my comparable evidence of recent , similar home, sales around them. But then if they follow property price surveys…

‘Which bunch of shysters was it this time?’ I ask T, shrugging my suit jacket off and loosening my tie a tad.
The problem is, so many conflicting price surveys are issued that it’s no wonder the home owning and home buying public are confused.
T names a well known lender and a none too well respected newspaper.’Well what do you expect?’ I tell him rhetorically. He nods gloomily.

With a 24 hour hunger for news and property prices a raw and emotive subject, no matter what the marker is actually doing, the need for something to say - anything - is relentless. Consequently you can get three conflicting reports within the space of one week. Lenders with a narrow loan base to draw their date from and with no access to cash buyers’ figures, seem to be the worst offenders. The government data is at least partially accurate although in common with all the others, is slewed by London prices - and in the Land Registry Data’s case, out of date by the time it hits the news’ stands.

‘People just seem to pick the survey that suits their position, buying or selling.’ States trainee F superfluously. Of course they do. It’s human nature, and as one wrinkled surveyor sage once said to me when I could still make 32 inch waist trousers. ‘The job would be great without the public., young fella.’
Not sure he thought that one through, but then the surveyors official mouthpiece are another culprit when issuing price forecasts on a perilously low, finger in the air style, survey.

The local media outlets tend to ring from time to time wanting anecdotal tales of what the market is doing and of course we suck up to them for our 15 mins of fame on air, or in chip paper print. Not that we think it through that well. With a radio clip to tape, or a  print deadline to meet, most agents just want some free advertising to heighten their profile and impress the client whose home might be featured. They’ll say pretty much what the caller wants to hear.

‘I don’t know why people buy that rag.’ Says T referring to the national paper in question. Actually you never buy a paper, I think ungraciously, you always read mine. But he is right, some media outlets just crave a property story like a junkie needs a fix. They seem to run any spurious tale some desperate PR has pumped out to promote a vested interest. It doesn’t make my job any easier.

‘What do we say if people ask about this stuff?’ Questions F, wide eyed and still innocent - at least where property is concerned. Rumour has it he indulges in some pretty niche activities with that flaky girlfriend of his, but that’s a whole other survey.
‘Depends if they are buying or selling.’ I tell him dryly.
‘If they are selling they’ll want more money.’ Says F brow furrowed.
‘So rubbish it, tell them it’s London distorting the numbers.’
‘Err and if they’re buying…’ Falters F.
‘Well?’ I say, palms outstretched.
‘Uhm, make them chase their solicitor for an exchange, as they’re getting a bargain?’ Falters F.
Maybe he’s going to make it after all.

‘Another one.’ Says T mid-afternoon as he stares at his computer screen.
As I’m with him in the front office I’m guessing he hasn’t just completed a hand of on-line Solitaire.
‘What this time?’ I ask.
T names a different lender whose data has come up with the opposite conclusion their competitors drew earlier.

‘So is the market going up or down? Asks F exasperated.


Time will tell.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Dark Weekdays - Wednesday


‘They looked quite young to be at your desk.’ I say to negotiator S as a fresh-faced couple leave the office clutching several sets of sales particulars.
She looks at me and smiles. ‘What instead of being across at the lettings desk?’ And she nods towards B’s vacant station. B has been missing for several hours, ostensibly to do a landlord’s check out, but with her it might just as easily be a liquid lunch - then doing a landlord.

‘They have the Bank of Mum and Dad on their side.’ Says S ruefully.
The phenomenon of parents helping children with their first home deposit is not new, but with rising prices it’s become much more common. If your parents have never been able to option a right to buy on their council house, have failed marriages and the accompanying financial hit behind them, or are just plain skint, it’s not quite so easy to place a tentative foot on the property ladder.

‘Did you get a FS lead?’ Says a muffled voice from behind me. I realise M the portly purveyor of dubious financial services has snuck up behind us, while eating something crumbly.
‘They were all fixed.’ mutters S unconvincingly. 
I should press her on the oversight, after all there are office targets as well as personal ones. But in truth I’ve never liked the conflict of interests flogging products to buyers produces, when you are acting for the homeowners. Probably why my career in corporate agency hit a ceiling so low I’m stooping prematurely.

‘You could have got me in there for an alternative quote.’ Grumbles M shedding flaky pastry on the office carpet again. He’s right. The consultants are trained to do a bit of disturbance selling and to knock competitors out of the equation with promises of “exclusive rates” only available to them. Traditionally, it involves smoke and mirrors and insurance products designed not to pay out, or to wriggle more than a snake in a bag, once you try to make a claim. I still remember the endowment policy and payment protection plan fiascos.

‘They were adamant.’ Counters S with a rather fetching pout. I almost believe her.
‘I’m not happy.’ Mutters M waddling away. Try some more comfort eating then, fat boy, I think sourly before turning back to S and asking.
‘Did you book any viewings for them?’
'Three on the trot this afternoon.’ Says S with a triumphant smile.
I could almost kiss her - almost.

‘Not sure my Mum will ever sub me for a deposit.’ Says trainee F who has been stuffing envelopes at a snails pace throughout the conversation. That’s because she’s on her fourth partner and wasted tens of thousands on a private education for you, I think. I still reckon she could get a refund. If they can claw back thousands in compensation for mis-sold insurance products, surely a law firm could stop chasing ambulances for a while and try suing the school for turning out a well-spoken dullard, after six years of tuition?

‘Of course it must of been easier back in your day.’ Says F, adding patronisation to crinkling sales particulars in envelopes unnecessarily, on his list of misdemeanours.
‘It didn’t seem like it when my mortgage went up three points to 15% in the course of an afternoon.’ I snap back, referring to the chaotic day when Britain was thrown out of The European Exchange Rate mechanism and my complete sales pipeline collapsed overnight. It was named Black Wednesday and I’ve had a few of those in my career, not to mention Thursdays, Fridays…

‘Fifteen percent?’ Echoes F incredulously. ‘You are having a laugh.’
I wasn’t chortling at the time.
‘Were they really ever that high?’ Asks S gently. I forget how young my team are compared to me - except when we go out for the increasingly rare, sales award evening. Then I feel like their dad and dance like it too.

‘They were.’ I confirm, before adding. ‘I don’t think it’s ever easy to buy when you first start out.’
‘I’m going to wait for prices to crash.’ States F moodily.


Be careful what you wish for.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Banking On It - Thursday


‘Now that’s what I’m talking about.’ I exclaim, brandishing two meaty completion cheques head high. Solicitors are slow to change - slow at everything now I come to think of it - but there’s something reassuringly solid in receiving a fat, touch it, feel it, sniff it commission cheque when a deal has finally ended happily.

‘Err, what are you doing?’ Asks negotiator S warily. I look at her, then realise I have actually, unwittingly, held the largest of the cheques to my nose.
‘The smell of money.’ Chuckles assistant manager T. ‘Gives old-time estate agents a hard on.’

I scowl at T and his head goes down. He’s been on the same HR courses as me and knows when a comment is inappropriate in the work place. Fortunately, I’m tucked well into the desk, so my excitement at receiving the funds is concealed by the aptly named modesty panel.

‘I do all my banking on-line.’ Says trainee F, with that vapid look I just didn’t notice when i interviewed him. I was too impressed by the fact he was one of the few who had bothered to wear a suit and who could actually speak audibly. I blame his mother, both for the tailoring and the wasted money on a private education. You can try to polish a turd, but it’s still crap at the end of the day.

‘I want the pleasure of taking the cash to the bank.’ I tell F.
‘It’s not cash though is it?’ Interjects B from her lettings enclave. ‘I get plenty of low-lifes bouncing cheques on me.’ She also had a Czech bouncing on top of her last year, if rumours about that tenant from Prague were true - but that’s another story.

‘It’s as good as.’ I tell her, my enjoyment slowly being sucked from me, in a way I wouldn’t normally let B do.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever written a cheque.’ Ponders F dreamily.
‘They’ll be consigned to history before long.’ Says T dismissively. ‘Everyone will bank on-line.’
‘No, this is tangible.’ I argue, waving the cheques once more.
‘Analogue man in a digital world.’ Retorts T pithily. It’s not an original line, but he deploys it well.

‘Don’t know why they can’t open a few more counters.’ Says the woman behind me in the long queue at the bank, later.
She’s talking to me, despite my body language screaming, leave me alone everyone. I glance at the array of tellers’ positions, most with their irritating little pull-down blinds deployed. I nod in agreement.
‘All too busy flogging policies nobody wants or needs, or out repossessing some poor businessman’s home.’ Sneers the woman, with the sort of venom that can only collect from being bitten personally.

I nod again, in what I judge to be a tacit agreement without the need for further discourse. It’s pleasing to note that bankers are below estate agents and jostling with politicians on the public hate list - it won’t last. To be on the safe side I clutch my company paying in book closer, I don’t want her to see who I work for, she might have had a pleasant moving experience but the odds are against it.

‘Sorry for the wait.’ Says the banker from behind her glass protection, when the cretin ahead of me - who seemed to be paying in the clattery contents of several stolen charity tins - has gone.
She doesn’t look sorry, she certainly doesn’t sound sorry, but that might be because I can’t hear her properly - despite the sound loop sticker that maintains her insincere corporate mutterings are allegedly audible to the deaf and the desperate.

I watch as the woman robotically stamps the counterfoils and processes the cheques. Eye contact lady, I think angrily, at least try to engage. But the armour-plated glass acts as a personality barrier as well as a physical one. Perhaps branch banking is as doomed as my staff maintain, I think dejectedly, as I trudge to the door only to walk in to the hobbling banker coming in. Damn he’ll want to talk reciprocal business.
‘How are things?’ He asks briskly.


Changeable.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday On My Mind - Friday


‘For crying out loud does she think I was born yesterday?’ I snarl at the phone, as the handset rocks in its cradle again.
‘Problem boss?’ Asks trainee F perceptively.
‘F***ing solicitors.’ I tell him, with a resigned look towards the office swear box. F looks at me studiously.
‘Not literally.’ I say, realising F has taken a statement at face value again. Although we do have to kiss lawyers’ arses quite regularly, I’ve never gone the whole way.

The legal fraternity and estate agency have a love hate relationship, we have to pretend we love them - they hate us. The two professions grudgingly recognise an unwelcome mutual dependency but agents generally think lawyers are too tardy and not pro-active enough when it comes to conveyancing. Whereas lawyers see our commission invoices and in common with the rest of the public, think we charge too much.

‘They don’t like being rung on a Friday.’ Says negotiator S soothingly. She’s right, and as she does the majority of the office sales progressing, has a fairly good relationship with most of the legal practices in town. It’s the out of town outfits, who will probably never deal with you again, that tend to duck your phone calls chasing progress reports, or try to fob you off with some neutral comment like, “it’s all going well.”

‘Partner is in court?’ Asks S, eyebrows arched attractively.
‘With a client?’ Contributes assistant manager T with a grin.
‘Only works part time?’ Offers F, joining in the guessing game as to why I’ve nearly broken another phone.
‘Put the request in writing?’ Says fat mortgage man M waddling across the office unpleasantly.
I crack an unlikely smile. ‘Something like that.’ I concede. ‘Just, I knew the secretary was lying.’

Now, when I entertain a solicitor - an increasingly rare event since my bean counter boss started forensically scrutinising every expense claim - the legal-luncher is often at pains to point out they don’t like being bothered on a Friday. It’s the day most sales tend to complete (the moving day) and often - a few weeks before - when contracts are finally exchanged.

I accept that plea from the more pro-active practitioners. The firms who ring you back, willingly give progress reports to you, and by proxy their client. The type of organisation that move 
as swiftly as the antiquated English and Welsh conveyancing process allows - the Scottish are a whole different ball game. But as often as not, ducking my phone call is a result of not having touched the file in days, sometimes weeks, and the reluctant recipient hiding behind a “delayed local search” or protracted “mortgage offer”smokescreen

‘I think we should always deal with the solicitors we know.’ Says S emphatically. ‘They get our recommendations and give us reciprocal business.’ Once again she’s right, but the big corporate estate agency chains want group agreements with soulless outfits that run call centres and centralised conveyancing pens. In my experience the service is poor and the fee kickback goes to a central fund rather than the local office. But then my boss thinks I’m a luddite, or he would if he knew what one was…

‘Bean counter’s secretary on line three.’ Says S late afternoon. ‘He wants to know why our weekly stats are not in yet.’
Because I’m still chasing two much-needed exchanges and the sodding solicitors won’t return my calls, I think angrily.
‘Can you say I’m with someone?’ I asks S limply, realising even as I say it I’m parroting the fob-off I’ve been given several times today by my legal friends.
‘Don’t think she’ll believe me.’ Says S hesitantly. 
Of course not, but it’s hard to prove as long as S has punched the hold button securely and not just put her hand over the mouthpiece as that idiot F keeps doing.
‘Say I’ll call her back.’ I offer. The irony not lost on me.

‘We had a blinder of a week.’ Crows the ringleader of our opposition, as the two groups jostle at the bar. It’s a Friday night ritual - come good week or bad.
‘Smashed it.’ I reply loudly.


Cracked the phone handset actually, but it’s a brief exchange…

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Hungry For News - Tuesday


‘Anyone seen my paper?’ I ask testily, back from a valuation appointment with a couple who’d been completely misled on value by one of the less scrupulous agents in town. It still irks when people respond to their baser instincts - greed in this case, fuelled by a semi-plausible spiv in a suit - and overprice their homes. But then never underestimate the power of price flattery when owners want to sell their homes.

‘No.’ Answers assistant manager T. Before adding. ‘Just off to get some lunch.’ He exits the office, as I think, when I was his age and aspiring to become a branch manager, I grabbed a sandwich at my desk rather than prancing round the men’s clothes shops for nearly an hour. So T hasn’t pinched my paper. Not this time.

I read the message book and grind my teeth when I see “Bomber” our local demolition surveyor will be carrying out a full survey on a pretty terraced cottage I agreed a sale on, three weeks ago. The house has stood for over a hundred years, but by the time he’s finished dismantling it in a twenty page report, the buyers will imagine it has less structural stability than a tottering tower of Jenga bricks. Might as well put the For Sale board back up now.

‘Did you see Bomber is doing 12 Coronation Terrace?’ Asks negotiator S with a wan smile.
‘I’m surprised he comes out during daylight hours.’ I growl.
‘Because people are out to hurt him?’ Asks S naively.
‘No.’ I snap. ‘ Because he’s afraid of his own shadow. I don’t think that bastard has ever valued up a sale in his whole career.’
‘Why does he do it?’ Says S.
‘Because you can’t get sued if nobody ever buys the home you valued.’ I tell her angrily. It’s not exactly true, but I’m not in the mood to show equanimity - particularly as some sod has taken my newspaper again.

My wife would say I’ve changed over the years I’ve been selling homes. I’ve certainly changed my newspaper pick. I started out with a  low-brow tabloid I’d rather not name, then as the years took their toll and the grey hairs flourished, I went from a down-market medium to a right of centre, mildly racist - in retrospect - paper, through to my current choice. Something a bit more nuanced and balanced, or at least I think so at the moment. I just hope I don’t get to the retirement flat and Daily Telegraph stage while I’m still compos mentis.

B our loose lettings lush sashays into the office. If her skirts get any shorter you’ll be able to see what she had for lunch.
‘You seen my paper?’ I ask frostily, as she sits behind her desk and starts to apply fresh lip gloss.
Nobody bar me still buys a daily paper, like a growing number they prefer to read the news on-line for free, but someone has to pay for the content. In this case me, which is why I’d like to find the paper where I left it - on my desk.

‘Why what’s in it?’ Asks B nonchalantly, starting to file her nails now, despite my frequent requests not to saw her cuticles in public.
‘I don’t know what’s in it.’ I bark. ‘All I’ve done so far is pay for the bloody thing.’
‘Swear box.’ Says S coyly.
‘Oh for f**ks sake.’
‘Twice.’

Then the penny drops. F, my cerebrally-challenged trainee isn’t around, but the last thing he read was probably his school timetable. M, our man-mountain of a financial advisor isn’t in his office. I look uneasily towards the gents’ toilet. S follows my gaze, as B files back and forth like a hyperactive violin player.

‘I think he’s in there again.’ Suggests S gently.
‘How long?’ I ask flatly.
‘Don’t think I’ve seen him for twenty minutes, come to think of it.’ She replies with an apologetic shrug.
Terrific. I like to grab a sandwich while reading my paper, but the thought the newsprint has been absorbing the earthy aroma of an overweight finance fiddler while he empties his bowels, isn’t pleasant.


I’ve lost my appetite. 

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