Tuesday, October 25, 2016

New vs Old - Tuesday

Still on our sunshine break in Palma, we head back to the Airbnb apartment. It was a leap in to the unknown, a bit like the first time I downloaded the Uber app and unwittingly brought a nice chap named Mohammed to our door, when I just wanted to see what the trip cost might be. He was very nice about it and didn't seem to swear much - not in English anyway…

As it turned out the apartment’s description and views were as published. They don’t seem to have a property mis-description act in Spain, or overzealous trading standards officers as far as I can ascertain. The new computerised business model, seems to work for both rental properties and taxis. I’m not so convinced it will work for on-line estate agents though - that’s still a very personal, hands-on experience.

‘Look the other way.’ Shouts my wife, grabbing my arm again like an angry lollipop lady at a school crossing.
‘I blame Napoleon.’ I mutter unconvincingly, as I turn my head and spot two lanes of fast moving Seats and Fiats. ‘If he hadn’t changed the side of the track horse and carts travelled we’d be able to drive on the proper side of the road in Europe and America.’
‘Ridiculous.’ Pronounces my wife, as she leads me across the road, straight towards the Teutonically clinical property premises, near our destination.

‘Are there any Engel and Volkers in Britain?’ Asks my wife, indicating the pristine white fascia of the German-owned estate agency operation.
‘Don’t think so,’ I mutter looking though the window enviously. ‘Some towns are still rebuilding after there blitz.’
‘That’s racist.’ Snaps my wife.
‘Try telling people in Plymouth.’ I respond.

I’ve unwittingly stopped outside the window again, gazing in at the desks devoid of detritus. Still no coffee mugs, no sales files, no half-eaten sandwiches. Just clear space, eye-bleedingly bright 4k retina display screens and one of those aluminium track pads I still can’t get to grips with. I nod self-consciously to the aryan man in the front desk. He blanks me completely and an absurd desire to sing a dubiously correct song from my schooldays, about two world wars and one world cup, overwhelms me.

‘The thing is folks don’t understand property is a people business.’ I opine to my wife, as we head towards our accommodation.
‘Hmm.’ She answers disinterestedly.
‘You see firms flinging money at unproven schemes like on-line agency, when they don’t realise you need local knowledge and experience, not a call centre in Rhyl staffed by schoolboys who flunked their GCSEs.’

‘We’re not going on a rant are we?’ She queries.
‘I thought the tapas tour might be more fun.’ I quip back.
She doesn’t laugh. Not so much now, anyway.

‘I’ve seen agents come and go, some of the kids now have never seen a property recession.’ I continue, warming to my theme as we halt outside another handbag shop.
‘Just a moment.’ Says my wife, dreamily.
‘You wait,’ I continue as she scans the overpriced cow-product. ‘A downturn will cull all these johnny-come-latelys and you won’t have anything left of the call-centre agents, other than purple faces….’
‘Is that supposed to be funny?’ She asks.
You’ll have to wait and see.

The truth is property downturns are as inevitable as corrupt politicians. Japan has been in a slump for several decades and America has seen mass foreclosure both sides of the millennium. A brutal Darwinian culling swept the high street in the two property collapses I’ve lived through and there’s not much doubt the same will happen again. Only, it will include spotty oiks on Welsh switchboards and ill-advised investors in unproven business models, next time.

‘What about Century 21?’ Quizzes my wife as we pass another property purveyor.
‘Never caught on in the UK.’ I tell her with some satisfaction.
‘But it is expensive to use an agent.’ She fires back. Should I mention those fees are paying for the super-sized jug of sangria we consumed at lunch time? Best not, the sofa bed doesn’t look too comfy.

‘Fundamentally, with all the variables moving entails, people like the certainty of no-sale, no fee.’ I conclude, as we arrive.



Thursday, October 20, 2016

Buenos Dias - Thursday

‘Where are you going?’ Asks my wife as I gravitate towards a shopfront across the street.
She knows, without needing to ask. Like a pitiful self-harming junkie, I can’t leave it alone even on holiday.

‘Just going to look in the window.’ I tell her, before glancing the wrong way and nearly stepping in front of a pre-pubescent boy on a Vespa. The dark-eyed lad shouts something incomprehensible, in Spanish - I’m guessing not a compliment - and swerves between two parked cars before disappearing.

Sheepishly, I cross with a bit more care towards the brightly lit window.
‘Really. Another one?’ Asks my wife, beside me now with that look of resigned acceptance I’ve seen before.
‘You’ve looked in enough shoe shops to bore Imelda Marcos.’ I tell her unchivalrously then decide not to mention the umpteen trinket outlets we’ve been in. How many scented candle and naff fridge magnet shops can one city support?

I’m gazing in the window now, scanning the quality of the photos, the prices in Euros and even the pointless Energy Performance ratings that nobody needs when you have temperatures that rarely dip into single figure celsius, and an infinity pool.

‘They are all the same.’ Opines my wife. It’s tempting to draw a comparison to handbag shops and perfumery outlets, but I can’t afford a divorce at my time of life. I’ve seen too many men kiss goodbye to a four bed detached and half their pension, to rock the boat. Middle aged blokes, dyeing their remaining hair, joining Tinder and living in a rented studio flat, isn’t a good look.

‘I don’t know why you do it.’ Continues my wife chidingly. ‘It’s not as if you like other estate agents.’
She has a point. I detest most other practitioners. They are either undercutting me on fee and service, or overvaluing to please gullible owners. It must happen in Palma too, just with better looking players and warmer weather. 

‘I’ll be along there.’ Says my wife, pointing to a row of shops with expensive-looking dresses in the windows. Seems like I’ll be paying for my obsession, one way or another.
I turn back to the window and look at the two smart-casually dressed agents, inside. The male is almost prettier than the female. They are both gazing listlessly at massive Apple iMac screens with the sort of resolution that makes you believe you are actually on the terrace, with a glass of sangria in hand.

The woman, or part-time supermodel if the property career doesn’t work out, catches my eye then looks away. She’s made a quick judgment. One I try not to make in my own office, as I’ve sold many homes over the course of my career, to scruffy-looking oiks who haven’t shaved for a couple of days and are dressed like a loser. In this case, she might be right. I’m a time-waster.

‘So what did you learn?’ Asks my wife when I’ve caught up and noticed, with relief, she isn’t carrying any glossily branded bags. We’re looking for somewhere to have a coffee.
‘They’re no different to us.’ I tell her half-heartedly. ‘Just better-looking, with superior lighting conditions for the photos.’

‘Do they have to be qualified to be an estate agent?’ She asks pointedly. She knows how to push my buttons after all these years. I studied after work for a year and sat four three hour papers. Yet nobody has asked about my exams - ever.

‘Well, the rest of the world does, pretty much.’ I tell her curtly. She nods, then points to what looks like a delicatessen ‘Over there might do cappuccino.’
I start to cross and nearly get wiped out by a trio of tourists on those ridiculous Segway machines.
‘You’re out of your element, aren’t you dear.’ States my wife rhetorically, tugging my arm and leading me across the street like an errant schoolboy.

‘I don’t believe it.’ I bellow, as we reach our destination. They sell coffee, and cake. They also have more Apple Mac machines and pretty women. And in the window, property pictures and prices.
‘This is different.’ Announces my wife, gleefully.
It will never catch on.

Will it?


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Driving Me Mad - Wednesday

‘Oh for crying out loud.’ Exclaims negotiator S. She doesn’t often bother the swear box, so something has got her agitated. I’ve thought of various methods, but we’ll draw a polite veil over those…

‘What is it?’ I enquire soothingly. We’re alone in the office and I’m showing what a caring and sharing manager I am by sitting in the front desk and facing the public. I know managers who hide in their office and stare forlornly at the profit and loss accounts, but I’m more of a front-line, man of the people kind of guy - plus I can’t fully understand the Excel spreadsheet. Dilapidations just make me think of elderly folk in sheltered accommodation having to sell at a loss and move on to a nursing home, at £1500 a week.

‘Mr Oates’ sale.’ Answers S glumly.
I grimace. This one has been running for nearly five months and if anyone tells you estate agents don’t work for their money you should read the file notes on this protracted sale. Destructive surveys, lapsed mortgage offers, wall-tie failures, antagonistic vendors and twitchy first time buyers at the bottom of the chain. The lawyers involved seem indifferent, or incompetent, and half the agents are numpties with no training and more grasp of a Koppaberg than the conveyancing system.

‘What is it this time?’ I ask S. My bean counter boss has been asking why we haven’t invoiced this sale, for the last two months. With, no sale no fee, you keep bending and spreading to accommodate like a loose-limbed rent boy, all in the hope you’ll get your money eventually.

‘They’re finally all ready to exchange,’ answers S. ‘And now they’re arguing about completion dates.’
This isn’t uncommon. Over protracted sales’ periods, antipathy can build up between the parties, and if it isn’t removing all the light fitting and toilet roll holders on the last day, it’s cutting off noses to spite faces and risking all that packing and prospecting for suitable schools, by intransigence over the moving date.

‘Who is the most vulnerable?’ I ask S, after she’s reminded me of the chain details and the personalities involved. It’s brutal, but if pressure needs to be exerted, I need to find the weakest link. It should be a job for the solicitors involved to sort out the completion dates, but at least two of the individuals involved will only answer to letters and as they charge by the missive and take weeks to reply, I can’t risk the wait.

‘What did he say?’ I ask S, after we’ve discussed the best person to try and persuade to be flexible and spoken to all, bar one, of the agents involved in the chain. The on-line outfit just had an answering service and in truth I’d have more chance of speaking to the mad woman, who pushes the empty pram round town, than those clowns. And people think they are saving money…

‘He said if they don’t move on his date, he’s going to pull the plug on the whole deal and put the price up £20,000, as another agent has told him he’s selling too cheaply now.’ Replies S, head in hands.

Oh, for some paltry professional standards in the much-maligned industry. There are more cowboys in this business than the whole of Texas. I’d plead for some minimum entry standards and exam qualifications. But all the time people entrust their home sale to call-centres, with a couple of chancers fronting a tacky television advert and local property experts who cross three counties with a digital camera and a sandwich box their mum packed, we are going nowhere. Fast.

‘Try the first time buyers.’ I urge S after several more heated and protracted conversations. The two diffident solicitors, as predicted, have refused to take her calls.
‘I think if I pressurise them any more they'll not only be forgetting the purchase, but the wedding too.’ Suggest S flatly.

There are enough reasons for first purchasers to balk at buying, without some surly old sod at the top of the chain digging their heals in because the proposed moving date clashes with a golfing match.

Sadly, it’s par for the course.


Thursday, October 06, 2016

It's Behind You - Thursday

‘You’ve got a ghost house to look at.’ Says trainee F triumphantly, as I walk through the door.
‘Is it going to disappear as soon as I turn up?’ I ask him sarcastically.
F looks hurt, but sticks and stones will break his bones and words won’t - or he’d be in intensive care by now.

I don’t need to visit and market another home with a supposedly interesting angle that I can’t quantify to a belligerent Trading Standards officer, or some prissy pen-pusher still living at home with their parents, who works in a bubble at the Advertising Standards’ Agency.

‘You know ghosts don’t exist, don’t you?’ I ask F flatly.
‘You don’t know that.’ Interjects negotiator S. Good god, I hoped she’d be a bit more level-headed - maybe those enormous breasts are canting her forward again.

‘Well the lady who lives there says she’s seen the ghost lots of times.’ Persists F.
‘After the second bottle of wine, by any chance?’ Asks obese mortgage man M. He may be a peddler of pointless policies, but he does live in the real world. McDonald’s mostly…

‘And she wants to sell, does she?’ I press, starting to lose the will to live.
‘Yes,’ confirms F. ‘I’ve booked you a valuation this afternoon.’
‘Nobody is going to want to buy a haunted house.’ Says loose lettings lush B from her desk.
Thank you, I think fleetingly, until she adds. ‘She should rent it instead.’

‘I think it would be cool.’ Says S enthusiastically. ‘We could get loads of publicity in the local press with an angle like that.’
‘And you’d be inundated by every nut-job in the area.’ Says M, shaking his fat face. ‘Loonies and losers with a credit score lower than Greece.’
‘And they are the type that look but never buy.’ I add. ‘Any normal person isn’t going to be enthusiastic about buying a house with a resident poltergeist. Most people prefer the furniture moving to stop once the removal men have left.’

Now I love a home to market with an unusual story. Not least because you can indeed get the press, and social media, to lap up tales that might allow a sensational headline with a stock photo from Getty attached. They say any publicity is good publicity, especially if it’s free, but ghoulish stories and things that go bump in the night don’t exactly enhance your hopes of a quick sale, or a good price.

‘What was she like?’ I ask F wearily. Let me guess. Eccentric.
‘A little bit flaky.’ Confirms F.
‘How did you know?’
‘With cats?’ I venture.
‘Three.’ Confirms F, looking at me as though I’m the supernatural one.
‘Flowery skirt, with greying hair too long for her age and a fleece covered in animal fur?’ I ask.
‘You know her don’t you?’ Demands F.
No. But I know the type.

Time was, I used to revel in selling homes with well-known residents from the past. I have even sold a couple with those Blue Plaques on the walls, over the years, detailing famous historical figures who once lived there. But the laws as they are preclude any spurious tales about a home’s history, unless they can be verified and quantified. It’s why estate agents’ particulars are so uniform sanitised and dull. Don’t blame me, blame the consumer lobby who assume every buyer has had a full frontal lobotomy before they were given their first credit card. Caveat Emptor is as dead as the Latin language.

‘So why does she want to sell her home,’ I ask F, after scanning the message book. ‘Surely she loves the company?’
‘Apparently the ghost spooks the cats.’ Says F, in apparent seriousness. 

Now I’m starting to like this  apparition. I’d love to be able to frighten away every little spiteful fur ball that has stuck it’s claws into me over the years. They seem to know a cat-hater instantly, even before I start sneezing; and kicking some malevolent moggy while the owner isn’t looking makes a valuation even harder than it is.

‘Good luck.’ Says S cheerily as I leave later. ‘Do you think she’ll be sensible on price?’

Not a ghost of a chance. 


Thursday, September 29, 2016

If Not Now Never - Thursday

‘So have you been searching for property long?’ I ask, gazing into the car rear view mirror trying to gauge the response. I don’t do many viewings. The sharp end of property sales is securing the instructions to sell a client’s home. But today the rest of the team are booked solid, so I have a mid-fifties couple in my motor and I’m not sure they’ve been qualified properly.

In a world of uneven demand and supply, exacerbated by a burgeoning population and several decades of ineffectual UK housing policy - and a swing door for inept, under-briefed ministers - you need to target your efforts. Such is the pull of property porn and the non-stop diet of tv programmes feeding the addiction, you could spend every working day ferrying round dreamers and fantasists without the intention, or wherewithal, to actually sign a contract on the dotted line.

‘Well we’ve looked at over fifty properties.’ Says the woman, as I catch a hint of despair in the husband’s eye. I’m not far behind him. Time-wasters are the bane of an estate agent’s life. With more buyers than sellers through the majority of the property market cycle, you can only sell each home once and spending time with people who believe they are serious, but in reality will never be the best buyer for your client’s house, is ruinous to your health - and bottom line. 

‘Oh, why is that?’ I ask as neutrally as possible. This pair are booked to look at three homes with me and it will be at least ninety minutes until I can dump them back at the railway station, like some sub-Uber taxi service.

‘Well it’s you lot isn’t it.’ Continues the woman, as I hear the hint of a groan from her long-suffering partner. Terrific, not only are they getting a free guided tour round town but now the saggy-necked old goat is about to insult my profession.

‘Not now dear.’ Whisper her husband flatly.
‘Why not?’ She enquires aggressively. ‘They need to know if they’re not giving the right service.’
I feel my hackles rising. Out of towners: so no home for us to sell and no sister office where they live. No funding required and their own insurance advisor and they won’t take a solicitor introduction. That just leaves trying to source  an introductory commission from the local removal van company, but as this pair have been looking to move since God’s dog was a puppy, I won’t be spending the Harrods voucher any time soon.

‘What seems to be going wrong?’ I ask, as a boy with facial hair - so old enough to know better - skateboards the wrong way down the road I’m negotiating. All I need now is some fully-formed adult, with headband, 1980’s shorts and a set of roller blades and I’ll be tempted to risk the paperwork by running them into a ditch.

‘Well you never listen to what we want.’ Whines the woman, as I wonder if I can dump them at the wrong platform just in time to see their train leave on the other side of the station. Little things and little minds.

‘What she means is by the time we hear about a suitable home you’ve usually sold it to someone else.’ Clarifies the man, in a semi-conciliatory tone. That’s because they are in a position to proceed, or at least have shown some commitment by placing their own home on the market, I think acidly.

‘Have you thought about marketing your own house first?’ I say by way of some mild entertainment as I can’t have the radio on. Of course I know the answer.

‘That’s out of the question.’ Replies the woman, true to form. ‘We won’t be rushed into anything.’ Not even after several years on everyone’s mailing list?
‘Anyway,’ she continues. ‘Very often there’s nothing as nice as our own house.’
‘Let’s see if we can change that.’ I tell her, with little enthusiasm.

‘Oh no this won’t do at all.’ Says the woman, in the first dining room. ‘We’d never fit our furniture in here. It’s completely failed the table test.’

Derailed again.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Dog Day Afternoons - Wednesday

‘Messer alert.’ Warns assistant manager T, as he squints through the window display.
I look up from my keyboard and see a casually dressed late-middle aged couple peering hesitantly through the glass.

‘On holiday?’ Questions negotiator S, joining the conversation.
‘Who’d come here on holiday?’ Counters T. He has a point, but then we don’t know where this pair come from. I’m guessing not Syria though.

‘They look like they are lost.’ I venture. ‘Probably coming in for guidance.’
‘Don’t these people have smart phones?’ Asks T, testily. No, they don’t. And the older ones who are thinking of downsizing, until they see what developers charge for shrunken-square-footage flats, don’t even have computer.

‘Well, we’re about to find out.’ Says T, as the couple move towards the door. T clambers out of this chair and for a moment I think he’s going to grab the door, something I’ve been trying to install for years, but predictably he heads for the gents’ toilet instead. Wonderful, now it’s either S or me, as idiot trainee F is nowhere to be seen and loose lettings lush B is filing her nails and looking disinterested.

S is first to make eye contact and the newly arrived man perks up, as most do at the sight of her. The couple gravitate to S’s desk as I watch and listen, as sales people should.

‘How may I help you?’ Asks S, with an open question and devastating smile. The guy is going to need a pen and paper - unless he wants to crib from my list.
‘We want one of those maps you people hand out.’ Interjects the man’s wife, curtly. Clearly not liking her husband’s glassy-eyed stare gravitating towards S’s impressive cleavage.

Definitely old school. We stopped handing those out for free about a decade ago. Most people use Google and can navigate round the strangest town without recourse to an illegally reproduced Ordnance Survey sheet, festooned with adverts for ropey removal companies and shady solicitors. S patiently explains we don’t supply the dated cartography hand-outs any longer.

‘I’m surprised.’ Responds the woman sniffily. ‘With the amount you lot charge, you’d think you could afford it.’
Terrific, another estate agent hater. You wonder why they come in. Oh, hang on. because it’s free and they shut the local library.

S patiently probes the couple, qualifying their needs to establish whether there is any potential business from their visit. A home to sell, one to buy, lettings opportunities, even an insurance product, or a liars’ loan from fat mortgage man M, who still isn’t back from his trip to grab a quick lunch….

‘So you just want directions.’ Concludes S, without betraying her anger, in the tone.
‘A map would have been nice as well.’ Says the woman. I should register as a charity.
S writes down the necessary information and even escorts the time-wasters to the door. You never know who they’ll speak to, or when they might come back to actually do some business. We kiss a lot of frogs, in this industry.

‘Tossers?’ Asks T as he returns from the toilets, as the couple leave.
Don’t even tempt me.
‘Nothing in it for us.’ Answers B, finishing her filing in a cloud of cuticle dust. She was listening then, just not engaging.

‘Do agents still bother with handing out map folders?’ Asks S, looking pointedly at me. Well I have been here longer than some of the roads on the latest editions.
‘Think that doddery old independent does.’ Answers T, nodding up the high street towards one of our long-standing competitors. It’s a wonder he is still in business, but he dabbles in commercial lettings and earns a bit for the occasional survey.

‘He still have that old dog in the office?’ Asks T, with a scornful laugh, before adding. ‘And I don’t mean that sour-faced receptionist covered in cobwebs.’ Everyone chuckles at the image. Estate agency moves on, or dies, and there’s rumour she passed away some months ago but the owner hasn’t noticed. They don’t get a lot of footfall in their tertiary position. Having his wheezing labrador, slumped and panting in the office doesn’t exactly bark cutting edge agency, either.

Wrong direction completely.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Fashion Move To The Left - Monday

‘What in the name of God was she wearing, pyjamas?’ I ask incredulously, as a chavvy looking woman exits the office after visiting loose lettings lush B’s desk. The lady was sporting those baggy, floral patterned trousers that seem in vogue, despite only being suitable for supermodels with flawless figures.

‘Someone should call the fashion police.’ Says assistant manager T chuckling. I start to join him, then realise both B and S, my sweet-natured negotiator, are scowling at me in disapproval. Oh no, have I crossed another boundary that wasn’t there when I first started in the industry? Political correctness is more confusing than local government reorganisation, when they changed all the county borders.

‘They are quite fashionable.’ Says S, frostily, her stern look challenging me to disagree.
‘And commenting on people’s dress sense is sexist, anyway.’ Adds B in sisterly support.
I don’t think it is. I happily slag-off blokes who come in with slack tracksuit bottoms meant for exercising in, when they clearly have done nothing more strenuous than waddle to the fridge for the last six months.

‘It just wasn’t very becoming.’ I say weakly.
‘That’s sexist too.’ Continues B. I look to T for help, but he’s suddenly become very interested in his computer screen.
‘What’s sexist?’ Asks trainee F, appearing from the direction of the gents’ toilets after fifteen minutes. I make a mental note to leave if for a while, even though my bladder is firing off full-up signals.

‘He’s making comments about female customers’ clothing.’ Enlightens S, nodding towards me coldly.
‘Another shocker with a fat arse and those flowery leisure pants?’ Asks  F, perceptively, but not entirely helpfully.
‘And now you are doing it!’ Snaps S. ‘How are we going to change attitudes with neanderthals like you?’
That’s F out of the argument. He’ll be Googling neanderthals, with creative spelling choices, for the next twenty minutes.

‘I just don’t get the style, that’s all.’ I continue wearily. ‘They are not flattering and make people look like they are still in their bed-wear.’
‘It’s not for you to judge.’ Snaps B.
Just as well she doesn’t read the blog - that’s how I keep going.
‘Women can make choices without the patriarchy dictating to them how they dress.’ She continues.
I’m guessing she won’t be holidaying in Saudi Arabia this year.

I haven’t seen such a ghastly clothing style, since those terrible culottes things, that were worn in the eighties. But I feel I’m going to need to apologise again, just to ensure there’s no paperwork required by Human Resources and a re-education course to attend.

‘What are they called anyway?’ I ask, after making the necessary atonement.
‘Comfy bottoms.’ Says T with a giggle. I shut him down with a fierce frown.
‘They have lots of names.’ Answers S, ignoring T.
 Yep, and I’ve got a few.
‘But some outlets sell them as Lounge Drapes.’
Haberdashery shops and curtain makers I presume.

‘I don’t think you can call men sexist.’ Posits F, as I cringe. Really? You going down that cul-de-sac fella?
‘Why?’ Demands B angrily, ‘You are all inherently prejudiced.’
‘Well,’ continues F doggedly. ‘You can wear short skirts and sleeveless tops in a heatwave and we have to sweat our nuts off in suits and ties.’
I could point out at this juncture, that if you have actually perspired away your bollocks you might be able to wear a summer frock, but best not to open a trans-gender debate. We’ve only just enough room for two toilets as it is.

‘We’ve been oppressed for hundreds’ of years.’ Argues B, as I wish I’d never made the thoughtless comment and the phone would ring.
‘Well at least you are comfy when the air conditioning fails again.’ Chips in T, as I sense an unwanted sex war brewing. The fact is, women are more than equal in property and some of the most successful agents I’ve met have been female.

‘I read on-line that some firms allow men to come to work in cut-offs, if they are smart.’ Says F, to laughter all round.

I give him short shrift.


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