Thursday, December 05, 2013
‘Long time no see.’ Calls a familiar voice, as I battle through the lunchtime workers, clutching my low-calorie meal deal. I can walk on and feign deafness, or turn and manufacture delight at the recognition. Neither is a great option. I’ve only just agonised over another thankless decision - albeit a culinary one - that left me feeling empty, and that’s before I tear open the joyless packet of reduced-fat chicken/no mayo sandwich. I’ll be starving again by mid-afternoon. I stop and wait. The Boots bag with my lunch inside feels like my head, almost lighter than air. Either one could float off at any moment.
‘Thought it was you.’ Continues the disembodied voice, as I stare at the oncoming tide of barely-washed humanity with the distaste my flavour-free lunch is going to provide, once I shake off whoever wants to talk to me. Then I spot the rolling gait and the florid face. It’s the hobbling banker. I thought they’d operated on his hip, so either the other one is failing, or he’s been uncomfortably shafted recently. It would make a pleasant reversal of roles. He stops and flashes the sort of insincere grin I trained myself out of – after several days in front of the shaving mirror – soon after I started in sales. It’s a wonder he shifted so many worthless Payment Protection Policies with a smile like that – but then the public can be pretty gullible. Fortunately.
‘You got a couple of minutes?’ He asks, nodding towards a bench just vacated by a pair of whiskery, equally unsteady, Tennent’s Super lager drinkers. I look conspicuously at my watch, something you should never do in a sales pitch, but then I don’t want to share my brief re-fuelling stop with a charisma-free moneylender, and anyway I’ve a feeling he’s the one pushing product. I nod and we hurry, as fast as two middle-aged men with medical history can manage, towards the seat. I may not be that agile any longer and the back condition can only worsen, but I still ensure hop-along banker-boy gets the bench-end spattered with dried pigeon shit. I search for the small victories.
‘How’s it going?’ Ask the man, perching uncomfortably on the only exposed bit of timber that isn’t mottled white and black with droppings. The culprits are just rats with wings as far as I’m concerned, and the ancient woman who feeds them is the same mad old bird who comes in to the office every few months looking for a bungalow she and her husband can afford. She’s on benefits and he’s dead, so not a lot I can do. If I’m feeling mischievous I occasionally refer her to S, our lettings lush.
‘Not bad.’ I answer neutrally. Never give away your position lightly. I wait, silence being a strong weapon. Frankly, unless he’s got some corporate freebie tickets to handout for a major sporting event, I’d actually rather eat the, seemingly helium-filled, bag of not-really-crisps but so much better for you baked nibbles, which came with the meal deal.
‘Did I tell you I have a new boss?’ Says the man mournfully.
‘Yes.’ I say abruptly, thinking The Samaritans’ phone number is in the last un-vandalised phone box in town. Just go there instead, pal.
‘And that she’s a f***ing woman?’ He continues, with unreconstructed venom. I suppress an unhelpful giggle as the wannabe writer in me thinks, the punctuation in that last sentence changes everything. I nod, not daring to risk anything more for fear of a laugh escaping.
‘She’s on my back every day.’ He says with anguish, as I try to picture that position without clutching my hand to my mouth. And to think I was feeling down earlier. This is fantastic. Go on ask me for some referral business.
‘I tell you, I need to jump through hoops to satisfy her.’ Informs my entertainment for the day. I might have to feign a sneeze in a moment. I’m almost ready to weep with mirth.
‘You seem happier.’ Says S, my negotiator, ten minutes later.
You can bank on it.
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Tuesday, November 26, 2013
‘Right,’ I say clapping hands together dramatically. ‘We need contracts to exchange this week. So let’s chase those solicitors.’ The last time I saw so many disenchanted faces was at Wembley Stadium and the less said about that night the better.
‘Most of them won’t even take your calls.’ Pronounces assistant manager T imperiously, to nods of confirmation. It’s not the sort of second-in-command support I’m looking for. T is a man born too late. I could envisage him sipping red wine about twenty miles behind the front line while the distant sound of guns struggle against the sound of the Belgian prostitute pleasuring him. I, of course, am knee deep in the mucky stuff with my head above the parapet.
‘If we can just get two or three exchanges before the end of the month we’ll have a fighting chance of meeting the quarterly target.’ I plead, imagining the inevitable phone call I’ll receive from the bean counter boss if the office under performs. He’s another one likely to be sucking on a bottle of Bordeaux, while a piece rate European worker fiddles with his…balance sheet.
‘I can never get a solicitor to speak to me.’ Says dozy trainee F to suppressed giggles.
‘We need to nurture these relationships,’ I pontificate, to looks of distain. ‘Granted it’s a love hate thing.’
‘Yes they love to hate us,’ replies T. ‘And we hate having to love them.’
‘Or at least pretending to.’ Adds negotiator S.
I can see I need to lead by example again. No man’s land beckons dangerously.
‘Lawyers can give us lucrative probate business.’ I tell the team.
‘We give them more solicitor-free buyers usually.’ Responds S
‘And the only outfits with probate departments are the old fogey firms with a load of ageing dinosaurs still practicing. You try dialling a Diplodocus.’ Says T to an irritating round of laughter.
I thought the same way when I started it this business, but some of the lolloping, vegetarians my team are referring to, used to play me at five-a-side football in simpler times. I like to think I’ve evolved. These guys don’t respond to emails, shy away from e-commerce and take a fortnight to turn round a letter. Extinction beckons – as it does for me if I don’t get some income invoiced.
‘So,’ begins F with his now standard hesitance.’ The firms with probate departments….’
‘Have lots of elderly clients.’ Interjects T
‘They’re just the least responsive to deal with.’ Says S.
S is right, but if we get a cold winter and plenty of icy pavements I want to be taking their calls, or more likely opening their letter, charged at £50 a pop to the deceased estate.
I can feel the meeting drifting so I look at the empty diary and make a decision.
‘Everybody in my office, I’ll make a speakerphone call and show you how it’s done.’ The words are still bouncing off the filing cabinets and I’m already regretting them. You are supposed to learn by experience.
The ringing tone echoes round my office as my team lean in expectantly. It chimes for long enough to really annoy someone in sales, but I persevere. It’s one of the firms I’ve been referring to and the file has been outstanding nearly three months. Finally someone picks up and I press a finger to my lips dramatically.
I recognise the voice and feel my confidence swell.
‘Hello Carol.’ I announce in a familiar but professional manner and I give her my name.
‘Who?’ She replies frostily, to the sort of silent hilarity not seen since the last Laurel and Hardy film with no soundtrack, played to a packed cinema of Flappers.
I press on daunted, telling her the client and case I’m chasing.
‘That’s all progressing fine.’ Says Carol dismissively, as eyebrows raise and a few murmurings stir. This tells me nothing. I ask to speak to the partner in question.
‘I’ll see if he’s in.’ I give the thumbs up to all as Carol adds. ‘Who shall I say it is again?’
After a minute, I already know the answer - but there’s no gap in the barbed wire.
He said he was out.
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Friday, November 15, 2013
‘I just don’t get bungalows,’ says idiot trainee F as I swing the car into a 1960’s built low-rise development. ‘They seem like a waste of space.’
That’s pretty much what I said about him at my last one-to-one with the bean counter boss.
‘It depends on your age profile.’ I tell F, as I glance down at my precariously balanced clipboard for the address and nearly mount the pavement. An elderly lady with one of those pull along shopping trolleys looks up alarmed. I give her a cheery wave. You never know, I could be valuing her home soon when she can no longer make the bus stop. Failing that I can tell the beneficiaries we were on nodding terms.
‘What do you mean?’ Asks F, a question he must form several dozen times a day.
‘I mean as you age, your property requirements change.’ I tell him spotting the number I’m looking for and sweeping across to park outside.
‘I want a house with a big garden.’ Says F with more certainty than he shows when I ask him how many applicant calls he’s made that day?
‘I wouldn’t want nothing upstairs.’ Continues F. I stifle an ill-mannered laugh. Not even I’m going to convert that particular open goal.
‘Sleeping downstairs would just be weird.’ Rambles F, as we clamber out of the car and head towards a rusty wrought iron gate and I refuse another tap-in. A weed-strewn crazy paving path leads towards a quarry-tiled porch and a wide expanse of obscured glass either side of a plain front door, with weathered paintwork. These are the signs confidence tricksters look for when casing homes for vulnerable inhabitants. Luckily I just want 2.0% plus VAT and a sole agency.
‘What do we know about the owner?’ I ask F, handing him the valuation form and straightening my tie. He glances at the information and hesitates. Hitting him round the head, hammer to starter motor style, is no longer an option since we opened a Human Resources department.
‘Well?’ I prompt testily.
‘Her name and address,’ begins F, before adding, ‘Obviously.’ I detect the hint of a flinch even before I snatch the form back.
‘She’s a widow, she’s been here since 1979, she doesn’t have any outstanding loans, her daughter lives fifty miles away and she came out of hospital last month.’ I rattle off machine-gun like. My buxom negotiator S took the enquiry and she’s good at extracting information. I like to think I’ve taught her a thing or two.
F smiles vacantly.
I sigh and once again wonder why I bother trying to educate an imbecile if a decade’s worth of professionally trained teachers couldn’t manage.
‘She needs to move, for health reasons, she will probably go out of area to be nearer her family and by the look of the garden will be contemplating something easier to maintain. Sheltered housing probably.’
‘Wow.’ Announces F, as if I’m some sort of dopey man’s David Blaine.
‘She’s motivated.’ I tell F, in conclusion. And I ring the bell.
‘I don’t really want to move my loves.’ Coos the old girl, fifty mind-numbingly dull minutes later, as she pours milk into the cups on the pre-prepared tea tray. I’m wasting my time, but on the upside I have spotted chocolate biscuits.
‘It’s my daughter nagging me to get something smaller, something closer to her house.’ Continues the old lady, as her trembling hand sloshes weak tea in the general direction of the three cups. No need to dunk now.
‘It’s since I had my fall.’
Not on the stairs, I’m guessing.
‘Only, I’m happy where I am. Did I tell you Norman and I moved here thirty-four years ago?’ Yes. Three times. ‘I’ve a photo of him somewhere, would you like to see it?’ No.
‘That went well.’ Announces F, as we climb back in the car and I feel the pressing need for a piss.
‘She’s only coming out of there feet first, unless they can get her sectioned.’ I tell F grumpily as I see four missed calls from the office on my mobile. With 1 in 3 sales destined to fall through, the odds on it being good news aren’t too peachy.
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Friday, November 08, 2013
‘They’ve got to be having a laugh.’ Announces assistant manager T dryly, as I hurry in to the office damply. My umbrella wasn’t in the car boot where I left it, but I can see it now, all primary coloured, golfy, sponsory and fashion-free, as it sits in the corner mocking me.
‘Who used my umbrella?’ I demand testily, but I know even as I say it. F the trainee with the single-figure IQ, is looking the colour of the rain-protecting freebie even as I scan the appointments diary and realise he was the last one to use my company car.
‘You used it to walk back from the car park earlier didn’t you?’ I state rhetorically.
F blushes a deeper shade of crimson, then nods sheepishly.
‘Why didn’t you put it back?’ I demands, vaguely aware I’ve gone off topic, but too soggy to see sense.
‘Uh, it was raining.’ Responds F.
No shit, Sherlock? Seems like a viable option, but if he cries again it will mean more paperwork and the involvement of Human Resources – the only sustainable boom in housing, or any other industry, from my experience.
‘To be fair,’ soothes S my negotiator, a woman who could pacify for a living – only without the giant dummies and over-sized nappies, that would just be weird. ‘How would he have got back from the car himself without being soaked.’
Sometimes you don’t need logic, even from someone as uplifting as S.
‘You need two umbrellas,’ slurs lettings lush from her cluttered desk. She sounds like she’s been daytime drinking again. ‘One to leave in the office and one to leave in the car.’
Everyone ponders that one for a while. After multiple furrowed brows, F begins to raise his hand.
‘Don’t.’ I tell him, as gently as I can. After the last trip to the dentist I’ve got to cut down on the teeth gnashing.
‘I’m on a corporate jolly next week,’ Says rotund finance-fiddler M as he waddles across the office towards the kitchen. ‘I could see if I might snaffle a few of their golfing brollies.’
Who is it?’ I ask, still thinking I should be addressing something other than clunky rain protection, which inevitably inverts catastrophically the moment a breeze wafts above 1 on the Beaufort scale.
M tells me the lender’s name and I bristle.
‘There’s no way I’m advertising that bunch of shitesters,’ I snarl back, still remembering the mortgage offer they withdrew at the eleventh hour, on a chain of three sales. ‘I’d rather drown.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Says M unperturbed. ‘You won’t be wanting any of their goody bags with the free pens and pads either.’
‘No I won’t.’ I fire back primly. To be honest I’ve a cupboard full at home and now the boys are at university….
Finally it clicks.
‘Who is having a laugh?’ I ask T, turning to face him and feeling the crotch of my trousers sticking damply as I move. My shoes are soaked; the leather soles are slipperier than a politician on Question Time and my jacket shoulders appear to be gently steaming in the office warmth.
But my mind is already running through an Interpol-like suspects list: buyers pulling out, vendors wanting more money as the neighbour has just gone on the market for £20k more than they’ve agree a sale for, bad employers references, a 100% mortgage retention pending re-building works – the list is endless.
‘The buyers of flat 7 want a £15,000 reduction or they are pulling out.’ Says T wearily.
S shakes her head and her breasts go back and forth doing that well-upholstered Newton’s cradle thing again.
‘Remind me.’ I ask T witheringly. ‘Is this the same couple who pleaded with us to take it off the market and not show anyone else round?’ T nods. ‘And said it was their dream home and promised they wouldn’t let us down, that their word was their bond?’
‘That’ll be them.’ Confirms T.
‘Any luck?’ I ask T after he’s spent the rest of the afternoon, trying to save the dying sale.
‘Owner won’t drop a penny,’ answers T, face drawn with fatigue. ‘Say they might take the flat off the market now.’
It never rains but it pours.
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Monday, November 04, 2013
‘What do you think?’ Asks my wife. It’s a question more loaded than the potato skins I was daydreaming about, before she emerged from the changing room. My stomach rumbles and my brain stumbles as I try to take in the first dress she has tried on. Unhelpfully another question forms in place of an answer: Does her arse look big in that?
I knew as soon as the shopping trip for a Christmas party frock was suggested I was on a hiding to nothing. I’m all for equality of the sexes but there are some things a man just can’t do. Like childbirth, advising on women’s clothes - unless you’re a camp fashion designer - isn’t something a male should attempt.
‘I like it.’ I say unconvincingly. I’m usually better at flattery. After all I value people’s homes six days a week. Something you learn fairly swiftly in the property industry is very few people want the unvarnished truth, when it comes to their number one asset.
‘You’re just saying that because it’s the first one I’ve tried on.’ Says my wife, spinning, quite elegantly I think, on her shoeless feet and disappearing into the changing cubicle. Another browbeaten bloke is sitting opposite me in those chairs I imagined were only for dizzy pensioners waiting for an ambulance, or perverts trying to get a glimpse through the curtains. The man is clutching a mass of expensively branded shopping bags. He clearly started earlier than me.
‘What can you do?’ I say with a shrug.
‘Just pay the bill.’ Answers the man ruefully.
‘I’d happily do that,’ I fib a little. ‘But she wants my advice.’
‘Poison chalice’ Replies the man with the sort of certainty drawn from bitter experience.
When this unwise expedition was first mooted and after I’d hoped the weekend staff would ring to say they needed me in the office, I turned to Twitter for advice from fellow members. The perceived feminine wisdom boiled down to: don’t ask the price, don’t ogle other women in the changing area and don’t expect to get home in under four hours. The blokes said: go to the pub then come back with your credit card when she rings.
‘There are no prices in the window.’ I caution, as we stare in Karen Millen’s shop-front. Top-end agents do that trick with country homes. One’s where they haven’t a clue on value, or where they want to deter time-wasters and dreamers. It’s called POA – price on application. The marketing thrust is, if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it. Now I can just about stomach that for substantial bricks and mortar and a forty acre estate with servant’s quarters, but for half a yard of taffeta and a few sequins I’m wanting to know the downside before I step over the threshold.
‘What about this one?’ Questions my wife, with a slow spin. We’re in a department store now on a floor I’ve never felt the need to visit. It seems each designer outlet has rented a bit of square footage so you can pad from one overpriced range to another without replacing your high heels. I haven’t been so out of my depth since that brief, dunk-a-baby fad of throwing learners in the pool so survival instinct taught them how to swim – rapidly. It was pre- health and safety rules, obviously.
‘Well does it flatter me?’ Continues my wife, as I splutter back to the surface, another unwanted childhood memory banished until the next nightmare.
It makes her look a little bit pregnant I think and the hesitation does for me. She spins, a little more clunkily this time.
‘Well you needn’t say anything.’ She huffs and disappears inside the curtained inner sanctum.
‘Are you waiting for someone sir?’ Asks a frosty, mutton dressed as lamb, assistant at the next emporium. My wife is in the nearby cubicle. I can see her ankles through the cut-off door. I put my phone away, realising it might look as if I’ve been taking surreptitious video clips for ChubbyCalfs.com. I tell her my wife is trying on a dress – her ninth.
We bought the first one.
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
‘Of course you lot are all the bloody same.’ Rages a disgruntled buyer, when I inform him the owner has rejected his offer in favour of a third party. As ever, I can only sell the property once but logic is the first casualty of failed negotiations.
‘I know what you get up to.’ Continues the man, his voice raising an octave as the red mist descends. He doesn’t. Not me personally, anyway.
‘I’ll happily try and find you something similar.’ I placate, knowing it’s unlikely to work and I’m unlikely to be able to deliver. I don’t do the supply or the demand but you can’t tell people – public, politicians, journalists, any of them…
‘Yeh, right.’ Sneers the unhappy punter, as his partner chips away in the background, poking him with a great big verbal stick.
‘Report him, Nigel. It’s not right.’ Urges a female voice, now no higher than Nigel’s.
‘Yes,’ squeals Nigel triumphantly. ‘I’m going to report you.’
I assure the man that I’ve behaved ethically, relayed his offer to the vendor, both verbally and in writing. I’ve not favoured the other buyer – neither of them wanted to use our chubby mortgage man, if you’re an undercover reporter – and I’ve remained true to both my own and the published code of ethics. I might as well be speaking Swahili.
‘Tell him we saw that programme.’ Prods the woman, in the background.
‘What programme?’ Asks Nigel, sotto voice. I try not to laugh; I’ve found it never helps when handling complaints. I know, before Nigel repeats the cobbled together transmission’s title, although it could be one of many poorly researched television exposures on estate agency.
Usually, a lisping presenter with a public school background and a burning desire to be an impoverished socialist; hides a miniature camera in his man bag and lies about who he is to various shady agents, who I too would happily see out of business. This one was broadcast a few night’s ago, but with the advent of catch-up television even the oddball who was jerking-off on a house price forum when it was shown, can download it again and again.
‘It’s a scam.’ Shrieks Nigel, as his partner now takes to echoing his words. It’s not. It’s one house, three buyers and a couple in a far better financial and able to proceed promptly position to yours, Nigel old boy.
‘Offer more.’ Cajoles the lady.
‘We haven’t got any more.’ Whispers Nigel. He needs to use the mute button, or at least hold his hand over the phone.
‘He has to tell them, if we offer more.’ Continues the woman avidly. ‘It was on the programme.’
I do and I will, but I might also mention the bit Nigel failed to conceal. I get paid on results not fantasies – although it would be interesting to see how my bean counter boss set targets for those objectifying objectives. Particularly since the company blocked 90% of the specialist websites available, on quiet days.
‘If we don’t get this house, we’ll never use you again.’ Warns Nigel. He hasn’t used us yet in truth and I certainly won’t be earning anything from him, but I can understand the frustration. Property purchase is an imperfect business and it’s not helped by the, oft transmitted on all channels, fact that anyone can set up an estate agency business, with no experience, qualifications or minimum standards.
‘I know a lot of people.’ Threatens Nigel, weakly as his partner agrees. Me too.
‘And I’ll be telling them all what I think of your outfit.’ I glance at my suit and tie combo in the office mirror and have to stifle another unhelpful giggle. I apologise once more and avoid Nigel actually making a risible offer he can’t deliver.
‘Can you give us first refusal?’ Pleads Nigel, as I start to feel sorry for him, an emotion you need to junk in your first few months in the industry. They still don’t get it. It’s not up to me. An honest agent can’t make any decision on behalf of the owner; he’s a conduit pure – in my case – and simple.
The Christmas card list shortens.
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Thursday, October 24, 2013
‘So is the message clear?’ I conclude after what I feel has been a dynamic and uplifting morning meeting. Short of tumbleweed blowing across the office, the silence could not be more vastly all encompassing – unless you include the workdays between Christmas and New Year.
‘Anybody?’ I plead, looking at negotiator S for some sort of solace, one that doesn’t risk inappropriate workplace behaviour.
The verbal void hangs unpleasantly, like a turd from a shaggy sheepdog’s arse.
‘Someone say something.’ I rasp in anguish.
‘Well the punters are as confused as we are.’ Ventures assistant manager T timidly.
‘Here we go.’ Mutters lettings lush B to a scowl from me.
‘What’s confusing you?’ I ask, mind already racing through plausible answers. This is worse than bluffing you know the right price on a valuation, which turns out to be nothing like you’ve expected – or researched.
‘Everything is confusing me.’ Answers trainee F, to an ill-suppressed giggle from B. I scowl at her and she pouts back. That look might work in a wine bar when a bloke is a pissed and hasn’t had a shag for months, but I’m sober and…..well I’m sober.
‘You have to admit the media are giving out conflicting signals.’ Continues T, looking around the table for support. S nods vigorously and I can see her support working vigorously. Not helpful.
‘They have always done that.’ I tell T with a sigh. ‘They just need something to print, blog or tweet.’
‘If the public need advice wheel them in to me.’ Suggests fat financial man M. Hmm, we did that for endowments, payment protection insurance and interest only mortgages, I think glumly, and look how that turned out. Seems I’ll be working until I’m seventy-five, as it is.
‘What?’ Challenges M, to looks of communal distain. ‘I need to eat.’
‘Everyone is aware of their personal target for financial services leads.’ I tell M, toeing the company line reluctantly. I still wish those banks; building societies and insurance companies had left the industry alone in the nineties.
‘Mad woman peering in the window.’ Warns S through pursed lips.
‘Could you narrow it down a bit.’ Quips T to giggles. I turn my head slightly to se the grey-haired, whisker-chinned drunk lady again. She is still pushing the saggy-springed pram full of plastic bags, but devoid of a baby.
‘Don’t catch her eye.’ I hiss.
‘She might want a draw-down mortgage.’ Says T, on a roll.
‘Piss off.’ Responds M, clearly needing a roll.
The nutty lady tries the door handle, but luckily I haven’t unlocked yet, with five minutes to go before opening time. After a couple of feeble bangs on the glass, the old girl moves on. She’ll be back. I drag myself back on topic. Something that becomes harder and harder - as everything else goes softer and softer – with the passing years.
‘We’ve got five minutes.’ I say, scanning the group and feeling like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible - only without the happy ending and shoe lifts.
‘You have to admit there’s a lot of conflicting signals.’ Proclaims T.
‘Yes, people are confused as to what is happening.’ Adds S.
‘I haven’t got a clue.’ Contributes F.
B begins to file her nails, the rasping like a bass version of the scraping down a blackboard thing.
‘Bring them in to me, like I told you.’ Says M doggedly. ‘I’ll show them a few pie charts.’
From Greggs the baker probably, I think sourly. The problem is you can produce a survey, vox pop or market prediction to suit all needs.
Buyers look at the doom-monger predictions and refer to sites like House Price Crash, where men of a certain age spend daytimes in chatrooms talking to other like-minded forty-something’s still in “full-time education” - and still living in their parents’ homes. While the sellers, latch on to the latest asking price data disingenuously published by some right of centre tabloid with lazy copywriters. You make your choices…
‘So is the local market going up or down?’ Pleads F as the phones start to jangle and S unlocks the door.
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