Sunday, April 13, 2014

Barn Dance - Sunday

‘Wow what’s this worth?’ Asks my wife’s friend in stunned admiration. We’re on a long weekend break with the friend and her husband, plus another couple, all of whom know I’m an estate agent but have still agreed to share a vast barn conversion with us.

You either love or hate barn conversions, there’s no middle ground. I’m staring at the soaring trussed roof, two vast original beams spanning the width, one with the original builder’s name burnt into the wood, date of construction in the mid nineteenth century. It’s a fair bet the more recent timber-framed homes, built for humans not livestock, won’t last as long as this sturdy structure - although you could probably fit a dozen starter homes in the space.

‘Well ?’Asks my wife’s friend again, as I realise everyone has dropped their bags and are looking at me expectantly. Not many people want to holiday with an estate agent, but everyone wants to know property values from you. I can only imagine doctors are quizzed on fellow travellers’ bodily growths, and how best to remove a vacuum cleaner nozzle from a penis without visiting A & E, in the same way. I can only imagine…

‘It’s not an easy one to value.’ I begin to a chorus of scorn.
‘You would say that wouldn’t you?’ Scoffs one of the men. ‘Probably want to knock it out cheap to a contact and pocket half the difference.’ It’s only the fact that he’s half-smiling and we’ve paid up-front for three nights, that stops me from grabbing a farming implement from the wall and knocking him into the stalls.

The fact is, one-off homes, are hard to value. It’s why you see guide prices, or offers in the region of, in agents’ advertising. Sometimes the only way to find a property’s value is to test the market, with maximum exposure. A trick those snobs who think they’ve kept some mysterious allure about their home by shifting it ‘off-market’ to some cash-in-hand oligarch with a red-trouser-wearing buying agent in tow, miss completely. They probably deserve each other.

Reluctantly I give the two couples my guesstimate. Predictably, one set think much higher, the other way lower - pretty much a mirror image of every seller and buyer. Then the home-proud owner arrives to demonstrate how everything works.

‘We’ve designed it all to be eco-friendly and energy efficient.’ Gushes the woman excitedly. Paid over the odds for untried technology then, I think, as I spot the colour- coded waste bins that mean I’ll be expected to sort through and separate tea leaves from leftover animal parts later in the weekend – or not. 

The specification is impressive and the vast open plan living area with galleried landing is fantastic for three day parties like this is planed to be, but actually living there 24/7, trying to get away from cooking smells or noisy children, would pose a few logistical problems.

‘Wouldn’t you love to live somewhere like this?’ Asks my wife, as I kneel in supplication before the wood burning stove that has refused to light, despite me shoving in almost a box full of distinctly un-eco firelighters I smuggled in as contraband. I’m not getting any more splinters from chopping kindling again. Axes just make me mad.

‘It’s an illusion, ‘ I tell my wife bluntly, as someone else’s Daily Mail goes up in flames. A pleasing accelerator for the suspiciously green looking logs.
‘These place are just not that practical and it’s a thirty minute drive through cow shit to find a Tesco Express.’
‘Mr Grumpy.’ She says spinning.
Mr Practical I think, turning to see the newspaper sputtering to ash with no sign of the wood taking.

‘There are no radiators.’ Proclaims my wife, shivering and looking at the unlit log burner accusingly. That will be under-floor heating. It’s environmentally friendly but f***ing freezing. 

‘How does the hot water work?’ Asks someone else’s wife later, appearing in a dressing gown as I open the second bottle before the sun has reached the pig sheds.
‘It’s solar powered.’ I tell her trying not to look at the towelling-free gap at thigh level. ‘You might need to wait for it to heat up.’
‘How long?’

I’m guessing about May.  


Monday, April 07, 2014

Please May I Have Some More - Monday

‘You know what,’ spits assistant manager T venomously. ‘ F**k people, f**k all of them.’
I can’t help a quick glance toward B our loose lettings lush, as she’s been working her way through the electoral roll by all accounts. Fortunately she has her head down again - tapping at her smartphone this time..

‘What’s the matter love?’ Asks negotiator S soothingly. She’s never called me love, I think testily, as I turn to wait for T’s reply.
‘Mr and Mrs Greenway are taking their house off the market.’ Says T head shaking in disbelief. The punch to the stomach of a sale falling through still sickens me after all these years.
‘You’re kidding.’ I hear myself say superfluously, as the bile rises in my throat and I think of the hole this news will make in my sales pipeline - and of the conversation I’ll be having with the bean counter boss come stats day.

‘What’s that?’ Asks morbidly obese mortgage man M as he sways back from the kitchen all four sets of cheeks moving unpleasantly.
‘The Greenways’ are pulling out of their sale.’ Says T flatly.
‘Who?’ Asks M face contorted in a frown, several sets’ of chins wobbling in flabby unison.
‘Number 39,’ snaps T. ‘You’re doing the mortgage for their buyers - or were…’

‘You’re kidding.’ Growls M as something gristly escapes his gritted teeth and lands on the carpet. 
‘I wish I was.’ Responds T shoulders sagging. ‘Over £5,000 in commission up the swanee.’ 
‘The buyers will still use me for the finance though, won’t they?’ Pleads M, revealing the perpetual difference in mindset between estate agent and financial advisor - something the banks and insurance companies never got to grips with, when they bought chains en-masse to flog their products for them.

‘How do I know?’ snaps T. ‘I haven’t told them yet. I’ve got that pleasure to come.’
‘No doubt they’ll blame you.’ Suggests S with a half-smile.
‘Can’t you wheel them into something else?’ Asks M desperately.
‘Not like that house. Not in a hurry.’ 
‘Well just make sure they still do their finance through me.’ Continues M. ‘I’ve got two big policies and an arrangement fee riding on them.’
A fundamental difference.

‘Why?’ I say to T as M skulks back to his office.
‘They all want to shaft you.’ Suggests B, off her phone now and possibly referring to our conversation, but just as likely making a personal observation.
‘To be fair,’ begins T. I don’t want to be fair. I want to see the grey-haired couple topple on the next icy pavement, then at least I might get a probate sale. ‘They have been stuffed on their purchase.’ Concludes T.

My mind whirrs, it carries a lot of data, ‘But weren’t they buying that bungalow from a builder?’ I say as the information pops into a mental window.
‘Were being the operative word,’ says T grimly. ‘The bastard has put the price up.’
I grimace. It’s not the first time and sure as hell won’t be the last. Builders are notorious for panicking if sales on a site aren’t happening and just as notorious for getting greedy when they are; raising prices for an overnight boost to their balance sheets. 

‘How much?’ I question, thinking we might be able to squeeze the buyers for some more, maybe even work along the chain for a contribution from everyone.
‘Forty grand.’ Answers T flatly.
‘You’re kidding.’ Says S rhetorically. He’s still not.

‘They can’t do that, can they?’ Questions trainee F, who has been listening intently.
‘They can do what they want.’ Answers T sourly. ‘Subject to contract, means what it says.’
‘I’m guessing you suggested tapping the buyers for more money, to the Greenways?’ I ask T pessimistically. He nods.
‘Yep, they said they wouldn’t do that, they don’t think it’s ethical. They’d given their word.’

The Greenways have my grudging respect but not my commission invoice - on a no sale-no fee basis I get nothing for three months’ work.
‘Builders can’t lose can they?’ States F.
‘What goes around comes around.’ I tell him flatly.
‘What do your mean boss?’

It will change.


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Higher And Higher Baby - Wednesday

‘Ugh, I feel like I need a wash after that place.’ Says the pretty young woman as she clambers into the back seat of my company car. A wicked inner voice tempts me to drive off now and leave the lummox of a boyfriend at the kerbside, but I keep the engine ticking over while the musclebound hunk with the tattooed arms squeezes in behind me. How is it the most beautiful women always seem to be on the arm of a neanderthal thug? It’s not as if he’s a professional footballer - or they wouldn’t be looking in this price range.

‘I wouldn’t keep me dog in that place.’ Pronounces the protein shake junkie, as I feel his knees knocking against the back of my driver’s seat. There’s another notch back on the runners and I’m wondering if I can shift the seat back to the end of its travel without him noticing.

‘I hope the other two we’re looking at are better than that flat.’ Says the girlfriend disconsolately. They are, I’ve shown them the grottiest unit first, by the time they get to the last, and priciest, flat they should be less likely to carp on cost or carpets. I won’t let this pair out of the car until I’ve exhausted every possibility of a sale, plus all the time they’re with me they can’t be with an opposition agent. 

‘So what is the market really doing?’ Quizzes the female as her less verbose half grunts and swipes at his smartphone which I’m guessing is a lot brighter than he is. 
If I knew the answer to that one I’d have a buy-to-let portfolio and an exit plan, I think glumly. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I’ve missed more boats than a seasick asylum seeker.

I give the two of them a generic, fat-free, answer about interest rates, affordability, supply, demand and confidence. It can be tailored to suit buyers or sellers and altered for a rising or falling market. Tell people something with enough conviction and they’ll believe anything , and to date I’ve had no convictions…

‘That one wasn’t much better.’ Says the woman as we head back across town to the flat I wanted to show them all along. The Hulk is on his phone again muttering in some sub-English shorthand about what appears  to be a night out with the boys. With a beautiful girlfriend like his, he’d be better advised to stay at home. At least if I flog them something I might get the re-sale when they split up.

‘The next one you’ll love.’ I tell them catching her eye in the rear view mirror and seeing a look of mistrust she’d be better off delivering to Conan The Barbarian beside her.
‘I hope so,’ she replies. ‘I’m beginning to think we’ll never catch up with the market.’ Isaac Newton knew what goes up must come down, but I’m not about to tell her that and it looks like her partner has already been hit on the head with something much heavier than an apple.

I sense a deal with this pair and I’m not letting them go. I’ve already established the young woman’s parents are contributing the cash deposit to unlock more attractive loan rates, and allow them to grab the bottom rung of a retractable ladder. I read somewhere that two-thirds of first time buyers now get financial help for the deposit from their parents. The bank of mum and dad as it’s now known. All the benefits of an inheritance without the family squabbles and funeral arrangements.

‘I’m not sure,’ says the woman after the tour of my target flat. ‘What do you think Luke?’ Tough question, I’m not sure Luke has developed much further than a single cell organism. ‘Dunno.’ He mutters. It’s the best they’ll get with their spending power. I need to close the deal.

‘If we saved for another six months, what could we get for, maybe, another £10,000?’ Asks the woman.
‘This flat, only with a higher asking price.’  I tell her bluntly.

Don’t blame the messenger.


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Monday, March 24, 2014

Not Now Not Ever - Monday

‘Oh no, look what the weather flushed out.’ Groans T my assistant manager. 
We all look out the rain-streaked office window to see a dodgy duo on the far side of the street, going into the opposition’s office.
‘Who are they?’ Asks trainee F craning to see the pair as they disappear inside.
‘You’ll find out soon enough.’ Says negotiator S flatly - something she can never really be.

Property speculators - or ‘speckies’ as they’re known in the trade tend to surface, like turds in a waterlogged sewer, whenever there’s a hint of an upturn in the market. Praying on the weak or easily corruptible they look for homes where the owner is unaware of any hidden development potential, elderly owners who succumb to a tap on the door and think they’re saving estate agents fees - and dishonest agents who would compromise their integrity for a cash payment no questions asked. I hate them

‘So what’s their angle?’ persists F as I keep half an eye on the other agent over the road, the longer the pair are in there the more likely a deal is being done. 
‘They want an inside angle and an earner off the back of our vendors.’ Answers T.
‘Scumbags.’ Pronounces S eyes flashing like fire.
‘Why would we do that?’ Asks F naively.
‘For a brown envelope of course.’ Replies T.

The silence lasts until it becomes uncomfortable. F’s face is screwed up in concentration and I can see him looking at the stationery cupboard quizzically. 
‘With cash inside it.’ I tell the fool curtly. ‘They want you to stitch your vendor up and to undersell so they can make a profit.’
‘That’s not right.’ Says F indignantly.

I tell him he’s 100% right and remind everyone forcefully, that any hint of impropriety and they’ll be summarily dismissed and I mean it. I’d sort out the collateral damage with Human Resources no matter how short of verbal, written and final warnings I’d be. 

I was offered my first ‘backhander’ three months in to the job and, market dictating, have turned them down on a regular basis ever since. Some of my contemporaries have not been so scrupulous, some have done very well out of their dishonesty, with rumours of five figure payments and in one case a villa in Spain, which with any luck is worth about half what it was now.

‘Here they come.’ States S looking out the window. I look up to see the oily twosome, both in Gestapo-like long leather coats, both with their smartphones glued to their ears.
‘You’d think it would be easier just to turn round and talk to each other rather than using 3G.’ Says T to chuckles.
‘Probably have free minutes to use up.’ Says S.
‘Not many in here.’ I snap sternly. ‘I want nothing to do with them, no matter what they’re offering.’

The pair finish their calls together, adding to our theory, then look across warily at our fascia. They remind me of Blair and Bush at their most odious. They can search my register all they like but there’s no evidence of anything underhand, although if I had a weapon of mass destruction I’d be sending it their way before they crossed the street. Ex Prime Ministers and Presidents aside, there can’t have been a more creepy coupling since Jimmy Savile introduced Gary Glitter on Top of The Pops.

‘I reckon they’re weighing up whether to come in or not.’ predicts S.
‘Probably wondering if you’re still here.’ Says T looking at me pointedly. 
Sadly I am, where else would I go?
I watch as a decision is made and they head our way. I offer a silent prayer for a pensioner in a runaway automatic car, but they make the pavement unscathed. 

‘Have you got anything for us?’ Mimics T in an effete voice as the pair push the door open, offer unconvincing smiles and repeat the exact words T predicted.
‘Nothing.’ I say abruptly.
‘Just something with a bit of margin in it?’ Persists the older man. The implication, one I dislike, is that I wouldn’t have pointed out to my client the full potential of their home.

I show them the door.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

No Tea Or Kindness - Tuesday

‘We’re not giving it away.’ Echo the retired couple in unison. This pair have been together so long they even state the obvious in stereo. They’ve probably even defecate in tandem - thank goodness there’s a bathroom plus a downstairs cloakroom. Some things just have to be done in private.

I’m sat in their run-down living room, a space they insisted I describe as a drawing room on the sales particulars. I was sorely tempted to call it a lounge at the time but I’ve swallowed more pride than a Preston prostitute, so it became a dated term for a reception room - in a dated house.

The couple have been on the market for over a year and I must have spent hundreds of pounds on marketing their home. It’s a substantial 1930s family home on a quarter acre plot, in a sought after location. Well drawn covenants mean demolishing the house and erecting close-density units for maximum profit, remains unlikely - at least for now. I took the initial instruction to sell at a price that was bullish to the point of sporting horns, but the market has moved towards the intractable pair and now I have a good offer at a good price. Only this dilapidated duo are seemingly not for moving.

‘We know what you lot are like.’ Snipes the grey-haired wife as I try to tear my gaze away from her face, which has several antennae-like wiry hairs sprouting from the chin that could probably receive a deep-space message from Voyager 2.
‘Yes,’ agrees her husband shuffling his dentures back and forth with a nauseating clicking sound. ‘You just want your commission.’

No shit Sherlock, I think sourly. On a no-sale, no-fee basis, I’ve earned precisely nothing from the couple so far and the only cost they’ve incurred is the increasingly marginalised Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) and they’ve yet to cough for that. If they take the property off the market, something I’m half expecting now I’ve confronted them with the reality of moving, I’ll end up with that worthless piece of paper and a bad debt.

Agents Note: Dear posturing politicians, the general public have about as much interest in a rough and ready guesstimate of how energy efficient their future purchase might be as a eunuch does in Kitemarked condoms. If the home they fall in love with is 150 years old and has the insulation qualities of a colander they couldn’t give a toss which energy band it falls in, or how many polar bears slide off melting icebergs while they wait for a mortgage offer to come through. They just want the keys.

‘You see nothing on the market is a nice as ours.’ Continues the woman, staring wistfully at the faded family photographs on the dusty mantelpiece. That’s bollocks, but pointing it out isn’t going to make my negotiations any easier.

‘What we’d really like to do,’ begins her husband as I think, don’t say it, please don’t say it dementia denture man. But it spills forth as readily as his last two meals have, judging by the state of his jumper. ‘Pick ours up and put it somewhere else.’

‘Somewhere closer to town and the doctor’s surgery.’ Says his wife, warming to the theme.
‘On a bus route.’ Contributes her husband. ‘We’re not getting any younger.’
Neither am I matey, and you haven’t even offered me a cup of tea, let alone a biscuit - or any other any crumbs of comfort.

‘If we take it off the market, we won’t have to pay anything will we?’ Asks the wife, after fifteen fruitless - and beverage-free - minutes. One of them will have to come out feet-first before I get the survivor to sell. I remind then off the EPC and it’s cost. 

‘You kept that little bombshell quiet.’ Grumbles the husband. I didn’t, it’s in writing in the terms and conditions contract. 
‘It never used to be.’ Gripes the wife. No lady, not for the other four times you’ve been on and off the market without selling.

‘I am a pensioner you know.’ Complains the wife, as I leave empty-handed.

And so will I be before they move. 


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Monday, March 10, 2014

No Waiting Zone - Monday

‘Thank God you’re back.’ says negotiator S as I return to the office. She knows how to make a man feel welcome - at least I imagine she does.

‘What is it?’ I question warily, knowing without needing the harsh reality of the shaving mirror, that she doesn’t want me for anything more physical than a human shield.
‘I’ve had the buyers of number eleven on the phone three times already this morning wanting to know when they can collect their keys.’

I glance up at the office clock, not good. Late morning, lunchtime lurking and if their solicitor hasn’t wired funds to the sellers by now there’s a real danger of the virtual black hole between 12.00 noon and about 2.30pm . Experience tells me the chances of the lawyers in the chain aligning, in office, at the same time to send completion funds along the digital highway, are slim to zero. Someone is always out to lunch.

‘Have you asked them to chase their solicitor?’ I ask S to the sort of derisory look I might imagine receiving if I did actually offer her more tactile assistance.
‘They’ve tried but she was…’
‘Out of the office?’ I say swiftly.
‘In court?’
‘With clients?’
‘No.’ Says S sharply. ‘At a school meeting for her daughter.’
Someone needs a word with the legal lady’s secretary. You can give out too much information.

‘Do you think having children affects you’re career prospects?’ Asks S pointedly.
Jesus, I can’t be giving an opinion on that, I think warily. I may have been around a long time but even I’ve learnt what is way off limits in today’s workplace. I’d be in less trouble if I did actually encroach into S’s personal space - probably…

Politically correct fudge given, I return to the matter in hand.
‘Have you tried the vendor’s solicitor?’ I ask. ‘See if they are ready to go.’
‘Of course.’ Replies S tartly. I sometimes forget she’s one of the good estate agents. It’s one of the reasons she’s on display in the window.

‘The buyers are getting really stressed.’ Continues S.
‘I’m not surprised.’ I reply. ‘Hire a cheap solicitor and you get what you deserve. Next you’ll be telling me they’re doing the removals themselves.’
S looks at me and grimaces. ‘They are on their way to the office in the rent-a-van. Had it loaded by 9.30pm.’
You can’t tell people.

‘Why can’t you just give us our keys?’ Demands the weary-looking man, one hand clutched to the small of his back, wife slumped in a chair while their two pre-school toddlers run amok. Because they’re not your keys yet, I think grimly, glancing at the clock and seeing it’s still not 2.00pm. The last phone call to their solicitors office got the answer phone - a piece of kit that should have gone the way of William Caxton’s first printing press, by now.

’It’s more than my job’s worth.’ I tell the agitated man as his wife looks daggers at me and her offspring try to prise apart the office window display. £7,000 for a few low-voltage bulbs some acrylic panels and a reel of piano wire. I’m in the wrong business.

‘I know they’re just out the back there.’ Says the wife acidly. ‘Surely you can let us start to unpack. What could possibly go wrong?’
Lady, I could write a book. In fact I have, but that’s another story.
‘Well don’t expect us to give you any more business when we move.’ States the husband, wincing as he moves.
Probably not the best time to point out they haven’t paid us a penny. The vendor picks up my tab and this couple and their ill-mannered kids aren’t picking up my clients keys until they’ve paid for them.

‘Anyone’s hired van bumped up on the pavement across the road?’ Enquires assistant manager T as he returns from a viewing. It’s nearly 2.45pm.
‘It’s mine why?’ Demands the fractious not quite buyer,
’Traffic warden is eyeing it up.’ Replies T nonchalantly.
‘Oh for f***s sake .’ Snaps the man viciously. ‘Can it get any worse?’

His pre-school offspring parroting his expletive apparently. 


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Diary Date - Tuesday

‘Any other business?’ I ask more in hope than expectation, as the morning meeting stumbles to a close. I look at each of my staff members in turn. S, my negotiator, looks pretty - still. F the idiot savant looks blank. T the assistant manager is hard to read as his designer glasses have caught the overhead lights. M the bloated mortgage man chews bovinely and says nothing. And B the lettings lush files her nails.

A vision of my first day at school swishes across my memory, like one of those two-fingered swipes between screens you get on an Apple Mac. In retrospect it started going downhill from there. The kid at the desk next to me soiling himself in fear set the tone for the next ten years, and since then I’ve turned underachievement and missed opportunities into an art form. The stench still lingers.

‘It’s Shrove Tuesday today.’ I blurt out apropos of nothing - sometimes you have to fill a silence.
The blank looks continue as B saws at her cuticles in four-four time. Eventually F speaks haltingly.
‘So I guess I’ll have to ask boss.’ I nod in vague encouragement. ‘What exactly is a Shrove?’
Still no minimum educational standard to enter the property industry…

‘Is it a universal joint on a drive shaft?’ begins M, mockingly. I scowl at him, but it’s water off an elephant’s back.
‘Is it a small mouse-like creature?’ Offers T with a sly grin. Not sure he knows the true answer but he’s smart enough to bluff.
‘That’s a Shrew.’ Says B flatly, before picking up the nail sawing tempo.
‘Is it like the day when it’s supposed to rain a lot?’ Asks S with a disarming smile.
‘That’s St Swithun’s day.’ I answer curtly. ‘And I think we’ve had enough rain already.’
‘Why have a day for rain?’ Asks F.
Give me strength.

‘It’s pancake day.’ I rasp. ‘Pigging pancake day.’ I look at F as he begins to open his mouth and snap. ‘Not pork in a pancake. I don’t mean that.’
‘Why didn’t you just say pancake day then?’ Persists F.
‘Because that’s its proper name.’ I snarl, before stalking to the office diary and saying. ‘Have a look in here it’ll be alongside the date!’
A sinking feeling, not unlike my first attempt at making pancakes, washes over me as I see nothing alongside the date - not even a valuation.

I sometimes forget how old I am - if I haven’t look in a mirror for a while - and how young most of my colleagues are. Granted, M is not much younger than me but he’d be the last person to help a starving man.

I tug my personal diary from an inside jacket pocket, nearly spilling my calculator onto the floor. I clutch at the electronic comfort blanket and silently curse all the inept maths teachers down the years. I may have been around for a while butI’m not immune to the blame culture.

Nothing. No mention of Shrove Tuesday alongside today’s date. I’m beginning to feel like a man out of time. Like those old fossils sat in saggy chairs contemplating their last move before cremation, who are forever cautioning me: ‘Don’t get old will you son. The world is a place I don’t recognise any more.’
Wait ’til you see the sheltered home your family put you in, Granddad.

‘We’re doing pancakes later.’ Explains the grandmotherly owner of a house I’m valuing last thing. She points to a mixing bowl with milk and flour alongside and her ancient partner cracks a gummy smile.
‘Shrove Tuesday son.’ He informs me. ‘Bet you didn’t know that, eh?’
I don’t like to disappoint him, my recommended price has yet to come.

‘We prefer the old established things.’ Says the man when we are sat in the lounge for my presentation. Good, I think, you won’t mind paying a proper fee for a proper service. 

‘How much?’ The pair demand in croaky unison when I reveal. ‘We can get it done for a quarter of that on the internet.’

I leave hungry and empty handed. Feeling as flat as a …..


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