Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hell Fire And Grim Moan - Thursday

‘What the hell has happened to the system now?’ I ask angrily, fingers thumping on the keyboard like stubby jackhammers. The screen has frozen mockingly and no amount of frenzied ctrl/alt/deleting is making a blind bit of difference.

‘There’s been a software upgrade.’ Announces negotiator S soothingly. It should be a comfort, but she sounds so bloody reasonable it only serves to increase my anger. You finally get used to an operating method and some spotty, barely-pubescent oik earning three times what you do, only in the job because he spent his first fourteen years playing Dungeons and Dragons with other friendless oddballs, moves the f***ing goalposts.

‘How come a software upgrade makes everything run slower?’ I demand testily, realising even as I spout, I’m sounding increasingly like a grumpy old man. If the cap fits - although not one of those flat plaid ones, obviously…

‘It’s Version 2.0.’ Says assistant manager T, dismissively. As if that is supposed to be of any help. He looks at me, as I stretch my arms towards the walls.
‘Well, they haven’t ironed all the glitches out yet.’ He continues by way of a faulty explanation.
‘Why don’t they just ask the bloody people who have to use the wretched thing?’ I snap back.
‘Because that’s why they’ll have a 2.1 and 2.2 I guess.’

I vividly remember the old and bitter negotiator who briefly worked alongside me when I started in the industry. He struggled to work the bulky, black and white Polaroid instant camera, believing photos on property particulars were unnecessary. I soon outsold him and he was quietly moved on. What goes around comes around. 

Increasingly, I feel at odds with new technology the industry needs to embrace. Digital downloads and uploads, multiple property portals and laser tape measures I don’t trust, taunt me. Like a cantankerous elderly widow in a house too big for her, I don’t feel at home in the environment, but steadfastly refuse to move on.

‘Can we at least print out a board list?’ I ask S. The bean counter boss has been on my case again. I have to increase my penetration and need S to help me out. Not like that obviously - although it would take my mind off the percentage of owners who want to keep the fact their home is on the market, a sodding secret.

‘Who the hell is this clown?’ I ask later, as a white van man bumps up the kerb outside the office and emerges from the rear doors, clutching a long pole with a cumbersome pot on the end.
‘I think it’s the fire alarm people.’ Says S sweetly. ‘You remember they came last year and tested the smoke detectors.’

I do remember now she mentions it. I had the charge on my profit and loss account a few weeks later. Three figures for some bozo with an oversized incense burner held up to the ceiling, only to set the alarms shrilly ringing for two long minutes before anyone could figure out how to reset them. Too complicated by far. If they hadn’t banned in-office smoking I could save £145 plus VAT. by dragging lettings’ lush B from outside the kitchen door and getting her to puff Marlboro Lights towards the sensors.

‘RoSPA approved fire safety executive.’ Announces the unshaven man rather pompously. ‘I’m here to…’
‘Blow smoke up my arse?’ I interject coarsely.
S looks at me disapprovingly. It sounded funnier in my head.
‘It’s a joke.’ I say lamely.
‘Fire prevention is no joke, Sir.’ Replies the man with a frown.

‘How can he be called an executive?’ I ask, after the man has put new stickers on our unused fire extinguishers and left a faint pall of smoke clinging to the ceiling, post detector test.
‘Probably did an on-line e-learning course.’ Suggests T with a smirk.
Yes,’ I say moodily. ‘Another three-figure invoice for some confidence trickster, when all you need is a box of matches and a sense of smell.’

‘The system has frozen again.’ I say dejectedly, as my screen locks. Now I can’t respond to the bean counter’s board request.

Crashed and burned.


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Happy Valley Court - Wednesday

Back at another sheltered retirement home development, with that growing sense of foreboding I’ve been getting ever since I valued my first one, about twenty-five years ago. In those days the minimum entry age of fifty-five seemed an age away, and about right for giving up on life and playing Whist in the communal lounge until the undertaker came. Now I’m not so sure…..

‘You can’t park there.’ Croaks an elderly woman, sitting astride one of those bulky motorised wheelchair-come-quad bike things that force you off the pavement and clip your ankles in supermarkets. I swear most occupants aren’t disabled, just too fat and lazy to walk.

‘I’m visiting number forty-two.’ I tell the nosey crone, who in fairness looks wrinkled and wobbly enough to justify her Blue Badge, allowing parking outside my office where I’m not permitted to stop.

The hag’s eyes twinkle. ‘Marjorie’s flat?’ She enquires with a gummy smile. I consult my clipboard and confirm the identity of the elderly owner, who is now in her third month blocking a hospital bed. I’m meeting the son in five minutes, so I need to shake off this old woman with all day to spare.

‘I knew she wouldn’t be back.’ Says the old girl with an unsettling chuckle, before engaging some sort of drive mechanism and whining across the car park towards an open ground floor flat door. 
I want to shout after the gloating woman, and tell her re-sales are really tricky on low-level units, but in truth it will be her beneficiaries who’ll have that problem.

‘Come on up, I’m on the fourth floor.’ Says a male voice, after I’ve buzzed the communal entrance doorbell. The door clicks and I grab it before the cut-off locks again. I’ve spent too many awkward minutes trying to re-establish contact with a hard-of-hearing occupant upstairs, when I’ve not tugged the door in time.

‘You here on business?’ Demand a disembodied voice, as I enter the gloomy foyer and get the first whiff of stewed cabbage that invariably inhabits the halls of these blocks. I see the house manager is in her little cubbyhole-come-office. There was a time when these places all had a live on-site warden to help the residents and to justify the sky-high management charges. Then the bean-counters took over.

I show the sour-faced woman my card and she begrudgingly nods acceptance, before adding curtly. ‘Don’t give them a stupid price. I know what you lot are like.’
I offer my well-practiced false smile and push the lift button. Nearly five minutes later the doors wheeze open. More bean-counter cost saving, I think, as I notice the cheap lift manufacturers logo and begin to wish I’d taken the stairs.

New build has often fetched a premium, but the prices elderly folk pay for these shrunken square footage flats has always disturbed me. During my first property crash I used to sell the second-hand, slightly soiled units, for about half what the parents had paid for them less than eighteen months before they went to the nursing home. Most of the blocks used to be called Something Court. Totally caught would have been more appropriate.

‘That you on the mantlepiece?’ I ask the late-middle aged son of Marjorie, as we try not to step on each others toes in the cramped flat. As usual, the furniture is way to big and dark for the living room/kitchen.

The man looks at the collection of faded photographs on the mock fireplace, wobbly-balanced above an electric fire. 
‘Yes.’ He answers with a self-conscious grin.
‘Mid-seventies?’ I enquire, looking at the shot of him with wrinkle-free skin and a disastrous mullet hair cut, but thinking about a suitable price for his mother’s flat.
‘Afraid so.’ He answers with a sheepish grin and a sweep across his bald pate, where time and genetics have robbed him of his locks.

‘Do you know how much Mum paid for the flat?’ I ask gingerly. Sometimes they say, sometimes they don’t. Then I hit him with the price.

Fortunately, he couldn’t tear his hair out. 


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Monday, May 11, 2015

Thick And Thin - Monday

‘Got a valuation for you this evening.’ Chirps negotiator S as I return to the office.
She should be pleased, these are the lifeblood of any estate agent. Without homes to sell you don’t survive, no matter what the market’s supposed to be doing. The only cloud on my immediate horizon, is the “evening” bit.

‘How late?’ I ask cautiously, not wanting to put a dampener on S’s success. 
‘Only 6.30.’ She replies with a winning  smile.
Yes. I think, but it’ll be 7.30pm before I’m out of there even if they are complete nutters, and there will be a pretty angry wife waiting with some incinerated supper. Still it could be worse.

‘And he’s a bit creepy.’ Adds S sheepishly.
‘How creepy?’ I ask hurriedly. Estate agents have been abducted by homicidal people before and I don’t particularly want to be the first to be dismembered and served with those African beans and an Italian red.

‘Not chop you up creepy. I don’t think.’ says S reading my mind. Fortunately, she can’t do that all the time.
‘Just desperate and gullible creepy.’ Adds B, from her lettings’ desk, with a sneer.
Gullible I don’t mind, particularly when it comes to negotiating a sole agency fee, but desperate isn’t always good - unless he’s lost his job and has to sell…

I look at S for some further information but she clams up and looks embarrassed.
‘He’s one of those fat, bald, ugly middle-aged blokes with a young Thai wife in tow.’ Enlightens B with a knowing smirk.
‘I didn’t necessarily mean that.’ Counters S defensively. She probably did.

‘You know the type.’ Continues B, hitting her stride. ‘Can’t get a British woman, because they have a mind of their own and can be picky about sweaty creeps with body odour, so they abuse some third world girl with the offer of untold riches and an ex-council flat.’
Wow. B’s goods are more damaged in transit than I thought.

‘She seemed perfectly nice.’ Counters S, with an awkward look my way.
I have a horrible feeling I might have some forms to fill in to send to Human Resources, I’ve detected sexism, possible racism and fattism, at the very least.

‘They are all nice until they get their feet under the table.’ Says obese mortgage man M, entering the fray. He’ s still smarting several years after his wife left him for a man who could see his own penis without a mirror.

‘Keep on her good side.’ Suggests assistant manager T, to M. ‘You might find she’ll be keen to load him with big portions and a bigger life policy.’ M’s podgy face lights up. Since they rumbled endowments and PPI policies he’s been looking for the next big thing.

‘They are all on the make.’ Says B. ‘Before you know it the stupid sap will be sending money back to Thailand for some made up relatives.’
‘That’s just so wrong.’ Snaps S sparkily. She’s rather splendid when riled.
‘It’s just as well nobody knows what we say.’ Says T with a chuckle. ‘The public wouldn’t like to hear what we really think of them.’
Hmm. Fortunately my team don’t show much inclination for reading, blogs or books. At best I’d guess we have a couple of men’s magazine perusers, a buyer of fantasy mags from the geekier end of the sci-fi spectrum and a closet Mills and Boon fan.

‘You can mock me.’ Continues B. ‘But I know how men work.’ That’s beyond dispute.
‘And you are all suckers for pretty girls, even ones half your age.’
‘Bit of a sweeping statement.’ I say, trying to avoid looking at S.
‘Bollocks.’ Snaps B. ‘And everyone knows the sort of oddballs that get Thai wives off the internet  wouldn’t have a hope in hell of shagging a British girl.’
‘Apart from the fat ones who will bonk for biscuits.’ Says T, unhelpfully.

The awkward silence hangs in the air like a fart in lift.
‘What?’ Asks M eventually.
‘Nothing.’ I say, thinking of the forms again.
‘I’m not fat, I’m big-boned.’ Says M huffily.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Saturday, May 02, 2015

The God Of Small Things - Friday

‘You’ve a studio flat to look at later.’ Announces negotiator S as I re-enter the office after the joyless  run to pick up a low-calorie, taste-free, meal deal.
‘What’s that going to be like?’ Asks trainee F gormlessly.
‘The stationery cupboard.’ I tell him, dumping the wafer-thin sandwich, pseudo-crisps and tired-looking fruit combo on the desk.

I follow F’s gaze towards the aforementioned paper and pen repository. God, I sometimes long for less litigious times when it was acceptable to clout a dozy trainee around the ear, or just ask for his office keys, without verbal warnings in writing and a multi-stage disciplinary process monitored by Human  Resources' drones and legal insurance companies. I’ll have to settle for sending F on an afternoon’s leaflet dropping in the rain.

‘He means it will be compact.’ Says S to F, gently.
‘Cramped.’ Adds assistant manager T, who seems to have ducked the undersized valuation somehow.
‘Bijou, even.’ Contributes fat mortgage man M with a chubby-chopped smile. That confuses F even further, until lettings lush B adds:

I vividly remember when I first visited a studio flat, back in the late eighties when developers and speculators were busy maximising profit and minimising square-footage, in shabbily converted, once grand, Victorian family homes.

Tagging along with the kindly surveyor I was training with, we entered a top floor roof space, once designated for servants or Not Needed On Journey labelled packing cases, to find a plaster boarded space with sloping roof lines, fit only for Snow White cast members.

As I tried to hold the old-school tape measure to the widest extremity, I was thinking if this was the lounge, with a DIY style galley kitchen incongruously in one corner, how pokey was the bedroom going to be?

The first door I tried was minuscule shower room with no natural light, a wheezy extractor fan, and a toilet wedged so tight to the angled ceiling that you’d never piss standing up. The second door I tugged, expecting to find the sleeping accommodation, turned out to conceal a clumsily-lagged hot water tank.

‘So they sleep in the lounge?’ I remember asking, hesitantly. A somewhat smarter, and smarter-dressed version of F, on reflection.
‘It’s a new concept.’ Enlightened the old, Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, with a frown. ‘It won’t catch on. I’m going to down-value it.’

‘I’m not sure I’d want to buy a flat that small.’ Speculates F, once he’s finally grasped the concept of turning your sweaty sofa into a bed at the end of an evening.
‘Just as well, you couldn’t afford it on your salary.’ Says M with a hearty guffaw. ‘Particularly when you’re on commission. Not even I could fudge the employer’s reference enough to find a lender for you.’ He adds, unkindly.

‘We all have to start somewhere.’ Counters S, fiercely. 
‘Yeh? Well if I can’t bolt on endowments, or PPI sales any more, I’m not about to risk my licence fabricating income am I?’ Sneers M.
‘Can’t he self-certificate?’ Asks B from her lettings enclave.
Only for sick notes.

‘We need to trade up.’ Says the earnest young woman later. She has an obvious swelling in her belly, as her stooping boyfriend nods in agreement and tries not to bang his head on the ceiling. There’s not enough room to swing a cat in the tired-looking conversion, and yet paradoxically, they have a hissy furball in residence, one that is weaving between my legs, purring aggressively and shedding fur all over my dark blue trousers. I can feel the first sneeze bubbling up.

I can’t see they’ll even get back what they paid for the pokey little studio flat. The dodgy developer helped fund the deposit, probably on the back of an inflated sale price and a complicit broker. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, particularly as the poor women is expecting a baby shortly. I wouldn’t mind killing the cat though.

Not a great success.
Price upset them.
Suit needs cleaning - and turns out she wasn’t pregnant.



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Threshing Machine - Wednesday

‘Oh come on, who hasn’t topped up the franking machine?’ I grumble.
‘You, probably.’ Fires back assistant manager T, cheekily. He knows I can’t work out how to reload the unit on-line, but that’s not the point.

‘There was a time when I stared in this business we didn’t have franking machines.’ I tell T sagely, as we puzzle over the convoluted instruction manual and look in vain for any sign of negotiator S returning from lunch. She knows how to top up the mailing machine remotely. T and I clearly don’t - remotely.

‘Well we won’t need a franking machine for much longer anyway.’ Opines T, as he stabs at the reset button aimlessly. 
‘Why’s that?’ I ask, knowing the answer, but not liking it much.
‘Because hardly anyone doesn’t have an email address now, wait a few years for the old buggers to die off, or be shipped to nursing homes, and we can send everything out electronically.’
I’ve only just got used to having a franking machine. Technology keeps galloping past. I feel like a carthorse on a racecourse.

The door opens and trainee F rolls in, whistling in a key no musician has ever heard of.
‘Can you top the franking machine up?’ I ask plaintively
F frowns, then says hesitantly.’ I’m a bit short this month, can’t we use petty cash?’
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me? Perhaps the world has moved on to another level and I’m some anthropological throwback just waiting for the mercy killing of extinction.

‘He means how to reload it on-line.’ Says T coming to my rescue and saving another expensive trip to the office swear box.
’S usually does it.’ Replies F unhelpfully.
‘What if she’s run over by a bus?’ I snap angrily.
‘She hasn’t been has she?’ Says F, eyes brimming up. Good God. In the office, out with pernickety punters, in the high street battling shoppers - you are sometimes never more alone than in a crowd.

‘These were new fangled not that long ago.’ I tell T and F as collectively we stare at the franking machine handbook. It might as well be written in Swahili for all I can fathom. 
‘What did you do. Deliver by hand?’ Asks F to a snort of derision from T.
‘Stamps!’ I shout with more volume than I intended and a side-order of spittle. ‘We used to get A4 sheets of stamps from the Post office and fill, fold then stick.’

‘It must have been like the dark ages when you started.’ Says F after we’ve given up hearing a Fax machine screech every time we unsuccessfully tried to credit the franking machine. S will be back soon, unless the Number 10 really does wipe her out.

‘Well,’ I begin warming to a theme. ‘You didn’t just push a button and upload details to a property portal.’
T moves away, saying flatly. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’
‘And you couldn’t take a dozen photos on a digital camera and retouch them when you got back to the office.’
‘Did you still get dustbins in the foreground back then?’ Shouts T from the kitchen, impertinently.
He knows I hate badly framed photos, with no thought taken before snapping. Company cars in the picture, or the numpty taking the photo reflected back in a window, are two other pet hates.

‘We used to have a film company collect the 35mm rolls every day and bring them back twenty-four hours later.’ I tell F, as he stifles a yawn. ‘So you had to make sure you got a good shot or you ended up with fifty sticky-backed mini-prints to go in the bin.’

‘Did you have one of those retro black and white numbers?’ Asks F, seemingly interested again.
‘He means Polaroid, the instant ones.’ Says T plonking two mugs of grease-flecked tea on the desk.
‘I did as it happens.’ I answer dreamily. Fondly remembering the huge plastic cameras and the excitement of waiting for the pull out print to develop.

‘Good for revenge porn shots and selfies?’ Asks F lewdly.

Never more alone.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Local Knowledge - Tuesday

A high-velocity run of expletives bounce round the office like a rubber bullet. I look up from my computer screen to see assistant manager T with a face like thunder. It could be the charges for the office swear box he’s just incurred but it’s likely to be something more costly. I suspect my sales pipeline has sprung another unwelcome leak.

‘What is it?’ I ask wearily, having heaved myself from my chair and left the office profit and loss figures to mercifully fade out when the screen saver kicks in.
‘The deal on Crescent Road has just fallen-through.’ Replies T angrily.
‘What?’ Questions fat finance man M, before I can. ‘Was I doing the mortgage?’
‘You might have been if you’d bothered to ring back the buyers.’Snaps T moodily.
M looks briefly embarrassed, before saying unhelpfully. ‘Well you should have booked them in for an appointment.’

As M waddles away an unpleasant chafing of man-made material follows the lazy lump of lard as he sways back to his office. They must make his suit trousers from the same fire-retardant material they manufacture children’s nightdresses from, or we’d have experienced a spontaneous combustion Bear Grylls would be proud of, by now.

‘Forget him.’ I tell T, with the sort of instruction I could do without getting back to the bean counter boss. ‘Tell me what happened.’
‘Their solicitor told them they can’t access the garage at the back.’ Replies T, arms outstretched. ‘But I’ve been round the back there myself.’
‘I know what it’s about.’ I tell T flatly.

Now people don’t often value my experience, or accumulated knowledge, when I price their home. Focus is often on how much they can ask and how cheap I’ll make my fee. But the reason you pay for a decent dentist or a switched-on solicitor, is they’ve demonstrated through study, exam and practice they are worth paying for. Estate agents don’t have to sit exams, or demonstrate a minimum standard of competence, though God knows I’d like them to, so consequently they all seem the same - until the problems start.

‘They were built by a speculator-builder in the late thirties.’ I tell my, now assembled, sales team. Trainee F briefly starts to raise his arm then thinks better of it. Even he realises I’m not that old.
‘And of course,’ I continue. ‘Not many people had use of a car then.’
‘Buy they have that access track round the back.’ Interjects T. ‘Where some people still have sheds.
And I’ve driven round there, seen the garage.’ He pleads indignantly. T should have thought of this potential problem when he took the property on - or I should have spotted it.

Old title deeds explained, and the Land Registry only being involved when homes change hands discussed. I ask who the buyers’ solicitor is?
‘Some out of town cheap and not very cheerful bunch.’ Replies T flatly.
‘And?’ I ask like a schoolmaster. To a simultaneous, and rather pleasing, chorus of:
‘You get what you pay for!’

‘So if I can convince your solicitors there is an established right of way,’ I tell the wobbly buyers later. ‘Would you still want to buy it?’
‘Of course, we love it.’ Answers the woman, who I know is the decision maker. ‘But we have to listen to the legal people.’
‘Leave it with me. I know what to do.’ I tell her, trying not to sound smug.

‘So if the old boy that lives next door signs an affidavit confirming he’s used that rear access for decades without problems it’ll be okay?’ Quizzes T later.
‘If it can constitute an established use.’ I answer. ‘The hard bit is convincing the buyers’ cheapo battery-farm legal outfit to back down.’
‘They seem pretty clueless.’ Responds T.

Yep, that’s what happens if you use a bucket shop lawyers’ firm. It’s the same with these joke on-line estate agencies. Use EasyPeasyProperties dot com, or whatever they call themselves, and it will probably cost you in the long run.

End result. Sale saved and back on course.

The profit and loss account is a different matter though.


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Perfect Day - Saturday

‘I’m surprised you agreed to go somewhere this close to home.’ Says my wife’s friend’s husband, as we head towards a nearby pub, with live music on offer.
‘I’m hoping it’s too dark to be recognised and too loud for conversations.’ I tell him bluntly.
He nods and shuts up.

That’s the dilemma of the estate agent. Local knowledge is a key ingredient to winning the business over younger, more tech-savvy upstarts. And living in the same town you work in can underpin that awareness of regional quirks such as; housing stock vagaries, schooling catchment areas, common problems on particular construction types, etc. Unfortunately, it also means people know where to find you and tend to recognise you out and about socially. If you’ve just informed someone they’ve been gazumped, or gazundered they don’t always take too kindly to seeing you in civvies, at the bar.

‘Sound like the band has already started.’ Says my wife, as we approach the pub door and a deep throbbing base stirs the ground beneath our feet, and probably causes a few more of those 1970s built bungalows with the flooring screed compaction problems, to require mini-piling.

‘At least I won’t have to talk about what the property market is going to do.’ I reply, as we push through the door and are enveloped with the warm fug of a crowded room and the pounding guitars of a punk-based band, playing loud and fast.

The room is literally bouncing. Floorboards springy from use and awash with spilt beer. But due to the demographic of ageing rockers with big bellies and little hair, it’s more likely arthritis causing the drinks spillage, and excess weight damaging the floor joists. Pleasingly, unlike the last time I heard The Stranglers’ Something Better Change being played, there’s not a hint of phlegm or menace, in the air. At least, not until I get spotted…

‘That man over there is waving at you.’ Bellows my wife, mouth to my ear, as drinks shoutily obtained, we stand and watch the band thrash out another three minute, three chord classic. We’re so near the big Peavey PA rig I can almost feel the air disturbance as the speaker cones pump in and out.

I look furtively across the room and see an ex-vendor of mine. He is rather incongruously wearing a blazer, with jeans and a formal shirt. He’s a colossal time-waster. The type that periodically puts their home on the market only to take it off again, once you find a buyer, citing the old chestnut, “there’s nothing a nice as ours on the market, now if we could just pick it up and move it….”

I give a half nod of recognition, one calculated not to encourage the twat to fight his way through the crowd to bellow an update on his house value request, at me. Then I see a local solicitor with a woman who is definitely not his wife. I’m hoping she isn’t his daughter either, the way he is holding her. A few rows over, the postman who always grumbles about our franking bag is stood next to the decorator who made a shoddy job of painting my barge boards.

‘This is one you might remember, by The Clash.’ Announces the lead singer, as the elderly band stumble in to I Fought The Law which amusingly sees the local beat policeman pogoing in a rather stiff-limbed fashion. I’m a teenager again, as I keenly try to work out which chords the guitarist is playing, while endeavouring not too spill my beer Meanwhile, a crowd of fifty-something career-drones all pretend they are proto-anarchists rather than mortgage slaves. 

‘It’s too loud to talk.’ Shouts my wife, as a Lou Reed number pounds out and my fillings rattle.
That’s the best bit, I think, nodding in agreement. Then I spot the fat building surveyor, wearing a Ramones t-shirt. In my mind, I’m still elegantly wasted, but he is most definitely corpulently-waisted.

‘You going to answer that phone?’ I say, stumbling up to bed later. My wife looks at me quizzically.
‘It’s not actually ringing, is it?’ I eventually mumble, as a beery belch bubbles up.

Only in my head.