Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Back To Black - Wednesday

‘Here they come again.’ Warns negotiator S, as she looks across the high street. Everybody cranes their necks through the window display, to try and narrow it down a bit. You get plenty of wastrels and nutters through an estate agent’s door and it’s only worse in the summer, when you prop the door open because the cheap air conditioning the bean counter specified has pissed legionnaire’s disease riddled water, through the ceiling tiles again.

‘F**k no.’ Groans assistant manager T.
‘Swear box.’ Says S, indicating my one nod to charity collection after that disastrous bike ride a few years ago. A pedal where my group got lost, ended up with blistered feet, one suspected hernia and more sore bottoms than a Fifty Shades Of Grey convention.

Every estate agent has their regular time wasters, the perpetual lookers who always find fault with each new instruction you offer them and always say they’d move, if only they could find something as nice as their own home. In the end you realise they’ll only leave their existing house feet first in a box, but it doesn’t stop them pestering you.

‘They’re never going to buy anything are they?’ Says trainee F, with unusual insight.
Not unless some Russian oligarch with a sat nav failure decides to buy their house for several million.’ Chuckles T.
‘Even then they’d grumble about our fee.’ I say flatly.
‘You didn’t really do much for your money.’ Mimics S, to giggles all round.

Obsession about housing and prices has become as much a British pastime as talking about the weather. It’s not helped by endless variations of televised property porn presented by photogenic hosts. Hosts with about as much estate agency experience as those on-line outfits, sat in a large bedrooms staffed by spotty computer nerds with no social skills, but an in-depth knowledge of programming code.

‘Everybody wants to buy at Macclesfield money and sell at Mayfair prices.’ I announce, rather proudly.
‘You’ve been working on that one.’Says T, with a shake of his head. I have, but then these pearls of wisdom don’t just come out of a cracker.
‘You should write some of those down.’ Suggests S, with a winning smile.
If only she knew, but then again, probably best not…

‘Perhaps they are thinking of renting their house?’ Says T with a mischievous nod towards B, our loose lettings lady.
‘They can piss off.’ Snaps B grumpily. ‘I’ve got enough loony landlords to fill a coach trip to Bedlam.’
‘Is Bedlam that new development on the green field site they made all the fuss about?’ Questions F to groans.
Although, plenty of people were mad about it when the planning went through on appeal.

‘Perhaps they won’t come in.’ Says T unconvincingly, as the couple in question hesitate on the far side of the street and I pray for an ill-judged crossing attempt and a runaway juggernaut. ‘No they’re coming in.’ I say ruefully. I just thank God I managed to move the coffee machine from the front office to the kitchen. Start providing free beverages for these people and you’ll be tucking them in with a blanket and a hot chocolate every night, when you close.
‘Morning Mr and Mrs Godfrey.’ Says S with Oscar-winning sincerity, as the pair arrive with, sadly, no sign of any heavy goods vehicle brake failures.
‘Do you have anything new for us?’ Asks Mrs Godfrey with a condescending look. I nod towards them. I must have valued their home at least four times over they years and I know, in the unlikely event of the idiots ever actually placing their tired semi-detached house on the market, they’d opt for the most outlandish asking price and the cheapest fee. Not me. Never me.

‘Have you thought any more about placing your own house on the market? It would put you in a better buying position.’ Coaxes S, after she’s taken them through several perfectly acceptable replacements for their own home.

‘You find us something better than ours first.’ Says Mr Godfrey dismissively.
‘I doubt they will dear.’ Adds his wife. ‘What we’d really like to do….’

Yes, is pick your house up and move it.

F**k off.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Pimms O'Clock - Friday

‘We going to the pub tonight, boss?’ Asks trainee F. It’s as enthusiastic as he’s been all day, but then free drinks keep their allure a little longer than posting: we have buyers urgently looking in your area, leaflets through doors, endlessly.

‘Probably.’ I tell him, deliberately opaque. F frowns and looks at negotiator S - most people do - and she gives him a reassuring nod, as do her breasts. So we’ll be going then.

‘Any news on the survey for number twenty-four?’ I ask assistant manager T, in an attempt to try and make some progress before I have to start buying beers. T looks at me with barely disguised distain. ‘Nobody except estate agents will still be at work at this time of day.’ He says, tilting his head towards the clock. I look at the numerals in surprise, that’s what you get for studying the office P&L accounts doggedly, when you failed O-Level maths. 

‘Time flies when you’re having fun.’ Says loose lettings lush B, sourly. She’s been battling with an angry landlord and two nightmare tenants who are due to be evicted, all afternoon. I can see why she’ll need a drink by closing time. It’s the several more gin and tonics and casual sex with a stranger she probably could do without. Probably.

‘Those wasters are threatening to go to the local papers, when they’re kicked out.’ Continues B, referring to the soon to be evicted pair. ‘God knows why the taxpayer has to fund their drugs and nicotine habit. I hope they get the shittiest bed and breakfast in town.’

‘It’s the kids I feel sorry for.’ Says S compassionately.
‘He should put something on the end of it.’ Snaps B, like a female Jeremy Kyle. The voice of experience, I think, trying not to grin. She’s avoided unwanted, or otherwise, pregnancy so far. Just as well, because I’m not sure I could ever fake another smile and enthusiastic response, if I’m told I’ll need to run an office with another staff member on maternity leave…

‘If you save and spend sensibly you just end up funding pissheads’ lifestyles.’ Grumble obese finance man M, as he waddles across the office.
‘Not sure anyone would underwrite accident sickness and redundancy policies for any of B’s housing benefit tenants.’ Says T with a wry laugh.
‘They’d need to have a job first, before they’d qualify for redundancy protection. Fat chance of that.’ Replies M with his enduring lack of self-awareness. Even then the policy wouldn’t pay out, I think.

‘They are all scum.’ Says B angrily.
‘They’re not all.’ Counters S. ‘They’ve just had a hard time of it.’
‘How hard is it to got to the cashpoint at midnight in your pyjamas, once your free money is in, then go to the all-night off-licence.’ Says M sarcastically.
‘I think you reap what you sow.’ Pronounces F obtusely. That stops the conversation in its tracks. God alone knows what goes on in that head of his.

‘Good week?’ Asks the opposition manager, when I finally lead my team into the pub, like some cut-price messiah. I still don’t know why the majority of estate agents share the same watering hole, something to do with posturing and false bravado. I puff up my metaphorical tail-feathers and lie enthusiastically.
‘Yeh, us too.’ He replies, visibly crestfallen. It’s a game, but I still like to win.
‘How did they do?’ Asks T, once I’ve bought the drinks and we’ve circled one table like a motley tribe of Red Indians. I look across at the opposition.
’How did they do, or how did they say they’ve done?’ I answer.
‘Good point.’ Concedes T.

As I buy the second round and wonder if I should go home before my tea is in the bin again, B’s mobile phone rings insistently. She glances at the caller display and grimaces. ‘Shit, it’s the lairy landlord.’
‘Don’t answer it.’ Suggest T.
‘You have to,’ counters S. ‘It might be about the tenants getting kicked out.’
‘Tell him they can sleep in our office doorway.’ Says M with a rumbustious chortle.

Just one more drink then.


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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Room For Improvement - Wednesday

‘This looks a right dump.’ Says assistant manager T gloomily, as we pull up outside a boarded-up mid-terrace house, in the less salubrious part of town.
‘They don’t exactly hoover the carpets before they go.’ I tell him sarcastically.
‘I’ve got no sympathy.’ Replies T. ‘If you don’t make the payments what do they expect? They’re not exactly Greece.’

I glance at the newly minted set of keys lying in the car’s coin tray. The house we’re about to enter is a voluntary repossession - not that the word voluntary ever seems appropriate when the lender snatches back someone’s home. The keys arrived in the post along with our instructions to market the house once two independent valuations have been carried out. Carried out by sports jacket wearing surveyors who live at home with their mothers and have to ask us what the house is worth, before they put their professional opinion in writing.

‘At least the locksmith has done the hard work.’ Speculates T, nodding towards the flaky paint front door, where a new brass lock barrel is shiny incongruously against the general neglect of the front elevation.
‘Did you remember the torch?’ I ask T, as I clamber out and feel my sciatic nerve ping like a racquet string popping.
‘Yup.’ Answers T nonchalantly.

The boarded windows are to keep squatters out but it’s a safe bet all the services will have been disconnected. We’ll be stumbling around in near darkness with God only knows what littering the floor. I should get danger money. Instead I get commission.

‘More keys than a jailor here.’ Says T, as he tries to open the door while I glance at the paperwork. It might be a digital age but those lenders still like lopping down rain forests.
‘Got it.’ Mumbles T as he frees the door and pushes inwards. A sickly waft of fetid air rises in our faces.
‘Food left in the fridge?’ Asks T, features creased in distaste.
‘That or another dead body.’

T fumbles for the torch switch, as he kicks away the junk mail piled high against the door sill. Nothing happens. Preparation! I want to scream, but according to my wife I’m more OCD than the mumbling man who pushes a shopping trolly round town, matching plastic bags arranged meticulously down each side. He probably used to be an estate agent….

‘Did you check the batteries were working?’ I demand tetchily.
‘They were last time.’ Counters T petulantly.
One more dead man in an empty home might not be noticed, I think fleetingly. Before heading back to the car to get my own torch from the glove box.

‘I though someone was supposed to have cleared this place.’ Says T disdainfully. The smell is getting stronger and we’ve not made the kitchen yet. Boxes of junk are piled against the walls and several black plastic bin liners are spilling content that would look at home on an Mumbai rubbish tip.

Then something suddenly moves in my peripheral vision.
‘Ayeee. What the f**k was that?’ ScreamsT, like a schoolgirl.
Heart pounding, I sweep the beam towards the abrupt movement, just in time to see a unfeasibly long curled tail skittering out the door.
‘Tell me that wasn’t a rat.’ Says T, designer glasses flashing in the half-light.
‘Well I don’t think they left their pet gerbil behind.’ I answer with a shiver. We’re going to need pest control again. I wonder if I can strike a deal and get them to terminate the cheap-fee agent that opened last year, at the same time?

‘Smell is definitely coming from the fridge.’ I tell T as he flings open the back door and some welcome light illuminates what is left of the kitchen. All the cabinets have been torn from the wall, leaving just two copper pipes with taps balancing on the end above where the sink used to be.

‘Why don’t they leave the white goods in the garden like the other chavs round here.’ Snipes T. Nodding towards the offending fridge. He’s yet to be made redundant. But he’ll learn.

Think it was once, a bag of prawns.


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Monday, August 03, 2015

Blue Mondays - Monday

‘You okay?’ Asks a distant voice. I focus back in the mirror and see my wife behind me, looking slightly concerned.

‘I was miles away.’ I tell her, slowly coming back to an early Monday morning, with another sales mountain to climb. She doesn’t want to know where, some things need to be kept private in a marriage if you want to rack up the milestones.

‘Where exactly?’ Says my wife, unhelpfully.
Doing that gazing in to the middle-distance thing, when you don’t like the reflection in the shaving mirror. Wondering, like some gap-toothed pensioner about to be shoehorned into a care home, where the years went? And why I’m still flogging homes for a bean-counter boss I wouldn’t extinguish if I saw him smouldering in a pile of profit and loss accounts.

‘Just thinking.’ I tell her neutrally. I should know better.
‘Thinking what?’
That, when I was nineteen and The Clash fought the law and lost rather comprehensively, I imagined I could win. I didn’t know about escalating targets, cost-cutting pedants and a public that will lie to you through their teeth if it achieves their property goals. Naive, on reflection. But then I thought tartan bondage trousers and a clip-on nose safety pin, were relevant. What? There was no way I was going to permanently pierce myself…

‘Just wondering what the week holds in store.’ I eventually fudge.
‘Same old same old, you always say when I ask.’ She replies, with a shrug.
She doesn’t need to know what happens when you deal with property all day long. If I told her about every gut-wrenching setback perpetrated by sloppy solicitors, lazy lenders and destructive surveyors she’s be suicidal after a week. It’s taken me years to get this disillusioned.

Truth is, I was doing that Turn A Different Corner thing. Wondering, after scraping away even more pesky grey bristles, what I might have achieved with a bit more get up and go? I certainly wouldn’t have stayed this long. Stayed with a bunch of Corporate form-fillers. The headhunting offers, from estate agency recruitment firms, dried up about the time my double-breasted three piece suit fell out of fashion and I’m still too timid to start my own estate agency business. I’ve repossessed enough houses where the owners used the family home as collateral for a business loan.

‘Have you got much on?’ She persists, gallantly.
Underneath the vest and boxer shorts I’m more naked than you could ever imagine, I want to say. But unless it’s your last Rolo, sharing isn’t always a good thing.
I open my pocket diary and she laughs at me.
‘You are a stubborn old sod.’
The truth can wound. ‘Why?’ I ask her needlessly.
‘Because you could have all that information on your phone.’

I could, in theory, but I find a phone that is smarter than me as much of a threat as each new agent that has opened up in every town I’ve worked in. And besides, the screen is too small to see without reading glasses. And I’m holding out. Holding out doggedly. No sign of a hero, though.

I’ve been in enough homes, where regrets seep from the walls like a damaged damp-proof course. Homes where memories sit mournfully on mantelpieces in the shape of faded photographs and where yet another wrinkly owner, who doesn’t want to leave, counsels you: “Don’t get old son. it’s no fun.”
But the alternative isn’t too peachy either, Pops.

‘You need to move with technology.’ Says my wife, with the sort of kindly smile you give to the old lady who pushes the empty pram round town, muttering endlessly to the non-existent baby.
I used to be the youngest branch manager in the company, but short of keeping a mystical painting in the attic - and mine is full of old Lego sets and boxed Furbies we just can’t throw away - time will run you down every….well… time. 

She’s right about the phone, she usually is, but I’m damned if I’m giving Apple any more of my hard-earned cash.

Analogue man in a digital world - still spitting. 


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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Price War - Thursday

Sat outside another identikit Executive detached home built in a bland, non-regional, style by one of the National house builders, about fifteen years ago. The only thing I know for sure, apart from the fact that the architects responsible for these charisma-free homes, never actually live in one, is the asking price is too high.

Negotiator S saw the fifty-something couple in the office and managed to deflect their initially combative approach, and palpable dislike for estate agents, in to a valuation appointment for me. She’s good like that.

They may think I’ll miss it, but I can see the opposition estate agent’s sun-bleached for sale sign tucked down the side path, a path with the minimum width allowed before the next house was built slap bang against it. Land with planning permission was at a premium a decade and a half ago, just as it is now. They’re not making any more of it, and it’s the reason several local planning officers are rumoured to have - paid for in cash - holiday villas in Spain.

‘They wouldn’t say how much they’re on the market for.’ S had told me after she’d booked me the appointment. ‘But I’ll find out.’
‘It’ll be too much.’ I told her gracelessly.
It took her fifteen minutes and my thoughts were confirmed. Six months with the shitesters across the high street. £50,000 more than it was worth and a long, restrictive sole agency, finally finished. Got to love a challenge.

‘Come in.’ Says the husband flatly, a look of distain on his face. His wife hovers in the background but I’m pretty sure she’ll be more forthcoming when I tell her what the house is really worth. We’re not in Mayfair and I’m guessing a Russian Oligarch with state-plundered funds, isn’t going to be that impressed with the local schooling and transport links. There’s certainly not enough room in the garden for a helicopter pad and digging a basement would just turn up the old rubbish tip again….

Cursory tour of the accommodation and a glimpse at the garden, completed, I sit opposite them on the sofa. I have the floor-plans of these house types on file and unless they’ve diminished the saleability with some garish interior designer decor, I could tell them the price without leaving my office. The garden is north facing, which won’t help, but doubtless it “didn’t bother us” when they bought.

They say valuing property is more of an art than a science, and it’s true when it comes to unique, one-off homes but with the advent of Land Registry data and the transparency of prices paid, the arty bit isn’t quite as important as it was. Mostly Jackson Pollocks…

I’m fencing and pontificating and can feel they couple aren’t really taking in the comparable sales data I’m gently feeding them. Unless you’re on a riverboat cruise in Egypt, denial isn’t that attractive.

‘Yes, but ours is much nicer than those two down the road.’ Argues the wife. It isn’t and they’ve actually moved, lady. But at least she’s showing her true colours now.
‘It was more about that other bunch of useless idiots.’ Contributes the husband sourly. He’s referring to my competitors, whose board is down the side alley. They couldn’t mask the well-entrenched hole in the front garden though. If the for sale flag had been there any longer it would have sprouted leaves come the spring.

‘Yes, they completely duped us and they never kept us updated.’ Chirps the wife. ‘All they ever wanted us to do is reduce the price.’
Yes, that’s how they operate, I think dejectedly. Still no minimum standards in the industry - any low-life can lease a shop-unit and put a fascia up and don’t even start me on, so-called, on-line estate agents.

I’ve flogged more dead horses that a sadist in a knackers’ yard, but I’m beginning to feel this is another waste of time. These people want more than their home is worth and will only buy if someone undersells their own property. I decide to try just the £25,000 reduction.

‘We’re not giving it away.’ They chorus familiarly.

No. You’re not.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

False Bonhomie - Wednesday

‘Anyone want to go and collect a set of keys from that lot over the road?’ I ask, nodding towards one of our, less loved, competitors. Not that there’s a lot of love lost towards any rival outfit trying to take money out of your bank account. Unless that rumour of B, our looses lettings lush, shagging the assistant manager of the cut-price fee cowboys, after the last annual Estate Agents’ Dinner, is true…

‘Rather not.’ Says S, with a winning smile.
I look at T, my own assistant manager, who is so laid back he wouldn’t shag anyone - unless they did all the work.
‘Got a viewing in a minute.’ He says, unconvincingly. I could check the system to see if he’s lying, but I get enough conflict with those outside the office, without bringing it indoors.

I look hesitantly at F, our dozy trainee. He seems to gently chewing, in that bovine manner that indicates a lower form of intelligence. He can’t be chomping on gum again, because he’s on a final warning. F eventually feels the weight of my gaze.

‘What?’ He asks, looking up gormlessly. At least he’s confirmed there’s no chewing gum in his mouth. I look at him and, not for the first time, wonder what I was thinking of when I recruited him? Best of a bad lot, probably..

‘He was asking if you could collect a set of keys from those tossers across the road.’ Says S helpfully.
F looks out the window and focuses on a middle-aged couple about to cross to our side. His face creases up.
‘Never mind.’ I bark. ‘I’ll go.’

There’s an uneasy truce between estate agents at the best of times. It’s witnessed on Friday night’s, when traditionally most firms adjourn to the pub to disseminate sales and to bray as loudly as they can towards the opposition huddle, about what a great week they’ve had. There’s more bullshit flying around than a fight at a stud farm, but some of it sticks.

The gritted-teeth politeness tends to continue at business functions and the aforementioned annual Estate Agents’ Dinner, where several score of property pugilists wrap themselves in alcohol and diner jackets and try not to start fights until they’re in the car park.

The fragile truce is strained to Lebanon levels, when you enter a rival’s office to relive them of keys to a home they’ve failed to sell, prior to you taking up the marketing. You feel as uncomfortable as most men - apart from the crossdressers - do when they make their furtive annual trip to the M & S lingerie section each Christmas. ‘Well, she’s about you size actually, Miss….’

I can see them  watching me through the window even as I move to their side of the street. If looks could kill no amount of adherence to my old Green Cross Code would save me from a nasty accident. Pausing as long as I can, to scan their window display and to try not to fret further at the sight of two homes I tried to list, still on display and still 20% over-priced, I bustle through the door. False smile pasted on.

The manager looks at me as if a large unwanted turd has just popped back around the u-bend.
‘Alright?’ He says, more by way of a challenge than an enquiry into my wellbeing.
I can feel his staff looking at me, almost physically.  There can’t have been this much tension in the air since the last time the founder members of One Direction were together in one room.

‘I’m here for the keys to number twenty-three. Mr and Mrs Stephenson.’ I tell him flatly.
‘You’re welcome.’ Sneers the shitester in a suit, nodding towards a minion, who scuttles off to the key safe. ‘They are pair of wasters.’

Only because you misled them on price and spent the next twelve weeks trying to get them to reduce by £25,000, I think sourly. I obviously don’t say that. There’s a facade to be maintained, not to mention some expensive dentistry to be protected.

Still smiling.


Thursday, July 09, 2015

Top And Bottom - Thursday

‘What’s capped and collared?’ Asks trainee F earnestly, as I lurk at the back of the office and scan the appointments’ diary.

For a moment I think he’s been accessing those dodgy bondage websites on company time again, until I realise the filters are supposed to block any providers with adult content. There’s a work round, as there always is, but best not to publicise it.

‘It’s a type of lending product.’ I tell him breezily, hoping fat finance fiddler M isn’t earwigging again. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. He’s passed tick-box exams - so a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing…

‘What type of product?’ Presses F, rather annoyingly. And now I realise negotiator S has stopped tapping at her keyboard and is listening, along with assistant manager T. B, our loose lettings lady is fortunately still on the phone, arguing earnestly with some third party. It could be her latest boyfriend, it could be an angry landlord - it could be both.

‘I don’t think they are prevalent today.’ I say, playing for time and running an internal Siri search in my ageing hard drive.
’What’s prevalent mean?’ Says F quizzically.
‘Common.’ Answers T dismissively.
‘Like a Chav?’ Asks F.
Still no minimum entry qualification to become an estate agent.

‘Isn’t it when the lender guarantees the interest rate won’t go above a certain level?’ Says S. My hard drive whirrs in appreciation of her - not for the first time.
‘Yes that’s it,’ I say triumphantly. ‘That’s the cap bit.’
‘And the collar?’ Says F.
‘That’s for old dogs.’ Interjects T, nodding almost imperceptibly towards B, where she is spitting staccato insults down the phone like a premium rate provider at the specialist end of the spectrum.

‘The collar means the rate won’t drop below a certain level, even if the base rate falls.’
‘Why would you want that?’ States F.
‘Well you wouldn’t.’ I tell him tartly, wishing I’d stayed in my office and accessed the hidden private browsing function the IT kid, with acne, showed me.
‘It’s more for the lender’s benefit.’ Says T.
‘Seems everything is for the lender’s benefit.’ Replies F. 
He’s slowly getting the hang of it - a few more repossession appointments and he’ll be there.

‘I’m glad I’m only a licensed introducer.’ Says B, breezily. ‘Not sure I’d want to try and flog loans and dodgy insurance products.’
‘Drive you mad trying to keep up with all the rules and regulations.’ Says T in agreement.
‘They have laptops and helplines.’ I say dismissively, looking towards M’s office. His head is down and his jaws are moving rhythmically, he’s either eating or that little IT squirt lied about only giving the filter by-pass code to me.

‘When you started you didn’t have to sell mortgages and insurance did you?’ Asks F.
He’s right. Estate agency was a much more gentile pursuit, with banks, building societies and insurance companies all knowing their place in the property move hierarchy. Once the bean counters moved in to protect their collective positions and to tap into estate agents’ client bases, the job took a turn for the worse. Plus, we had to open on Saturday afternoons….

‘You need to remember who pays your wages.’ Says M in a booming voice. He’s somehow slid out of his office quietly - quite an achievement without castors and heavy lifting gear - and has been listening to the conversation.

‘It’s a team effort.’ I say in a conciliatory tone. I spend my life placating people - angry owners, buyers, lawyers and lenders, so fobbing off a fat fiscal fiddler isn’t a big challenge.

‘Just make sure your lot hit their introducers targets.’ Grumps M before waddling away. He’s doesn’t quite get the fact that an us and them mentality doesn’t make for a harmonious sales environment, but then he struggles to differentiate between an open and closed question. Big arsehole.

“Ok, thank you.’ Says F, later, as I come in half way through his telephone conversation. He replaces the receiver and frowns almost audibly.
‘What?’ I ask him.
He hesitates.
‘Go on, I won’t bite.’ I might.

‘Well, what’s a retention again?’ Asks F hesitantly.

Not just a woman’s problem.


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