Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Down And Out - Wednesday

‘Whoaaa!’ Bellows assistant manager T, disturbing my study of the stock list. ‘We’ve got another faller.’

I look up from the record of every home we have on our books, some of which are coming up for their birthday, and see all eyes are staring through the office window. Putting the printout aside and  doing likewise with the thought of having to ring some of the more recalcitrant owners for price reductions, I move to the focus of attention.

‘It’s a bleeder too.’ Announces T staring out towards the pavement where I can now see an elderly woman sprawled in an undignified face-plant-to-paving-stone position. A couple of passers by have stopped in a sort of slow motion shock, although plenty of others are hurrying on by, pretending to be pre-occupied by phones and urgent transport connections.

‘We should go out.’ Says negotiator S, concern in her voice.
We should, I think rapidly, only the last few have bled on the carpet and sat for upwards of thirty minutes sobbing, or telling us their extended life stories, before the ambulance finally arrived.

‘Leave it.’ Says fat finance man M dismissively. ‘It will only be a load of grief.’
‘You callous sod.’ Says S with remarkable restraint. ‘Just because she’s too old for a mortgage.’
‘And it might be a bit late to flog a critical illness policy.’ Muses T. ‘Existing conditions are excluded aren’t they?’
‘Hilarious.’ Responds M sourly, before waddling towards the kitchen.

‘Shall I call the ambulance?’ Asks S urgently. Two of the passers by are now bending down to see to the dazed old lady, and another slightly shadier character has picked up her handbag. I watch him, even as I make the mental calculations as to how much grief bringing the bruised pensioner inside will cause, on a busy day.

‘That bloke in the hoody looks like he’s about to do a runner with her bag.’ Says T nodding towards the man I’ve already spotted.
Terrific, now it could be the police as well as the ambulance service I’ll be reporting to. But one decision is taken out of my hands, as the potential bag-snatcher confounds expectations and places the bag alongside the stricken pensioner before walking off. Book and covers, again.

‘Well?’ Urges S, a little peevishly. 
I know what I’m going to do, I’m just angry the council don’t respond to requests to mend broken paving slabs but still sting us for obscenely high business rates, then never collect the commercial waste on time.

‘Why is their skin so paper thin?’ Asks trainee F as I walk towards the door. The old woman is bleeding, like a burst crimson water main, from a nasty head wound. Groggily, she begins to sit up with the help of the two bystanders who had time and the inclination to stop.
‘Get some paper towels.’ I tell F irritably. ‘ They just get fragile after a long life.’ I say as I grab the door handle and wonder how many more years dealing with home moves before, I too, start leaking claret with every fresh hit?

‘I don’t want any fuss.’ Croaks the ancient lady once she’s sat at reception and the two good Samaritans have vanished faster than a summer mist.
S is ministering to her gently, boldly mopping up blood without the gossamer thin protection of any latex gloves. Human Resources dictated the First Aid Kit couldn’t have aspirin or paracetamol in it some time ago, so protection against HIV positive Grannies, or Ebola leaking holiday makers, isn’t available in the echoing red container.

‘Ask her if she’s thinking of selling her house for a sheltered flat now she can’t cope?’ Hisses M as he sways past me, while I wait for the daughter’s phone to be picked up. Before I can scowl at M, the answer phone kicks in. Reluctantly I leave a message that I hope doesn’t sound too disconcerting.

Finally, after learning about the five grandchildren who can’t visit too often as they are very busy, I hear the distant wail of an emergency services’ siren.

No fractures just bruising - same with the old woman.


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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Hey Ho-Ho-Ho - Thursday

‘I want to ask you something.’ Announces negotiator S tapping gently on my office door. It’s always open, but there are occasions when I’d like it shut.

My thoughts start to churn. Firstly I’m guessing, with relief, she’s not pregnant or she’d be telling not asking. I’m also hopeful she isn’t going to be resigning, for the same reason. Although the silly season of “head hunting” opposition agents’ staff tends to mushroom whenever prices rise, resulting in countless fledgling firms setting up with more bank loans than experience.

‘Of course.’ I tell her magnanimously. ‘Ask whatever you like.’ S smiles warmly and I feel pretty flushed too.
‘Can we do a Secret Santa, this year?’ She says coquettishly. And suddenly my mind is racing faster than a shoplifter on their toes. I lose track of time, as inappropriate visions of me in red trousers and a neatly trimmed grey goatee, having an incognito assignation in S’s bedroom, flash by. Then reality slaps me like a fish in the face.

‘You mean we each buy presents nobody wants for each other…?’ I ask falteringly, hoping she’s not as hot on mind reading, as she’s hot.
‘Of course.’ Replies S with a broad grin. ‘What else would you think?’
You don’t want to know. You really don’t - and neither do Personnel /Human Resources/People Division.

‘I know you hate everything to do with Christmas.’ Continues S with an admonishing frown.
I don’t. I just hate the false sentiment of Corporate greetings’ cards, the alcohol-fuelled mayhem of firms’ Christmas parties and the annual battle as to whether a property business needs a rickety nativity scene and cotton wool in their window display. And that’s before the recent pressure to feature a multi-cultural, non-denominational, secular display that won’t offend vegans through to morons, with all faiths in between.

‘We could agree a maximum spend for each present.’ Coaxes S. ‘Say ten pounds?’
God, it was £5 last time I agreed to the nonsense, I think, Ebenezer-like.
‘Or maybe five?’ Offers S. Worryingly, she does seem able to read my mind.
‘It’s just…’ I falter.
‘A bit false.’

‘We’re doing a Secret Santa this year.’ I announce, once everyone is back from lunch. I know, I know.
‘Who persuaded you to do that?’ Quizzes fat mortgage man M.
‘Nobody.’ I state, falsely.
‘Yeh, and you expect us to believe you?’Sneers loose lettings lady B from her desk. I really hope I don’t draw her name out of the hat. I’m guessing batteries alone for her novelty item would swallow the whole tenner. Not to mention - well, not to mention…

‘It will be great.’ Endorses trainee F with a soppy grin. As if I needed confirmation I was making a mistake.
‘I used to love Christmas Eve,’ continues F dreamily. ‘Shivering in bed with anticipation. Not able to get to sleep.’ Probably because he was unsure which of his mother’s latest “Uncles” was going to come down their family chimney.

‘How much do we have to spend?’ Demands M frostily. ‘I hope it’s no more than a fiver.’
Irony doesn’t begin to cover it. This from a man who flogged expensive endowment policies, then morphed seamlessly through to Payment Protection Policies which I’m still receiving phone calls about. 

‘I thought ten pounds would be fair.’ I tell M pompously. I can feel S staring at me but I dare not look. If she ever runs her own office she’ll have to learn you need more than one face.

‘Can we choose who we buy for?’ Asks assistant manager T, looking rather pointedly at S.
‘We thought a blind draw.’ I announce, regretting the third party tense immediately.
‘What do you mean we?’ Probes M.
‘I meant me.’ I bluster. ‘That is I.’
‘It’s not what you said.’ Says B, unhelpfully.
I knew this was a mistake.

‘You doing a window display?’ Asks rival manager H, when he rings later to boast about his sales figures.
‘Not that keen.’ I tell him.
‘Stupid cows in my office want a tree, lights, all that crap.’ Snipes H. ‘And they want to buy each other presents. You’re not that soft are you?’

Several faces actually.


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Friday, November 28, 2014

Sowing The Seeds Of Love

I spot the ancient Volvo creeping along the road belching fumes, while the lady driver looks for a parking spot. I give them a neutral wave as they pass by and notice a bearded man in the passenger seat and two young girls strapped in the rear. Great, I think, kids running wild on a viewing is all I need and as if to compound my nascent opinion of the occupants, I notice a rear bumper sticker championing Greenpeace.

I move to the front door of the Victorian terraced house I’m selling, trying not to laugh at the apparently unnoticed irony of the tree-huggers driving a car spewing out more contaminants than a new Ford or Ferrari.

‘Good morning.’ I call cheerily as the family unpack and I see the man has a ponytail. Someone should tell him they went out when Tears For Fears split up and even then Curt Smith looked a twat. All I need is for him to strap on one of those papoose carriers for emasculated men who can’t breast feed and I’ll know for sure he’s a tit.

‘I’m hungry.’ Whines the older of the two oddly dressed girls. 
‘Just wait Poppy.’ Says the harassed looking Dad - I’m guessing stay at home and self-teaching the kids, type. ‘I have some carrot sticks in the car if you behave.’
‘I’m hungry too.’ Grizzles the smaller of the kids from hell.She appears to be wearing some sort of self-knitted hemp number. The Dad probably made that.

‘Try and control them while we look round Henry.’ Barks the mother, who I notice is about five months pregnant. If I was Henry I’d ask for some DNA testing. He doesn’t look like he could get up in the morning for anything other than making organic muesli.
Trying to ignore my innate prejudice to parents who damage their children in ways Social Services have yet to fathom, I introduce myself.

‘Does the council allow solar panels?’ Asks the wife as the husband parts the two girls who seem intent on pulling each others hair for sport - they probably aren’t allowed iPads.
‘I see no reason why not.’ I answer evasively - apart from the fact they are expensive, inefficient, prone to failure and aesthetically abhorrent. 
‘Stop that now Daisy.’ Pleads the husband weakly as the Satan’s spawn brats continue to bicker.

‘The lounge could be bigger.’ Says the woman haughtily as I start the tour and wonder mischievously if they’ll call the third daughter Rapeseed or maybe Cowslip? If it’s a boy of course, they might take a flyer on Pansy just to cover all bases.

‘It’s a standard size for these homes.’ I say neutrally. The Victorians probably didn’t figure you’d need extra width to accommodate a home birthing pool, I think acidly. One that could double as a eco-pond in the garden after number three has arrived - you wouldn’t even need to scrape the placenta off the side as the frogs would love the nutrients. 

‘We don’t believe in mainstream schooling.’ Confirms the mother as we look round the extended rear reception room.
‘I need the lavatory.’ Wails Daisy insistently.
Wonderful, I’ve had people dump in clients’ homes before and they don’t appreciate a floater when they come home from work. I’ll need to check the bowl and the windows before leaving.

‘I’m a lawyer.’ Says the mother by way of conversation while Henry and Daisy are in the bathroom. God, I bet her firm are delighted she’s about to give birth again. No way they’d dare mess with her maternity rights.

‘Oh really Daisy?’ Comes Henry’s forlorn voice from behind the flimsy bathroom door.
‘A number two?
‘I specialise in…’ Begins the mother as she tries to cover some unpleasant noises from the bathroom.
Don’t tell me I think.
‘…human rights.’
You didn’t need to tell me. 

I’m pretty sure the owners’ rights to clean air are being violated as a sheepish Henry emerges with his daughter. They may be made of sugar and spice but this girl has eaten too much lentils and rice.

‘Did the eco-family like number 12?’ Asks negotiator S on my return.
‘Wrong prevailing wind.’ I tell her.

It’s a blow.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Happy Valley Towers - Wednesday

‘Are the other residents friendly?’ Asks the pernickety daughter as she guides her elderly father along the first floor corridor of the retirement apartment block.
I’ve managed to get in the main door with the communal key and avoided the overbearing manager, who if past experience is anything to go by will try and hijack my buyer into looking at one of the many re-sales the management company - her employer - are trying to flog.

‘Oh they are a lovely bunch.’ I answer, trying to hurry the pair along the never-ending run of patterned carpet and closed sapele fire doors, with those spy holes. I expect a few ancient inmates - I mean owners - are squintily watching our progress along the interminable dark warren that resembles a budget hotel setting. No doubt if the old boy does move in he’ll be in great demand from the predominately female inhabitants. Rumour has it any reasonably able-bodied pensionable male can die with a wrinkly smile on their face, if they can last long enough and get a decent supply of Viagra.

‘What happened to the owner of this one?’ Asks the daughter as we reach the appointed door and I fumble with the keys. It’s not a great question to answer. The clue is in the name with Retirement Apartments, if they don’t get shipped out to a nursing home the occupants usually leave horizontally - on a gurney.

‘I think they went in to full time care.’ I say as vaguely as I can. It could be argued the embalmer constitutes fairly permanent full time care, but fortunately before I’m pressed further I get the door open and we move into the even darker entrance hall.

I swiftly hit the lights, but I can’t hide the musty smell and the hint of stale urine.  Always best to fit new carpets if you buy one of these places second hand. Hurriedly, as hurriedly as you can usher a man with two walking sticks and a heart condition, I bring the duo in to the living room/kitchen.
There is one window at the far end overlooking the car park and the kitchen is as dark as the hall, with just a wheezing extractor unit to pull the pong of piss from the air. I’m not a big fan either…

Window flung open as far as the restrictor will allow - jumpers can wreck the communal morale - I give the highlights of the room. The illusionary safety net of the orange emergency pull-cords that put you through to a call centre where English is a foreign language, and the waist high electrical sockets to stop rickety backs from popping out of alignment.

‘I’d like to know about the service charges.’ Presses the daughter as her father sinks into the one high-backed chair, left incongruously in the middle of the room. The beneficiaries had their pick of the furniture and jewellery and are just bitching about the asking price.

I give the woman the latest set of figures we’ve managed to prise from the managing agents. They want paying for each piece of reluctantly given information and would even charge for a phone call if they could gouge it from you.
‘It seems a lot once Dad’s paid for his electric and other costs.’ Replies the daughter accurately.
She’s not wrong, but then for years the major players who built these blocks owned the management companies as a subsidiary. Allegedly, it’s not so often the case now, but I still suspect there are mutual interest behind the scenes.

If any member of my family wanted to buy a retirement flat, I’d get our solicitor to take a good look at the lease and management costs and to ask about sinking funds and future major expenditure on maintenance projects. Better still I’d get them to hang on in their own home as long as possible. This pair are not blood relations though.

‘Is it good value?’ Asks the daughter as we stand back in the hall while her father tries out the internal bathroom. We can hear every slow dribbling drop of piss the old boy is expelling.

I’d say so.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Survey Says - Tuesday

‘Seen the latest property survey?’ Asks assistant manager T when I walk in to the office wearily.
‘Do you want to narrow it down a bit?’ I snap back sarcastically.
‘Appointment didn’t go well then?’ Counters T.
As it happens, no. The owner had already sought the “ expert” advice of three of our competitors and had been horribly mislead on price by two of the usual culprits. Blinded by the numbers they just wouldn’t accept my comparable evidence of recent , similar home, sales around them. But then if they follow property price surveys…

‘Which bunch of shysters was it this time?’ I ask T, shrugging my suit jacket off and loosening my tie a tad.
The problem is, so many conflicting price surveys are issued that it’s no wonder the home owning and home buying public are confused.
T names a well known lender and a none too well respected newspaper.’Well what do you expect?’ I tell him rhetorically. He nods gloomily.

With a 24 hour hunger for news and property prices a raw and emotive subject, no matter what the marker is actually doing, the need for something to say - anything - is relentless. Consequently you can get three conflicting reports within the space of one week. Lenders with a narrow loan base to draw their date from and with no access to cash buyers’ figures, seem to be the worst offenders. The government data is at least partially accurate although in common with all the others, is slewed by London prices - and in the Land Registry Data’s case, out of date by the time it hits the news’ stands.

‘People just seem to pick the survey that suits their position, buying or selling.’ States trainee F superfluously. Of course they do. It’s human nature, and as one wrinkled surveyor sage once said to me when I could still make 32 inch waist trousers. ‘The job would be great without the public., young fella.’
Not sure he thought that one through, but then the surveyors official mouthpiece are another culprit when issuing price forecasts on a perilously low, finger in the air style, survey.

The local media outlets tend to ring from time to time wanting anecdotal tales of what the market is doing and of course we suck up to them for our 15 mins of fame on air, or in chip paper print. Not that we think it through that well. With a radio clip to tape, or a  print deadline to meet, most agents just want some free advertising to heighten their profile and impress the client whose home might be featured. They’ll say pretty much what the caller wants to hear.

‘I don’t know why people buy that rag.’ Says T referring to the national paper in question. Actually you never buy a paper, I think ungraciously, you always read mine. But he is right, some media outlets just crave a property story like a junkie needs a fix. They seem to run any spurious tale some desperate PR has pumped out to promote a vested interest. It doesn’t make my job any easier.

‘What do we say if people ask about this stuff?’ Questions F, wide eyed and still innocent - at least where property is concerned. Rumour has it he indulges in some pretty niche activities with that flaky girlfriend of his, but that’s a whole other survey.
‘Depends if they are buying or selling.’ I tell him dryly.
‘If they are selling they’ll want more money.’ Says F brow furrowed.
‘So rubbish it, tell them it’s London distorting the numbers.’
‘Err and if they’re buying…’ Falters F.
‘Well?’ I say, palms outstretched.
‘Uhm, make them chase their solicitor for an exchange, as they’re getting a bargain?’ Falters F.
Maybe he’s going to make it after all.

‘Another one.’ Says T mid-afternoon as he stares at his computer screen.
As I’m with him in the front office I’m guessing he hasn’t just completed a hand of on-line Solitaire.
‘What this time?’ I ask.
T names a different lender whose data has come up with the opposite conclusion their competitors drew earlier.

‘So is the market going up or down? Asks F exasperated.

Time will tell.


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Friday, October 31, 2014

Dark Weekdays - Wednesday

‘They looked quite young to be at your desk.’ I say to negotiator S as a fresh-faced couple leave the office clutching several sets of sales particulars.
She looks at me and smiles. ‘What instead of being across at the lettings desk?’ And she nods towards B’s vacant station. B has been missing for several hours, ostensibly to do a landlord’s check out, but with her it might just as easily be a liquid lunch - then doing a landlord.

‘They have the Bank of Mum and Dad on their side.’ Says S ruefully.
The phenomenon of parents helping children with their first home deposit is not new, but with rising prices it’s become much more common. If your parents have never been able to option a right to buy on their council house, have failed marriages and the accompanying financial hit behind them, or are just plain skint, it’s not quite so easy to place a tentative foot on the property ladder.

‘Did you get a FS lead?’ Says a muffled voice from behind me. I realise M the portly purveyor of dubious financial services has snuck up behind us, while eating something crumbly.
‘They were all fixed.’ mutters S unconvincingly. 
I should press her on the oversight, after all there are office targets as well as personal ones. But in truth I’ve never liked the conflict of interests flogging products to buyers produces, when you are acting for the homeowners. Probably why my career in corporate agency hit a ceiling so low I’m stooping prematurely.

‘You could have got me in there for an alternative quote.’ Grumbles M shedding flaky pastry on the office carpet again. He’s right. The consultants are trained to do a bit of disturbance selling and to knock competitors out of the equation with promises of “exclusive rates” only available to them. Traditionally, it involves smoke and mirrors and insurance products designed not to pay out, or to wriggle more than a snake in a bag, once you try to make a claim. I still remember the endowment policy and payment protection plan fiascos.

‘They were adamant.’ Counters S with a rather fetching pout. I almost believe her.
‘I’m not happy.’ Mutters M waddling away. Try some more comfort eating then, fat boy, I think sourly before turning back to S and asking.
‘Did you book any viewings for them?’
'Three on the trot this afternoon.’ Says S with a triumphant smile.
I could almost kiss her - almost.

‘Not sure my Mum will ever sub me for a deposit.’ Says trainee F who has been stuffing envelopes at a snails pace throughout the conversation. That’s because she’s on her fourth partner and wasted tens of thousands on a private education for you, I think. I still reckon she could get a refund. If they can claw back thousands in compensation for mis-sold insurance products, surely a law firm could stop chasing ambulances for a while and try suing the school for turning out a well-spoken dullard, after six years of tuition?

‘Of course it must of been easier back in your day.’ Says F, adding patronisation to crinkling sales particulars in envelopes unnecessarily, on his list of misdemeanours.
‘It didn’t seem like it when my mortgage went up three points to 15% in the course of an afternoon.’ I snap back, referring to the chaotic day when Britain was thrown out of The European Exchange Rate mechanism and my complete sales pipeline collapsed overnight. It was named Black Wednesday and I’ve had a few of those in my career, not to mention Thursdays, Fridays…

‘Fifteen percent?’ Echoes F incredulously. ‘You are having a laugh.’
I wasn’t chortling at the time.
‘Were they really ever that high?’ Asks S gently. I forget how young my team are compared to me - except when we go out for the increasingly rare, sales award evening. Then I feel like their dad and dance like it too.

‘They were.’ I confirm, before adding. ‘I don’t think it’s ever easy to buy when you first start out.’
‘I’m going to wait for prices to crash.’ States F moodily.

Be careful what you wish for.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Banking On It - Thursday

‘Now that’s what I’m talking about.’ I exclaim, brandishing two meaty completion cheques head high. Solicitors are slow to change - slow at everything now I come to think of it - but there’s something reassuringly solid in receiving a fat, touch it, feel it, sniff it commission cheque when a deal has finally ended happily.

‘Err, what are you doing?’ Asks negotiator S warily. I look at her, then realise I have actually, unwittingly, held the largest of the cheques to my nose.
‘The smell of money.’ Chuckles assistant manager T. ‘Gives old-time estate agents a hard on.’

I scowl at T and his head goes down. He’s been on the same HR courses as me and knows when a comment is inappropriate in the work place. Fortunately, I’m tucked well into the desk, so my excitement at receiving the funds is concealed by the aptly named modesty panel.

‘I do all my banking on-line.’ Says trainee F, with that vapid look I just didn’t notice when i interviewed him. I was too impressed by the fact he was one of the few who had bothered to wear a suit and who could actually speak audibly. I blame his mother, both for the tailoring and the wasted money on a private education. You can try to polish a turd, but it’s still crap at the end of the day.

‘I want the pleasure of taking the cash to the bank.’ I tell F.
‘It’s not cash though is it?’ Interjects B from her lettings enclave. ‘I get plenty of low-lifes bouncing cheques on me.’ She also had a Czech bouncing on top of her last year, if rumours about that tenant from Prague were true - but that’s another story.

‘It’s as good as.’ I tell her, my enjoyment slowly being sucked from me, in a way I wouldn’t normally let B do.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever written a cheque.’ Ponders F dreamily.
‘They’ll be consigned to history before long.’ Says T dismissively. ‘Everyone will bank on-line.’
‘No, this is tangible.’ I argue, waving the cheques once more.
‘Analogue man in a digital world.’ Retorts T pithily. It’s not an original line, but he deploys it well.

‘Don’t know why they can’t open a few more counters.’ Says the woman behind me in the long queue at the bank, later.
She’s talking to me, despite my body language screaming, leave me alone everyone. I glance at the array of tellers’ positions, most with their irritating little pull-down blinds deployed. I nod in agreement.
‘All too busy flogging policies nobody wants or needs, or out repossessing some poor businessman’s home.’ Sneers the woman, with the sort of venom that can only collect from being bitten personally.

I nod again, in what I judge to be a tacit agreement without the need for further discourse. It’s pleasing to note that bankers are below estate agents and jostling with politicians on the public hate list - it won’t last. To be on the safe side I clutch my company paying in book closer, I don’t want her to see who I work for, she might have had a pleasant moving experience but the odds are against it.

‘Sorry for the wait.’ Says the banker from behind her glass protection, when the cretin ahead of me - who seemed to be paying in the clattery contents of several stolen charity tins - has gone.
She doesn’t look sorry, she certainly doesn’t sound sorry, but that might be because I can’t hear her properly - despite the sound loop sticker that maintains her insincere corporate mutterings are allegedly audible to the deaf and the desperate.

I watch as the woman robotically stamps the counterfoils and processes the cheques. Eye contact lady, I think angrily, at least try to engage. But the armour-plated glass acts as a personality barrier as well as a physical one. Perhaps branch banking is as doomed as my staff maintain, I think dejectedly, as I trudge to the door only to walk in to the hobbling banker coming in. Damn he’ll want to talk reciprocal business.
‘How are things?’ He asks briskly.



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