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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Distance Learning - Wednesday

‘Well that was a laugh a minute.’ Grumbles loose lettings lush B when she returns from training,  which didn’t involve alcohol and casual sex.
‘No good?’ I ask, not really interested as the bean counter boss has grumbled about my board rate again. He forgets my patch has scores of apartment blocks that forbid agents’ for sale boards, in their leases.

‘Well,’ says B shrugging off her coat and thumping into her seat with the sort of sigh I imagine is interchangeable for most of her activities. ‘Not content with being an unpaid tax collector checking for money laundering, immigration officer scanning passports, or a sodding carbon monoxide monitor to stop dozy tenants not waking up at all, I’m now supposed to look for bloody Legionnaires’ disease.’

‘Legionnaires, isn’t that the food poisoning with the name of a pudding?’ Asks trainee F to groans all round.
‘That’s salmonella love,’ says negotiator S kindly. ‘And I think you mean semolina.’
I’m just glad we didn’t have another soul-sapping conversational cul-de-sac while I explained to F, Legionnaires’ disease wasn’t something you picked up from French mercenaries with funny hats.

‘It’s not exactly your responsibility.’ Counters obese mortgage man M. ‘It’s the landlord who cops the prison sentence.’ 
‘I have to alert them and arrange for an inspection, like those pissing pointless Energy Performance Certificates.’ Snaps back B.
‘Huh. You should see how many compliance hoops I have to jump through.’ Huffs M.
They’d need to be pretty wide hoops, I think, and it’s only because you stitched so many people up with dodgy endowments and Payment Protection Policies.

‘So if you don’t eat it, how do you get it?’ Continues F doggedly.
‘You inhale it, in spores… probably.’ I answer hesitantly. I haven’t been on the course but I know the office air-conditioning units that only work in the winter, and as soon as some hot weather arrives piss stale water through the ceiling tiles, can harbour the disease.

‘It thrives in stagnant water.’ Says B, glancing at her handout. I’m on the edge of my knowledge without her crib sheet and unlike those irritating students who keep Googling answers under the table at my local pub quiz, I’m trying to use an increasingly unreliable memory.

‘Tell us all you learned.’ I urge. Knowledge is power and I don’t want B knowing more than me, particularly as I’ll be responsible for her files when she’s either away on holiday or lying in a stranger’s bed trying to remember his name.Which would also be on holiday, on reflection.

‘I think we’ll have to get that dull div who does the Energy Performance Certificates to do a safety check for all new landlords.’
‘Is he qualified do do that?’ I ask frowning.
‘He’s going on a course.’ Replies B.
‘Going, or doing some tick-box for idiots’ e-learning programme, while sitting on the toilet?’ I retort.
‘One of those.’

An hour later I’ve discovered Legionnaires’ disease loves temperatures between 20 and 45 degrees centigrade, can lurk in old pipe runs, will breed merrily in un-lagged loft tanks and enjoys hard water where limescale is present. Prevention is better than cure, so it will mean risk assessments, more record keeping and ensuring elderly rental applicants with damaged immune systems, don’t try the bath out before the references are done and the lease signed….

‘It just never stops.’ Groans B as she re-reads the latest lump of clunky legislation the industry must try and implement. And like most new rules you only really know how the regulations will operate after the unlucky pioneer defendants have been prosecuted.

‘You’d think estate and letting agents would need to be licensed and qualified.’ I say. resurrecting an old hobby-horse, to low groans of recognition.
‘Is that ever going to happen?’ Asks F, alarm in his voice. Rumour has it he took his driving test four times and judging by the way he parks he must have blown the examiner on the last outing.

‘If they haven’t implemented it since the 1979 Estate Agents Act, I wouldn’t hold your breath.’ I tell F.

Unless you’re under a grubby shower head.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

First Defence - Thursday

‘Can you squeeze in another valuation before lunch.’ Says negotiator S even before I’ve closed the office door.
‘Really?’ I reply, glancing at the wall clock and looking longingly towards the kitchen where there was just under half a packet of Malted Milk biscuits when I left.
‘She has to see you today.’ Continues S as I see tubby mortgage man M emerging, with a mug of something steaming and a fist full of curiously moorish baked product.

Now it’s a long time since any woman really had to see me at such short notice. But as M has finished all the Malted Milk, and has just as clearly only made himself a drink, it seems I’d be better off pitching for some business than pitching in head first against the morbidly obese finance-fiddler. I’ll sort him later.

‘Give me the details.’ I say to S curtly.
She reals off the  basic information. Address, property type, number of bedrooms, name and contact methods.
‘And reason for wishing to move?’ I say, wanting the most important piece of the puzzle.
‘They’ve outgrown their existing house.’
‘Partner?’ I probe. Hoping to know if I can get both parties together, then find out which one is the decision maker.
‘He’s at his office.’ S shrugs a semi-apology,. ‘I know, but she’s said it was the only time she was available and she’s off work today.’

I nod, look at the clock again, then accede. You can’t afford to turn down chances for business in any market place and valuations are the sharp end of property sales, no mater how many internet start-ups, or badly briefed journalists, tell you different. Without the homes to offer, an estate agent is dead in the water.

‘I don’t suppose she told you why it had to be today?’ I ask S, as I cross-check my brief case for sole agency forms, digital camera, calculator and laser-measure.
She hesitates.
‘What?’ I demand. I could do body language as a degree course after all this time.
‘You’re not going to like it.’ Ventures S timidly.
‘She’s off work sick, isn’t she?’ I state rhetorically.
S nods. Terrific.

I’ve picked up most minor airborne ailments known to man since I began valuing people’s homes. It’s why my desk drawer looks like a Heathrow airside, mini-version of Boots the chemist. I even had one of their loyalty cards for a while and come to think of it there’s a UK to USA plug adaptor in there too.

‘Just don’t get too close to her.’ Says S with a chuckle.
I get colds and throat infections much more regularly than offers of casual sex. Although there was that one time when the divorcee wanted to negotiate a fee reduction - I didn’t really fancy him though…

‘I won’t, don’t worry.’ I tell her, going back to my office and taking two big snorts from the exorbitantly priced - but clinically proven - First Defence bottle. Immediately my eyes water and I start sneezing. God knows if it really helps, you immediately get most of the symptoms of a streaming cold so it’s hard to tell.

‘Don’t stay too long.’ Suggests trainee F unhelpfully. 
‘And perhaps refuse to shake her hand too?’ I counter sarcastically.
‘That’s a good call.’ Answers F.
I sometimes yearn for the days when you could sack someone without months of negotiations with Human Resources.

If I want the business and sense it’s there to be had, I’ll stay the night and clamber in to bed with  both of them if I have to. Anything to stop another agent getting their For Sale board up. It’s dog eat dog out there and a snottily proffered hand, a germ-ridden cup of coffee, or even a dribbly threesome won’t deflect me from signing up a sole agency.

The chances are it won’t be an easy sale. Experience tells me I’m just being called out at the owners’ convenience. Moving home isn’t a snap decision, at least not a successful move. I’m probably just going to be used at a time when someone is at home with a box of tissues and a DVD.

Might as well have another tosser join them.


Friday, March 06, 2015

Sale Agreed - Friday

‘Sold to that man!’ Exclaims trainee F with a flourish, thumping the phone down and turning to the office with a grin like a scary clown.

‘Exchanged contracts already has it?’ Says assistant manager T with raised eyebrows.
’Didn’t know there was an auction on today.’ Contributes negotiator S, with an alluring grin.
‘Have they signed an irrevocable pre-contract agreement, with a ten percent non-returnable deposit subject only to a second viewing?’ I add flatly.

‘Errr, No.’ Says F looking crestfallen, scanning the room. ‘No to all of those.’
‘Then it’s not sold then is it?’ Says T, shaking his head.
‘It’s a sale agreed, though.’ Adds S softly, with a kind smile towards F. ‘So that’s a good start.’
‘That’s about all it is.’ Snipes T, before I can.

‘Well done.’ I tell F, the voice of experience nagging at me to be less enthusiastic.
One in three sales fall through. There’s a long way to go, but you have to keep pouring into the top of the sales funnel.

‘They were a nightmare couple.’ Continues S, still smiling at F. That’s probably enough, I think, as she adds.
‘You did well to get them to pay a price our vendors accepted.’
F hesitates and an alarm bell starts ringing shrilly in my head - at least I hope it’s just in my head. The tinnitus has been getting increasingly obtrusive and sometimes I wonder if the noises I hear in my head are actually real….

‘They did pay what we agreed they’d have to?’ I ask, shaking my head like a breaststroker - the type with swimmers’ ear, not the creepy version Human Resources keep running courses about.
‘Yes.’ Answers F hesitantly. ‘Only they insisted we put a sold board up straight away.’
‘Or what?’ Growls T. Once again, just before I can. I wonder if he’s after my chair? He can have it if he wants. Like me, it’s old and cranky with a bad back.

‘Or they won’t go ahead.’ Replies F apologetically.
‘It’s not  up to you though is it?’ I say to F curtly.
‘I know, I told them we’d have to ask our clients.’ Replies F. ‘But they say they’d already agreed it with them. Said they have a gentleman’s agreement.’
A simultaneous groan rings round the office.
‘What?’ Asks F naively.
‘How long have you got?’ Says T.

One thing I’ve learnt over nearly three decades of deals and disappointments, is a gentleman’s agreement is about as reliable as a colander for a condom. People renege on their promises without the slightest thought to the consequences. The reasons one in three sales falter are as broad as Kim
Kardashian’s backside. Human frailties; with changes of mind, marital circumstance, schooling and employment are almost limitless. Then the professional pitfalls contribute, with bad surveys, lazy lawyers, intransigent lenders, short leases, disputed rights of way, the list is endless. Multiply those potential deal-breakers by the number of people in a  property chain and you can see why I don’t want the sold board up before the buyers at least start spending some money.

‘They want the board up. Tell them we want the survey done first.’ Suggests T. It’s a line I’ve used, but he’s first again. I like to think I’ve taught him something.
‘I’m not sure they’d like that.’ Says F weakly.
‘Who the hell do you think you’re working for?’ I add quickly, before T trumps me again.
‘I’m not doing the buyers’ finance am I?’ Asks fat mortgage man M as he sways past.
‘No.’ Answers F.
‘Then you’re acting for the vendors.’ Concludes M. Succinctly summing up the conflict of interest arranging funds for buyers has caused in the industry, ever since the banks and insurance companies started buying estate agencies.

‘How can it hurt?’ Persists F.
Because it puts off other potential buyers. Punters who at least can be readied as a back up, if the “my word is my bond” buyers do what 33% of people who utter that dreaded phrase eventually do. I tell F and he agrees  to speak to the vendors for instruction.

Sold - subject to contract - board up already.
I’m not exactly counting chickens.


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Monday, February 23, 2015

Kissing Frogs - Monday

‘You’re not going to be happy.’ Suggests negotiator S as I re-enter the office, smiling at me apologetically. The choices are endless if I’m expected to guess events likely to lower my mood, where the property business is concerned.

A sale could have fallen through, a chain of buyers outside my control may have collapsed, a surveyor might have rubbished a house we have agreed a sale on, a vendor might have changed their mind and decided not to move despite a deal being agreed on their home - oh you get the picture…

‘Narrow it down then.’ I say resignedly, as I shrug off my coat and walk on auto-pilot to see what horrors are lurking in the message book.
‘We’re double booked on viewings later.’ Says S, shooting a quick glance towards F the hapless trainee. She tries to cover it, but I know straight away who the culprit is. I just don’t know the crime yet.

Now there shouldn’t be an issue with viewings being arranged, they are the seed-corn of every sale. Even if the appointment comes to nothing it ensure the homeowners know we are actively promoting their home, not just posting a listing on a property portal and sticking a poorly-framed photo in the office window. So why the problem?

S answers even before I’ve fired up a spare computer screen.
‘It’s The Richardson’s,’ she announces with a shrug. ‘They want to look at the new instruction off The Avenue. I’m sorry, only you are available to do it.’
I shoot a glance towards F, then towards the office swear box. Both cost me dearly, on a weekly basis.

‘I didn’t know who they were.’ Gabbles F, cheeks turning crimson.
The Richardson’s?’ I say, looking at S and pointedly ignoring F.
S answers in the affirmative.
‘The monumental time wasters?’ I continue, acid reflux rising.
‘Yes. sorry.’
‘The tossers who have been looking for five years?’
‘Who never put their own house on the market even though I’ve valued it four times.’
‘That’s them.’
‘Who have viewed over one hundred properties and not been happy with a single one?’
‘The very same.’ says S, turning back to her keyboard.

Now the number-crunchers - my bean-counter boss being a fully paid up figure-fiddler, included - would have you believe that no viewing is a wasted one, that every no takes you closer to a yes. That, if you hit your targets for viewings and valuations and pour enough in to the top of the sales funnel, the required results will trickle out the bottom. They’ve clearly never met Mr and Mrs Richardson.

Some people will find fault with every home they see and in the unlikely event you ever show them something they might want to buy, I can guarantee they’d want too much money for their own precious house and somebody else in a more favourable position, with more realistic expectations, would beat them to the contract.

These are the sort of irritating pedants you’ll see on one of the endless property porn television programmes that pad out the viewing schedules. The type who want to escape to the country but want to be near the shops.Who want to downsize but expect to take all their bulky furniture with them. Who want to trade up to a dearer area, but don’t expect to pay any more money.

Most folk have a list of negotiable requirements for their next home. These mind-f***ers have a screed of non-flexible, demands. Even the prissy Escape to The Country Presenter with the beard, or the chubby ex-choirboy who wishes his voice had never broken, will be driven to distraction. I suspect once the cameras stop rolling the presenters’ opinions of these freeloaders are far from cherubic.  And yet…

‘You going still, then?’ Says assistant manger T as he pulls on his coat, at the appointed viewing time. He managed to grab the simultaneous appointment. I have an elephantine memory, retribution will be served frozen.

‘You never know.’I tell him frostily.
‘That’s the spirit.’ Cajoles S, with a winning smile. ‘They might love it.’

They didn’t.