Tuesday, August 23, 2016
‘Seen this guys?’ Questions fat finance fiddler M, as he sways into the centre of the office, waving his laptop.
There’s a long, indifferent silence. If it’s the McDonald’s website again and a Happy Meal offer for morbidly obese chubsters who blame genes, not intake, I’m not interested.
‘What is it?’ Asks negotiator S, eventually. She’s far too nice for this industry.
M spins his laptop, an action that causes the hint of an exhausted wheeze, and shows us a banner headline followed by the sort of facts and figures, interspersed by indecipherable graphs, that still make me shiver nearly forty years after my last math’s lesson.
‘Over 23,000 mortgage products to choose from currently.’ M replies, with a podgy grin. ‘That’s why you lot need to keep wheeling the confused and desperate in to me.’
‘Didn’t think you could tuck them up with endowment mortgages any more.’ Says assistant manager T, sarcastically.
M scowls at T. ‘That was along time ago,’ he says defensively. ‘And anyway products are much more sophisticated nowadays.’
‘People still don’t understand them though.’ Ventures trainee F. He’s right, but not the best advocate as he still hasn’t grasped how to work the franking machine, without clearing our complete credit balance on one mis-stamped envelope to Spain. If only I could post him somewhere….
‘What you mean,’ argues T. ‘Is there are more ways to confuse vulnerable borrowers and flog them insurance policies they don’t need, that won’t pay out if they are actually terminally ill.’
‘That’s a very jaundiced view.’ Snaps back M. ‘And you might not want that repeated at the next sales managers’ meeting. Particularly with your level of introductions.’
There’s an uncomfortable silence, one I feel I need to fill. But then I’m more aligned with T, than M. I hate flogging mortgage and insurance products, I’m here to sell my clients’ homes at the best possible price. But sometimes you have to swallow your pride, particularly as individual targets leave you more exposed than a flasher on a breezy beach.
‘We are a team.’ I say, unconvincingly, as loose lettings’ lush B, totters through the door on inappropriate heels. She ignores us all and heads for the kitchen, where I hear a kettle filled with enough water for one.
‘It’s not the product range that causes young people a problem.’ Says S, with raised eyebrows in the direction of B and her solo beverage. ‘It’s the fact that people will never be able to save up enough for the deposit, if they are paying rent at the same time.’
‘Exactly.’ Agrees T. ‘And that government Help to Buy scheme was a shambles. You save, they are supposed to add to your pot and it turns out you can’t use the funds for the 10% deposit. It’s a joke’
T is spot on. The hastily launched proposals, like most Government plans for UK housing in the last two decades, were clumsy and without detail. But as ever, by the time the schemes were called in to question, the clowns who launched them were long gone and lunching in the city on a lucrative consultancy deal, with a featherbedded pension. Come the revolution….
‘All you need to worry about is getting them in front of me.’ Says M, with a queasy smile. ‘I can do the rest.’
‘Yeh, but I’m nor sure I’d want any friend of mine taking on a thirty-five year mortgage.’ Counters T.
‘Or my granny being coerced into an equity release plan on her house.’ Adds S.
‘Yes, but I’d like my own flat with an en-suite and a gym in the basement.’ Says F, with a glassy-eyed stare.
‘That’s more like the attitude we need.’ Concludes M triumphantly.
‘They not need any financial advice?’ Quizzes M, later.
I’ve just seen new clients to the door. They’ve verified my draft particulars, signed up on a sole agency, entrusted me with the sale of their home and I really want them to do well. I don’t want them hurriedly stitched up, they can go to A & E on a Saturday night for that.
‘Got their own financial advisor.’ I tell M, fingers crossed under the desk.
A man needs some integrity.
Monday, August 15, 2016
‘You off to the back quack?’ Asks assistant manager T, as I walk towards the office door without a briefcase, or clipboard. I made the mistake of telling him I was trying, one more time, to see if another in a procession of charlatans offering a “free” first consultation, could ease the pain.
I’ve had more pins stuck in me than a self-harming Goth. Seen chiropractors, osteopaths, sports injury therapists and a host of other alternative healers in between. If I have to listen to any more whale music while a vegan with scented lube violates me, I might just completely flip - and I don’t mean roll over while someone approaches me with a hose and stirrup pump. I drew the line at colonic irrigation. I get enough shit in this job as it is.
‘This the jokers offering a visit at no cost?’ Queries fat mortgage man M. See, it’s round the office faster than flu.
‘It is.’ I tell him curtly.
‘You know nothing is free don’t you.’ State M rhetorically.
‘Apart from our no obligation valuations.’ Chips in negotiator S, with a winning smile. I wonder, fleetingly, what she could do with some jasmine-smelling petroleum jelly.
I do know nothing is for free. Everything has a price - even if it’s those bastards in London Road who went with the opposition agent at £50,000 more than I recommended. They shouldn’t start packing any time soon.
‘I know.’ I tell M, looking at the office clock and calculating how long I’ll need to hobble to the Body Treatment shop. I don’t want to sit there too long before my appointment. Once you’ve heard one Minky singing an aquatic lullaby you’ve pretty much heard them all, and the sad selection of tree-hugging magazines in the waiting room are greener than a curly kale smoothie and just as sick-making.
The format doesn’t change, but still they hook in the gullible and desperate - I like to think I’m firmly in the latter category, but who really knows? An initial consultation, that wastes two-thirds of your freebie, listing ailments, aches, pains, medical history, then the inevitable disclaimer that obviates all responsibility should the wheat-free practitioner insert something into a cavity, that won’t come out again.
Then like a high-class prostitute heavy on the tease and light with the hands on, they just get you half-naked and settled, full of expectation against past experience, and it’s time to stop. Needless to say they’ll need you to come again. Next time at full price. And of course it will take several sessions before they can fully ease your pain. Sucker.
‘How long did you last with the last lot?’ Asks M, with a wobbly-chinned chuckle.
‘About three hundred pounds worth.’ I tell him ruefully.
‘Why did you stop?’ Asks S gently.
‘Because he was getting shafted with none of the best bits.’ Speculates T, with a laugh.
T has a point. You seemingly get a vertebrae-clicking law of diminishing returns with alternative back cures. After a while it’s the same plodding procedure with the hands-on healer urging you to relax when your body, forewarned after the first sudden downward pressure, tenses like a virgin on their wedding night. Then it’s all soreness and regrets.
‘It wasn’t only that.’ I tell my audience. ‘They just seem to run out of ideas. A lot of them seem like one trick ponies.’
‘They do animals there too?’ Asks trainee F, wide-eyed and idiotic.
Someone is being taken for a ride.
‘Was that the bloke that kept asking you about the property market?’ Asks T, grinning.
I nod. The last thing you need when down to your boxer shorts and vulnerable, is having to tell some angsty failed veterinary candidate he’ll never be able to afford to buy his own home, as a self-employed muscle manipulator with a massive student loan. Painful.
‘Perhaps it will help this time.’ Suggests S as I check the clock and start to leave.
Almost certainly not. But in life, as in sales, you have to persevere.
I’ll be back for more.
Wednesday, August 03, 2016
I'm looking at the bedside clock again and it doesn’t seem to have moved from the last five times I’ve rolled over, hoping it might be morning.
I’m contemplating a trip to the bathroom just to break the pattern of tossing and turning and to let the covers cool, but I’m conscious of not waking my wife. Although her steady breathing is starting to become mildly irritating after I’ve huffed and puffed, searching for the comfort of dreamless sleep, for the last two hours.
They say moving house is the third most stressful life event, after death and divorce. I’m beginning to wonder if living those three crisis points, albeit vicariously through third parties’ fractious house sales, is taking its collective toll? I can’t remember the last time I had a blissful, undisturbed night’s sleep.
As my stomach churns and my sciatic nerve throbs, I try to chase some unhealthy anger against a solicitor who is holding up a protracted chain I’ve been fretting over for six weeks, from my mind. I’m betting the virtual call-centre, on-line agents, with their cheap fees and even cheaper service don’t suffer so many disturbed nights.
And now the bladder alarm has gone off, a good three hours before the actual bedside clock is due to pipe inane local radio into my head, doubtless about ten minutes after I finally fall into an exhausted sleep.
‘What time is it?’ Mumbles my wife, as I hobble towards the en-suite, obviously not as mouse-like as intended.
‘Go back to sleep.’ I urge her. No point in two of us being grumpy for the rest of the day. Some rest-deprived area of my mind imagines the solicitor’s grinning features at the bottom of the darkened toilet bowl, as I try to urinate quietly. I don’t actually know the dilatory fool; he’s faceless and not exactly taking the piss - although with the speed he dispatches half-formed sales’ contracts, he actually is….
After a bit of fuzzy-headed confusion and a hint of some collateral splash damage on the floor, I push what I think is the short-flush button. The bowl empties like the Hoover Dam’s sluice gates opening. Not the economy, water-saving bowl evacuation then. That won’t please my wife, or the environmentalists who foisted the hapless Energy Performance Certificates on everyone who wants to sell their home.
Half way back to bed, hands still dripping as I couldn’t find a towel without putting on the light and sending the extractor fan in to full Rolls Royce jet engines spooling up to maximum thrust mode, I halt. Perhaps I won’t be able to shake the problem sale from my head by just clambering back under the over-heated duvet? Particularly as another difficult deal has crept into my consciousness. I decide to do what Englishmen the world over have done for decades, when a problem won’t go away. Make a cup of tea.
Brew cooling alongside me, I tap at my computer keyboard as dawn rises apologetically in the east. Soft light creeping through the curtains as a pre-cursor to what might be another dark day. Not for the first time I curse that inept careers advisor at school. That and my casual approach to studying anything other than the unobtainable girl who sat in front of me in class. I wonder where she is now. I sometimes ponder if I’ll get her matrimonial home to sell, in the inevitable divorce.
As the room brightens further and I send an inane tweet to anyone who is stupid enough to be awake and wanting UK property news, I start to feel sleepy. Thank you God.
Slipping quietly back into, the now soothingly cool covers I close my eyes.
‘Could you make any more noise?’ Asks a cranky voice, hardly brimming with human kindness. Not that quietly then.
‘Go back to sleep.’ I urge her, again. And annoyingly she does, Steady breathing returning in seconds. That’s night-time feeding two children in their infancy for you.
Just as I pass a hopeful note to the girl in the desk ahead of me, a nasally intrusive voice announces:
‘It’s Wednesday morning and here’s Taylor Swift.’
Shake It Off.
Monday, July 25, 2016
‘That’s not good.’ I announce to the office, as I study my Estates Gazette, the publication aimed at property professionals more than common estate agents. I still read it though, as the company pay the subscription, set up and forgotten after a long-gone chartered surveyor, was once based here.
Nobody says anything, so I cough conspicuously.
‘What is it then?’ Asks assistant manager T languidly. I’m guessing I’ve interrupted his social media monitoring rather than a diligent attempt to progress one of his long-standing sales.
‘Surveyor getting sued for a dodgy valuation.’ I tell the assembled office. B our loose lettings lush, looks up briefly then starts filing her nails again. It’s marginally better than running them down a blackboard, but only just.
‘Is that bad?’ Asks trainee F. ‘I thought you hated all surveyors.’
‘Not hate.’ I counter.
‘Dislike then.’ Offers T.
‘Distrust?’ Contributes negotiator S with one of her beguiling smiles.
‘They are sale wreckers.’ Spits obese finance fiddler M, as he waddles past.
It’s more complex than that. Surveyors have a tough time of it too. When I first entered the industry, pre-internet and coloured photos on sales particulars, a surveyor was a much respected professional. Most partnerships required you to be qualified to enter the firm, and legions of minor public school under-performers would become Chartered Surveyors as they were too dim for medicine or law. Before long they were taking extend lunch hours, learning golf and doing surveys nobody took any notice off.
Those who qualified too late to enjoy the instant millionaire sell-offs of small partnerships to banks, building societies and insurance companies, began to work for their money. When valuations were wrong in a rising market nobody cared or noticed, but when values fell, lenders cut up rough to find the tertiary development they’d lent millions on to a dodgy developer, was worth less than half the loan, once the borrower hand gone bust. That’s when the lawyers, who use to bully the surveyors at school, really started to bugger them…
‘Are they sale wreckers?’ Asks F, still doggedly trying to learn despite the fact I’ve covered this ground before. There must be retarded goldfish with better retention skills than him.
‘They just cover their arses most of the time.’ I answer. ‘If they knock the agreed sale price by 10% some of them seem to think it will stop them getting sued retrospectively if the market goes belly-up.’
‘Like I said, sale wreckers.’ Concludes M smugly.
‘Give us the gist.’ Says T, waving at the periodical in front of me.
I relay the familiar tale. Big loan from unheard of city lender on an ambitious build project where the developer has pinned his business plan on ever rising values, not built-in value. As often the case, the figures don’t add up, builder wants more money and someone looks again at the original valuation and finds the cupboard is bare. End result, lawyers laughing, surveyor crapping himself in court.
‘So they’ll be even more scared of their shadows when they value any of our sales.’ Predicts T with a sneer.
‘And we’ll have buyers unable to complete, or trying to re-negotiate the price.’ Adds S, with a frown.
‘And big PI problems.’ I add.
I see F frowning at me again. Granted I hate it when people use unknown industry acronyms, but I have told him before.
‘I’m not referring to Magnum, when I say PI.’ I tell F wearily.
The whole office looks at me blankly. M has disappeared so sadly nobody else is likely to remember Tom Selleck’s finest hour - or moustache.
‘You don’t mean the ice cream do you?’ Ventures F hesitantly.
God I feel old some days.
Professional Indemnity Insurance (PI) explained to an increasingly disinterested audience, I look to move on. Then I see Bomber, our own local sales destroyer, striding across the road towards the office door.
‘Tell me that dickhead isn’t valuing one of our deals.’ I plead, as everyone else spots the harbinger of doom.
‘Oops, I forgot to tell you.’ Admits F, face reddening.
You don’t need to be a detective to guess what happens next.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
‘Thank God you are here.’ Cries trainee F as I stumble into the office, sweat pouring down my back. It’s one of a handful of days in Britain where the jet stream has finally lodged somewhere north of Aberdeen and sunshine has appeared.
I’ve just walked through the park where a motley collection of students, winos and civil servants on flexi-time, are lounging around consuming, drugs, cheap cider and ice creams. It hasn’t improved my mood, after an abortive valuation with a couple who seemed to think their ex-local authority semi, bought at a massive discount, could now be sold for north of £500,000. I didn’t see any solid gold bathroom fittings…
‘What is it?’ I demand of F, thinking some disaster has befallen one or more of our sales in the protracted pipeline. He spreads his hands wide, as if I’m the idiot with a squandered education and the IQ of something asexual, raised in a test tube.
As ever, I look to S my pretty negotiator for guidance, just as an unpleasant trickle of sweat runs straight down my spine and in to my underpants. God I hate wearing a suit and tie at the best of times, but when the sun finally peeps from behind the blanket of grey, it is even more unpleasant.
S looks towards the ceiling and I follow her gaze towards the hulking air conditioning cassette, where I now see a steady flow of fluid, dripping into a waste paper basket on the floor.
‘Oh for f***ks sake.’ I bellow and instantly look at the swear box on top of the filing cabinets. Another massive fail to go alongside the useless ceiling unit that sits unused for 360 days of the year, then pisses bacteria-riddled water into the office on the one day you actually need cooling.
‘Hadn’t you noticed how unbearably hot it is in here?’ Asks F indignantly.
You know what? I hadn’t actually, what with sitting on a stained couch in a superheated smoke-filled lounge, trying to persuade a pair of greedy bastards that their shabby home in a pretty shitty area wasn’t in fact Buckingham Palace in disguise.
‘Has anyone called the engineers?’ Asks obese mortgage man M, waddling across the office, shirt sleeves rolled up, unpleasant dark stains under his armpits. Fashion tip: Don’t wear a dark blue shirt when the sun comes out - and don’t haul round several scores worth of unnecessary lardy poundage either.
‘Fat chance of seeing them before the first frost.’ Predicts assistant manager T.
‘Well we can’t work in these conditions.’ Contributes loose lettings lush B, unhelpfully.
‘Just leave the office door open?’ I suggest, more in hope that expectation.
‘Christ no,’ snaps T. ‘You don’t want every nutter under the sun coming inside.’
I’m tempted to point out that no office had air conditioning when I started out in estate agency. But I was mocked relentlessly when I told them we used to have to send off 35mm films for next day processing, before we could produce property particulars. They already think I’m a dinosaur, no need to hasten my extinction.
‘Is there not some rule about maximum office temperature, before you can go home?’ Asks B, rather too enthusiastically.
‘I think it’s only a minimum temperature, not a maximum one.’ Says M, mopping his brow, with an unpleasantly discoloured linen handkerchief.
‘What about that Shops and Factories Act poster in the mens’ dumper?’ Suggests T.
Yeh, I need to relocate that before the next visit from the Human Resources nazis.
‘Any luck? Asks S, gently after I’ve spend twenty fractious minutes on hold, before speaking to a moron with English as a second language, at our mandated air conditioning maintenance company. The bean counter boss sacked the local family firm we’d used for years and gave the contract to some centralised bunch of shitesters, who quoted rock bottom price for subterranean service.
‘It seems they are very busy this time of year.’ I say sarcastically.
‘Bloody thing sits there idle all year and when you actually need it to do something useful it’s a monumental waste of time.’ Spits T.
I don’t think he’s talking about F, but it’s a sticky moment.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
‘How are we expected to know what the property market is doing with all these conflicting reports?’ Asks trainee F, in bewilderment.
He has a point. One survey will claim values are rising while the next comes out with predictions of eminent meltdown for over-inflated prices, already at record multiples of cost against wages.
‘This one says the average young person in our town will have to put money away for about ten years just to get a deposit.’ Continues F, glumly. I’ve seen his credit card statement, he doesn’t need to worry about historically low interest rates for savers. F’s only hope is for his mad mother to croak, in between husbands, and leave him the family home. Parking skateboards at the top of stairs, or praying you parents don’t last too long in a nursing home at £50,000 a year, isn’t really a sustainable housing policy.
‘It’s always the lenders saying the market is continually rising.’ Says F, warming to his theme, as I start to plan a leaflet drop just to get him out of the office.
‘Vested interests, dear boy.’ Says fat mortgage man M, tapping his sweaty nose as he sways across the office, thighs chafing unpleasantly
F looks my way, that frown of confusion creasing his face, but assistant manager T jumps in before I can.
‘He doesn’t mean those singlets all your dads used to wear underneath their shirts.’ T says, with a chortle. ‘It’s city money men feathering their nests.’
I’m not sure this helps F.
‘Just take them all with a pinch of salt.’ I tell F. ‘Most lenders’ surveys are three months out of date before they even get published. Plus they are often only lending to a narrow market sector, so the figures get skewed.’
F nods uncertainly. If he asks if that is anything to do with a Turkish take-away and meat on a stick, I might have to finally hit him.
‘People manipulate figures all the time.’ Says T, knowingly. ‘It’s like all this fuss about when is an new listing, a new listing, on Right Move?’ T is referring to one of the major property portals, where some less than scrupulous agents, knowing a new property to the market is always at its most desirable shortly after being listed, slyly re-register old homes that have been sticking for ages. Curiously familiar properties appear, with often just a cursory change of text and a new photo, without the owners’ underwear on a radiator.
‘It’s only fair consumers aren’t mis-led.’ Announces negotiator S primly. She’s right, if a little too politically correct. Mind you with tits like that most people will agree with her, whatever she says…
‘Was a time when people had to be responsible for their own actions.’ Replies M pompously. He’s still smarting from all those commission clawbacks, on his mis-sold insurance policies.
‘Whatever happened to Caveat Emptor?’ Demands M, warming to his theme.
I can’t help glancing at F, again. If he asks if the Latin phrase, is a mens’ fragrance from the duty free shop, I’ll march him to the job centre myself.
‘It means buyer beware.’ S tells F, softly. She’s too nice to be an estate agent.
‘So the public don’t have to do due diligence and keep an audit trail?’ Asks F, with surprising clarity of thought.
‘Nope, we wipe their arses and do immigrations and the revenue’s dirty work for them too, then get sued or prosecuted when the shit hits the fan.’ It’s a messy mixed metaphor, but M has a pongy point.
‘So I don’t believe any of these surveys?’ Persists F, looking at me for guidance.
‘It’s simple, ‘ interjects M. ‘If you are talking to a buyer, show them a survey where values are going up and get them to offer before they are priced out of the market. If it’s a seller not playing ball, quote one of the gloomier forecasts and get them to take a lower price.’
‘We don’t operate like that.’ I tell M, bristling.
‘More fool you then.’ Says M dismissively.
Monday, July 04, 2016
‘You alright?’ I ask trainee F, as he walks across the office looking morose. It’s a specific enquiry, generally he’s not alright. After all, if your mother has paid for an expensive private education she has some expectation her son shouldn’t end up struggling in a much-denigrated job, that requires zero qualifications but a whole lot of common sense. Sadly several years of being abused by sixth formers behind the bike sheds, and harangued by sadistic teachers in the classroom, gave him neither.
‘Not really.’ Answers F, with that puppy dog look. As Human Resources take a dim view of stuffing superfluous staff in a bag and taking them to the canal, I decide to mentor instead.
‘Cough.’ I tell him and his eyes fill with fear again, he starts to clear his throat and I immediately regret not being half-way to the litter-strewn waterway.
‘I mean, tell me what’s the matter.’ I instruct the dullard, hastily. For a moment I think he’s going to cry. I hate it when staff do that. They need to man up, it’s a tough business. I do my silent sobbing - after a bad week - when everyone has left the office, so as not to take my disappointment home.
‘Why do people hate us so much?’ F eventually asks softly.
‘Have you got a pen and paper?’ I ask sarcastically, only to see him start towards the stationery cupboard. God, if I come round again I’m going to pay more attention at school. I stop F from embarrassing himself further and sit him down in my office with a cup of tea and the remaining biscuits I’ve hidden from M, our gluttonous mortgage man.
F has been verbally abused by a vendor after bringing them the bad news that their buyer is looking to reduce the agreed price on their home sale, following a critical survey. The buyer in turn has shouted at hapless F when he told them, as instructed, that they could go and whistle for a £10,000 price chop on the back of an out of town surveyor, with little local knowledge, scaring them in to thinking a few thermal movement cracks and a bullish sale price meant they should renege on their agreement.
This is all standard fare for the UK housing market, although conveyancing rules in Scotland leave less leeway for backing out of agreed transactions. But even north of the border, the system is as flawed as cubic zirconium at a cheap jewellers. Delays and misunderstanding contribute to sales falling through, exacerbated by dilatory lawyers, incompetent local authorities, centralised lenders with little understanding of process and in this case, surveyors petrified of their own shadow and scared of being sued under their professional indemnity insurance.
‘It can be sorted.’ I tell F gently and I ask him to get hold of the buyers’ survey report, if he can. The surveyor won’t like it but as the buyers paid for it, tough luck. Patient, non-confrontational negotiation, and an understanding of the transaction means I’m confident I can keep F’s sale together. He just needs to watch and maybe, learn.
‘How did you manage that?’ Asks F in wonderment, after an afternoon of fractious phone calls, compromise and counter-compromise ends in re-negotiated sale letters being issued to both buyer and seller and their respective legal representatives. A local builder is going to reassure the buyers about the non-structural cracking and I’ve managed to get our vendors a reduction on their purchase from a seller keen not to lose their sale and start all over again, putting their move abroad back several months, at least. You won’t get that from an on-line agent, come call-centre.
‘They still don’t like us though, do they?’ Quizzes F.
‘Of course not.’ I tell him. ‘It’s a confrontational and emotive business moving house. Everybody needs a whipping boy.’
F looks at me, alarmed.
‘Not like at your school.’ I reassure him. ‘Metaphorically.’
He nods blankly, so I wave my tannin-stained mug at him. ‘Cup of tea, please?’
‘Sure boss.’ Answers F, face lighting up.
I like to spread a little happiness occasionally.
Have a great Independence Day American readers.