Friday, July 21, 2017

Biting Back The Tears - Thursday

‘Wish me luck.’ I say to my wife as she leans in for the traditional peck on the cheek, pre work departure.
‘Expecting problems today?’ She asks. She’s clearly not been paying attention for a couple of decades. I’m an estate agent, problems come with the job.

‘The dentist.’ I tell her, pointing to the lost filling.
‘Oh don’t be such a softy.’ She chides. ‘Maybe they’ll give you a lollipop, if you’re a good boy.’
That’s kind of how the problems started, as it happens. 

Obviously my parents’ generation all had false teeth by the time they were in their forties, my generation had endless fillings before we reached senior school and the current bunch squeal if they need treatment before they get their driving licence. I still think that ghastly old dentist I had as a child was some sort of pervert who got off on children’s screams, drilling teeth without anaesthetic.

‘You on any drugs of any kind?’ Asks the bored-looking receptionist, when I arrive. Only alcohol, which I self medicate after bad days - most days. I answer in the negative, don’t think they cross-check with the local Majestic wholesaler.

‘There’s a form to fill out.’ Says the girl yawning and displaying a mouth devoid of amalgam. Of course there is.
‘And they’ll buzz you when there are ready.’ It turns out, much to my surprise, the Polish lady is still practicing dentistry in the UK - she still doesn’t have any vowels in her name though. I’m hoping she doesn’t feel too alienated by the political climate, as the ability to inflict pain is very much in her hands.

‘Are you still the estate agent?’ She asks, when I’m prone in the chair, light in my eyes. I’m an estate agent, I want to correct, but appropriately, I bite my tongue. Pedantry and dentistry are probably not a good mix. It should be fairly obvious I’m selling something anyway, as nobody else is daft enough to wear a suit and tie in this weather.

‘Hmm.’ Mutters the woman as her assistant peers into my open mouth and mimics her boss. I know it’s not a pretty sight, but I do a lot of grinding.
‘This might hurt.’ Says the dentist, prodding with a steel implement. My yelp of distress comes out at least an octave higher than I’d have liked.

‘Two options.’ Concludes the black widow of Gdansk.
‘The nerve is exposed, so I can’t fill it in case you get a serious infection. So I recommend extraction.’
Surely that’s one option. I press.
‘Well I could do a temporary filling but it will come out again.’
Still one option.

‘Can you do it now?’ I say, not sure which answer I want.
‘Yes, but it’s a wisdom tooth, they can be difficult. If it doesn’t come cleanly, I’ll have to refer you to hospital.’
F**k. The only thing I hate more than the dentist, is A & E.
‘Crack on.’ I instruct, with as it turns out, unfortunate prescience.

Two injections later and wielding the sort of medieval instruments the Spanish Inquisition would have been familiar with, I’m in squirming agony. I can hear the tooth moving and ripping at the base, inside my head. And with a gut-wrenching crunch, it breaks off at the gum. Not much wisdom left, I think, grimly. But as it turns out the root is still keen to hang in there.

‘Not good.’ Says the dentist, and her assistant agrees as she enthusiastically vacuums out blood like a vampire at an abattoir.
‘One more try and it’s the hospital.’ She says, leaning in. Now I’m sure there’s a website out there for those who favour eastern European women in uniform, squatting on their chest. But I just want my credit card details back.

With one final wrench, I can still hear and feel now, the shattered tooth comes free.
‘Are you a vegetarian or vegan?’ Enquires the dentist. And my head spins. What the f**k?
‘I have gelatine to stop the bleeding, but it has animal product.’
Stick a whole leg of lamb in there, wool and all. Just stop me from drowning in my own plasma, lady.

‘Good day?’  Asks my wife.

I’ve had better.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Heart Of Glass - Friday

‘Have you seen the cut-price cowboy’s window?’ Asks assistant manager T, when I arrive back from another bitch-fest of a managers’ meeting. He’s caught me unawares, as usually I’m the first in and take advantage of the early hour to check out the oppositions’ window displays. It’s old-fashioned I know, as most people snoop via the internet, but old habits die hard.

‘Surprised you’ve actually looked.’ I say, a little churlishly. T can be more laid back than an ex-pats sun-bed, but perhaps he’s finally showing a flicker of ambition.
‘Couldn’t miss it.’ Replies T. Perhaps not.
‘There’s a big board across the main window, looks like someone took a disliking to them and smashed it.’

‘Is that why you are late in?’ Asks loose lettings-lush B with a smirk.
‘He had a managers’ meeting.’ Says negotiator S, supportively and she knows all about support.
‘He could have bricked it last night.’ Suggests T, with a chuckle.
I did brick it last night, but that was only when preparing my figures for the breakfast meeting grilling. Financial services sales were way below target for the month and I knew I’d be in for flack from the bean-counter boss. Once a figure-fiddler, always one.

‘Probably a disgruntled buyer.’ Says S.
‘Or seller.’ Offers T.
‘Or pissed off tenant.’ Says B.
Everyone looks expectantly at morbidly obsess fiancĂ© man M. ‘ What?’ he demands defensively.
‘Well you were responsible for PPI sales to a shed-load of people who weren’t eligible for a pay-out.’ presses, S.
‘That was an admin error.’ Says M.
‘Like endowment mortgages and accident sickness and redundancy policies for the self-employed.’ I say, with a chortle.

‘Oops.’ I say as the door trembles in it’s frame.’ M has stormed off, narrowly failing to shatter our front window. Fortunately, in this business I have a glazier on speed-dial.
‘You pissed him off.’ Says S, with a winning smile.
‘Where do you think he’s going?’ Asks trainee F.
‘To ring the bean-counter, probably.’ I say wearily.
‘I was thinking McDonald’s and some comfort eating.’ Says T.
Either way, I’m expecting a bit of a stink later.

‘What is it with people and estate agents’ windows?’ Asks S, after we’ve all settled with a mug of tea and the phones have gone quiet.
‘Easy target.’ Says T.
‘Well, moving is the one of the top three most stressful events in someone’s life.’ I say, reminding them of the well-quoted statistic. ‘And if it all goes pear-shaped….’
‘…And one in three deals do.’ Chorus S and T in unison, prompting congratulatory high-fives.
‘…well then, you can see why people get angry and the first person they blame is the estate agent.’ I conclude.

‘I reckon it’s just as likely to be another estate agent who stuffed a paving slab through that bunch of shitesters window.’ Suggests T. ‘They undercut me on commission twice last week.’
Everyone looks quizzically at T.
‘No, I didn’t do it.’ He clarifies, hurriedly.
Inside I’m a little disappointed, but then I have been for years.

‘That’s the problem with the on-line operators.’ Says S. 
‘Call centres you mean.’ States T.
‘Yes, there’s no physical presence, nowhere to go in to for help and advice, no human face.’
‘No window to break.’ Says T, shaking his head ruefully.
He still didn’t do it. Sadly.

‘Yes, but it’s not only their window is it?’ Continues F, nodding up the high street to where our cut-fee competitors lurk. ‘You always hear about cars going through estate agents’ windows.’
‘That’s just old codgers with automatic cars, who shouldn’t be driving.’ Says B. ‘ If I upset one of my landlords they’re not about to stick their Range Rover through the display.’

F is stupid, admittedly, but he has a point, I don’t have the statistics but I’m fairly sure I’ve read a disproportionate number of reports detailing cars ploughing through property purveyors’ windows over the years. It’s as though people don’t like us….

‘There’s the glazier’s van.’ Says T later, as the well-known company drive past, huge slab of replacement plate glass mounted down one side.



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stop Pressing - Tuesday

‘Some reporter from the local paper rang while you were out,’ says negotiator S as I bustle through the office door. ‘ Wants some quotes about the property market.’

‘It’s f••ked.’ Suggests assistant manager T, with a sneer.
‘Swear box.’ Says S, admonishingly.
‘Alright, it’s screwed.’ Continues T. ‘ Too many people, not enough houses being built, overpriced new homes when they do sling them up and a load of Nimbys complain whenever someone wants to built on a bit of crappy common land that they use to let their dogs shit on, without scooping.’

‘Wow. Who pulled your chain?’ Asks S.
‘Every tosser and time-waster that comes though the door, pretty much.’ Concludes T, heading for the kitchen. And I thought I was the cynical one.

‘Did you tell the hack I can’t give quotes without running them by head office, any more?’ I ask, S.
‘Well I wasn’t sure if you would want to speak to them.’
‘The paper, or head office?’ I ask.

To be honest I’m surprised the local rag is even printing still. When I first started they had a huge circulation and a vast property pull-out, every week. But since people started getting their news and property porn, for free on-line, the paper has been in terminal decline. As a wannabe writer I should be  saddened, but in truth they shafted me for years with over-inflated advertising rates and a virtual monopoly they rinsed relentlessly. I hoped that would all end with the rise of on-line platforms, but like a hooker who swapped pimps, I’m still getting used - just by another abuser.

‘You could tell him the rental market is still strong.’ Suggests B from her lettings desk.
‘Until the government meddle with it and start altering tenancies in favour of left-wing wasters who don’t like being evicted when they trash the property and spend the social money on fags and drugs, instead of the rent.’ Says T, popping his head round the corner. The kettle is starting to rumble but he’s already at boiling point.

‘Maybe you could suggest what the politicians could do to start solving the housing crisis.’ Says S, sweetly. She has more faith in me than I do.
‘They wouldn’t listen.’ Says fat finance man M, joining the conversation. ‘They are only interested in short-term posturing and legislating for idiots who whine when they’ve made a bad investment.’
‘Like an endowment mortgage?’ Asks S, pointedly.
‘That wasn’t my fault.’ Responds M, with a jowly pout.

‘Are you going to talk to the reporter?’ Asks T, returning to the office clutching a steaming mug. No sign of making one for anyone else.
‘What’s the point?’ I say, semi-rhetorically. ‘ By the time I’ve got a response from one of those jobsworths at head office, the paper would have gone bust. Either that, or any comments would have been so heavily redacted it will look like an affidavit from Richard Nixon.’

‘Who’s Richard Nixon?’ Asks trainee F. God I feel old, some days.
‘Like Donald Trump, only more credible.’ Says B.
‘Is that right?’ Asks F.
‘Pretty much.’

‘They could do with a few people like you on a housing committee.’ Persists S. They couldn’t. ’People with years of industry experience who could make them understand how the property market works.’
‘Those wastrels wouldn’t listen.’ Sneers T, slurping his tea loudly. ‘ And most of them are gone by the time the shit hits the fan. They are too busy fiddling with their expenses and their interns.’

‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’ I ask T. His head sinks.
‘The Richardsons’ chain broke when you were out, ‘says T flatly. ‘Bad survey, massive down-valuation and the first time-buyers at the bottom have decided to go backpacking instead.’

‘Is that a quote for the paper?’ Asks M, with a wobbly-bellied chuckle.
‘Swear box.’ Says S, nodding towards the over-used tin container.
‘Can it be saved?’ I ask desperately.
‘Old news,’ says T. ‘ Seems it happened last week and both solicitors involved neglected to tell us.’

Nobody would print the next bit.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Ok Yah - Friday

‘Do you mind if I ask about your funding for a purchase?’ I say to a youngish, rather well-spoken couple, sat before me. I’ve ascertained what they’d like in terms of accommodation and location and they seem to be fairly confident about their budget.

‘Is that any of your business?’ Challenges the man, with an aggressive tone.
Yes it is, young fella. If I’m going to spend time and effort showing you homes, I’ve lovingly brought to the market, having fought off all the other shitesters out there - with their false promises, cheap fees and unrealistic prices - I’m going to want to know I’m not wasting my time. Plus, I have a duty of care, morally and in law, to find out if the people I’m introducing to my clients have the wherewithal and determination to actually buy their home.

I gently explain the reasons for my enquiry and the young woman nods in acceptance, but the spoon-in-the-mouth man, who I suspect is another of those over-privileged toffs who’ve been educated beyond their ability at a private school, still bristles. 

‘I know what you lot are like.’ He states in his plummy accent. You don’t Giles, you really don’t.
‘You just want to flog me some insurance policies and a mortgage you get a kick-back on.’
Ok, maybe you do Giles. But I don’t enjoy it. I was here before all the corporates piled into the estate agency business, when the sole reason for existence was to act for the vendor, and earn my commission from him. The big banks, building societies and insurance companies clouded that picture when they bought estate agency firms lock stock and barrel. They screwed it up, of course, but the legacy remains.

‘Look I’ve got my mortgage sorted out through a family friend.’ The man eventually concedes, grudgingly. I can see M, our tubby finance-fiddler prowling in the background wearing the carpet out. He wants to get to grips with this pair. I’d like to think recommending him would be in their best interests, but he’d probably eat them alive and he did sell a lot of discredited endowment and PPI policies.

‘I didn’t come in here to be grilled about my finances, I just want a suitable property for our first home.’ Continues the man angrily. His fiancĂ© puts a restraining hand on his arm, she’ll possibly need a restraining order a little down the line.

‘My mother and father have provided the deposit for me, if you must know.’ He barks, eventually.
‘Now can we get on with finding me a house? There are plenty of other agents in the high street.’

‘He was an arse of Olympic proportions.’ Says assistant manager T, after the pair have left clutching half a dozen sets of particulars but with no commitment to view any of the properties, despite my encouragement, once I knew they were genuine and had funds to back their interest up.

‘Any lead for me then?’ Says M, having crept up behind me. Not an unimpressive feat, considering his bulk.
‘Mortgage arranged by the family accountant.’ I tell M, secretly pleased, although it won’t hep me hit my financial services’ target.
‘Alternative quote?’ Pushes M, his breath in my face, with the reek of old cooking oil and stale cheeseburger. 
‘Not interested.’

‘I hate people like that.’ Says negotiator S, earnestly. She’d make a better Labour MP than most of the present, never had a proper job, incumbents.
‘Silver spoon in their mouth and another, heated up under their nose.’ Says T, with a sneer. I thought you had to inject the liquid, but then what do I know? I’ve been too busy selling to pay my way to do recreational drugs. The only thing I’ve put up my nostrils is Vicks inhaler, every flu season.

‘I’d take him off the mailing list.’ Suggest T. ‘ Those bank of mum and dadders make me sick.’
‘Is that the only way young people are going to be able to buy their first home?’ Asks S, with sad eyes. ‘By being subbed by rich parents?’

With too many people and not enough homes. Quite likely. 


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Darkness On The Edge Of Town - Tuesday

‘See that field on the edge of town is in the news again.’ Says assistant manager T.
‘The one they’ve been trying to build on for years?’ Asks negotiator S, with a shake of her pretty head.
‘Yep. They just haven’t bribed the planners enough yet.’ Replies T, dryly.

T is joking, I think, but there are plenty of rumours of local government employees with unexpectedly large villas in Spain, on a meagre taxpayer-funded salary. If a few scruffy acres that can, at best, bring a sparse income from grazing spoilt-girls’ ponies, can turn into a goldmine at a stroke of a planner’s pen, it’s no wonder money is believed to change hands for the privilege.

If your acre of farmland is worth about £15,000 without planning permission and up to £1m with it, it’s not hard to see why any Willie Wonka will consider corruption and bribes, if it means they could get the golden ticket. 

‘The local NIMBYs will be up in arms.’ Predicts T. ‘They’ll be arranging meetings in the Scout hut, with an average age of sixty-five.’
‘Yes, it’s always the old people who complain about new housing.’ Says educationally-challenged trainee F. ‘They’ve done alright, but they don’t want my generation to live anywhere.’
I don’t think he’s looking at me, as I still have a mortgage a third-world country would struggle to service. And if I have to once again remind my younger staff I once paid 15% on my home loan, there’ll be more groaning than an overloaded lift at a weight watchers convention.

F’s comment is an over-simplification - but then UK housing is nothing, if not complicated. It’s why successive ministers and governments have failed to get to grips with the crisis of too many people and not enough homes. The ridiculous cost of land - once it has that elusive planning permission - doesn’t help, as it makes up about a third of the cost of the final new build price. I’ve often thought if permission was conditional on a lower land price and final unit price, that some progress could be made, but like the Right To Buy (at a big discount) scheme, it would end up being abused.

‘Do you think they’ll get planning permission this time?’ Asks S, earnestly.
‘The wind is in their favour.’ I tell her.
‘Do they have to check for that, like a flood report?’ Asks F.
I know. I know.

‘They’ll be over-priced once they finally build them.’ Predicts T, sourly. ‘ Not sure me and my girlfriend will ever get to own something.’ Not if you keep taking out expensive phone contracts and wind every holiday on to your credit card, I think angrily. They imagine I was born with a detached house. The only silver spoon I ever owned was a cheap christening set that turned out to be pewter, when I tried to pawn it.

‘Prices need to get back to reality.’ Suggests B, from her lettings’ desk, before adding with a grin. ‘Although all the time they’re silly money, it keeps the punters coming to me for second-class rental properties.’
You can see why the public love us.

‘The problem is,’ I pontificate. ‘No government has had the balls or the vision to put in place a long-term planning strategy.’
‘That’s because they are long gone on a cushy pension, once the shit hits the fan.’ Says T.
‘The last lot to sort out inner-city housing issues was The Luftwaffe.’ I say with a smirk.
‘Was that an architect firm?’ Asks F, seemingly genuinely.
Until I shave, I often forget how old I am.

‘We could do with a major property crash.’ Says T. ‘Get prices down by a half and everyone would be ok.’
He’s forgetting I’ve lived through several price meltdowns and it comes with a lot of pain. Repossessions, negative equity and estate agents closing faster than the shutters at a bank, come lunchtime.

‘Will they build it?’ Asks S, later when we cross at the kettle. I’m starting to steam, she’s just hot.
‘Eventually.’ I concede.
‘Will I be able to afford one?’

Probably not.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Call Me - Wednesday

‘I’ve booked you a valuation this afternoon.’ Announces negotiator S, with that devastating smile. If the estate agency career ever goes pear-shaped she could make a passable living doing toothpaste adverts, either that or some sort of pay-as-you-go webcam based business…

‘Details,’ I prompt rubbing my hands with glee, like some latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge. ‘Details.’
‘All on the market appraisal form.’ Answers S a little smugly. She’s been well trained and will have all the information I need to get a competitive advantage. You might not need any qualifications to be an estate agent, but I’ve spent years learning my craft - and have the qualifications too.

‘Who am I up against?’ I quiz. Knowing that knowledge is power.
‘That’s just the thing answers S hesitantly. ‘Two of the usual suspects. Cheap fee Charlie and the corporate over-valuers.’
‘And?’ I ask, sensing there is one.
‘And one of those ridiculous, fee up-front, on-line outfits.’

Assistant manager T groans and says. ‘Rather you than me boss. They’ll be cheapskates who can’t see past the pound signs.’

T has a point. The on-line operators - most in the industry baulk at calling them estate agents as they don’t have a high street presence and little local knowledge - hence the call-centre tag, tend to attract the industry-naive sellers. They get the money up-front, unlike the traditional model where you only pay for a successful sale and completion, then have no incentive to continue promoting the home, or negotiating hard through the protracted sales’ process.

‘I don’t know why people fall for it.’ Says S. ‘The people they send out have no idea of the local market, tend to get the price horribly high, then disappear like mist on a May morning.’
‘Well it’s con isn’t it.’ States T, semi-rhetorically. ‘Mug them at the start for the money, tie them in to some slapdash battery-farm solicitors firm operating from a barn in Wales, then rely on the small print when they start to complain.’

T isn’t entirely wrong. The backlash against the several high-profile operators who advertise on television, funded by vast amounts of, less than savvy, investors’ start-up money, has begun. And if the market hardens, the directors who have, allegedly, been heavily offloading shares, will need those Spanish holiday homes to run to.

My clients don’t pay me, unless I negotiate a successful sale at a price they are happy with. It may be several thousand pounds, but it’s a results-based fee. If I screw up, if they, or their buyers change their mind. If one of dozens of reasons that can scupper a sale comes about - why one-in-three deals fail - they pay nothing. Nada. Not a sausage. 

‘Ah but the internet agent is £1500 cheaper than you.’ Says the potential vendor when I’m sitting in their pokey one-bed flat, later.
‘And they said our place was worth £15,000 more,’ chips in his girlfriend.
Like an incompetent Victorian canal-digger, I’m shoving water uphill again.

‘Where was the man from?’ I ask.
The couple look a bit sheepish.
‘Erm, a couple of hours drive. away.’ Admits the girl, finally.
‘So not exactly a local property expert.’ I tell them, unnecessarily. 
‘But he’s cheap.’ Persists her boyfriend.
Not if he doesn’t sell it and you’ve paid £850 you’ll never get back, I want to scream.

Successive government and a revolving door’s worth of UK Ministers have failed to get to grips with the housing crisis, but even those flawed policies look like a genius’s insight compared to the lack of understanding of the estate agent’s role and the need to ensure some level of minimum competence and perhaps some exams and licensing. I’ll be long gone before that is resolved.

‘We hear what you are saying.’ Says the boyfriend, as he shows me to the door. You don’t.
‘It’s just we’re saving so much money with the on-line lot.’ You’re not.
‘Can we call you if it doesn’t work out?’ Asks the girlfriend. No need. I’ll be contacting you much more regularly than the call-centre will.

Did you get it?’ Asks S, on my return.

I will.


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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fawlty Towers - Tuesday

‘We were hoping for  bit more than that.’ Says the elderly lady, and her crinkly husband nods in agreement. Either that, or he’s fallen asleep.

I’m sat in another dusty, overheated lounge, shelves stuffed with a lifetime’s mementoes. It’s mostly gift shop tat and doubtless will go in a skip when the beneficiaries get to clear out the couple’s last resting place.

‘Well you did say you wanted a realistic valuation, Mrs Glover.’ I counter gently. ‘And the developer will be needing the same.’
‘That’s true dear.’ Mumbles the man. Reassuringly he’s still alive. Probate can really hold up a sale.

‘It’s just….’ Begins the old lady falteringly.
‘Go on.’ I urge.
‘It’s just that the other two agents said much more than you.’
‘They were barely out of short trousers mind.’ Says her husband. ‘Didn’t like the cut of their jib.’

This is a familiar problem. Ever since I entered the industry I’ve been plagued by over-valuers. Agents who mislead potential clients to get their property on their books - often on a long sole agency - then batter the hapless vendors down to a sensible price once competitors, who were honest and accurate with suggested pricing, are locked out.

‘Well, did they show you comparable properties to yours that have actually sold?’ I ask. 
‘Not really.’ Admits the wife.
‘Told you they were charlatans.’ Croaks the old fella. I’m really warming to him. Just hope he lasts the protracted sales’ process.

‘Yes but it’s thirty thousand pounds.’ Continues the wife doggedly.
Not if you’re never going to get it, I want to shout.
‘And the flat we want is ever so pricey, we need every penny we can get.’ Says the old lady, not unnaturally.
‘Thought we were downsizing,’ confides the husband. ‘But we’re going to end up hardly banking anything once we’ve bought the sheltered flat.’

It’s a pet hate of mine. One that grows with every passing year as I move towards the same dilemma this pair are facing. The largely illusionary safety of an old persons’ home, with built-in security and the comfort of a pull-cord to tug when you collapse on the bathroom floor. In reality any shitester can con a resident to buzz them in to the building and the emergency call goes through to a dis-interested call-centre worker somewhere at the cheaper end of the Commonwealth.

‘What do you think we should do?’ Presses the husband. Damn it, and I really like this couple. I could tell them it would be cheaper to stay put, get a gardener and some home help. Avoid paying , way over what I consider sensible for a one bedroom retirement flat. A flat with punitive service charges, an onerous lease full of pitfalls and unfair charges for the beneficiaries when they come to try and sell, and one that will be worth less than their parents paid for it.

I could open a tourist shop with the amount of fudge I’ve dispensed over the years. We agree to market the home at £20,000 more than I’d like, but £10,000 less than the smoke-blowers have suggested. It’s a win, of sorts.

‘Got the developers of the retirement flat, the Glovers are hoping to buy, on line one.’ Says negotiator S, an hour after I’ve returned to the office and before I’ve even uploaded the sales’ particulars. I tense. I don’t like this lot, but then I deal with people I wouldn’t share a drink with, daily. 
‘Cheers. Put them through.’

‘How much could you sell it for, in six weeks?’ Presses the lady sales consultant. 
I offer her a gift-wrapped, metaphorical, 200gms of salted caramel product.
‘We need absolutes.’ She says curtly.
You don’t get those in property, lady.
‘If we take their house in part-exchange we want it sold quickly.’

I bet you do. And you’ll offer them 85% of it’s actual value - my original price not the over-inflated figure - and expect them to pay, what is about 150% of the true price, for your shrunken square-footage box.

Have a feeling I’ll be needing that gardener’s phone number.