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.


Grab the 'Agents Diary' e-books, they're good value, not cheap....

Links on the right, property people.

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.


Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Huge Issues - Wednesday

'Spare some change man?’ Asks the rough sleeper, propped in a grubby sleeping bag in an empty shop doorway. He looks suitably forlorn and judging by the damp piece of cardboard he’s lying on, the scattering of meagre possessions and the slumbering mangy dog, tethered by a piece of string, he’s genuinely been here all night.

‘Sorry pal.' I say, even before I’ve fully considered my thoughts, and I play out a familiar pantomime of throwing my hands apart, palms up, to signify I’ve no cash. Of course I do have money and if he takes contactless cards payments, as some professional beggars are rumoured to do - because the Big Issue man can seemingly afford a mobile phone - then I could help him with the price of a coffee. But conversely, if I can’t afford to buy my caffeine fix at  Costa or Starbucks why should I pay for his full-fat latte and slice of over-priced brownie?

‘Probably wouldn’t spend it on a hot drink anyway.’ I mutter to myself, as I continue towards the office and stumble across another homeless man, in another empty shop unit doorway. Pleasingly, it’s a commercial unit that not too long ago housed a fledgling, cut-price fee, estate agency firm. I saw them out of business, as I’ve done many others over my career. There are no short-cuts to good service and a good reputation.

‘Can you help me out?’ Pleads the second vagrant, lying on another bed of commercial packaging that isn’t going to be recycled any time soon. He has the sort of impressive beard, that with a little grooming, would put the second-coming hipsters who do buy coffee around here, to shame.

I could help the man out, I could point him in the direction of the job centre and let him know that if he applies himself, takes a bit of pride in his appearance and doesn’t spend all his benefit money on cheap cider and roll-up cigarettes, then I could possibly rent him a studio flat in six months time. But nothing is ever that simple.

‘I’m all out man.’ I tell the bedraggled figure. I’m not. It’s a blatant lie, but I’m torn between wanting to help these people out and the nagging feeling I’m being played. Plus, estate agents do have a reputation to protect…

‘Have a good day anyway.’ Mutters the man into his voluminous beard. Bastard. He’s been on the guilt-trip-close, sale’s course. I’m half-tempted to turn around and give him a pound coin or two, but that nagging article a racist couple showed me in their Daily Mail a few weeks ago, as they bemoaned the country and planned their flight to somewhere sunnier, is lodged like a parasite in my brain.

‘You see that’s what they do.’ Said the husband earnestly, showing me the picture of some eastern European pair, parking their BMW on a meter for the day and heading to the west end of London for a lucrative day’s begging.
‘The country is going to the dogs.’ Echoed his sun-bleached wife. ‘That’s why we’re leaving.’

They’ll be back once one of them gets ill and they’ll doubtless wonder why the NHS can’t help them, because all the non-native care staff have also left the country. I’m not going anywhere. I had the chance long ago, and figured if you can’t make it here, in the birthplace of democracy, in one of the most - until now- welcoming and liberal societies on earth, you won’t be making it anywhere else, just because you need a stronger sun cream.

As I approach the office I notice two more commercial boards above recently vacated shops. A horrible feeling of deja vu engulfs me. I’ve seen decimated high streets before and failed estate agency firms, the whole thing has ominous portents. Maybe the only way to solve the UK housing crisis is for another big property recession? It’s like a turkey wishing for Christmas, I realise, and it could be me sleeping rough if it really bites.

‘Big Issue sir?’ Asks a gruff voice, from nowhere.

Yes it is.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Not Accumulating Here - Friday

‘Here comes the sleazeball.’ Announces assistant manage T, with distaste. We all look across the high street and, unprompted, three people chorus: ‘You got anything for me?’ in perfect sneering unison.

I learnt early in the industry to dislike property speculators. Estate agents have a bad reputation - some of them deservedly so - but I knew instinctively I wasn’t going to like the predatory, slightly underhand tactics of your local dealer. 

A good agent had his client’s interest at heart, and it’s always been a matter of pride to me to extract the best possible price for my vendor. Its why I rage at property porn programmes where the photogenic, totally unqualified, presenter tells the viewers in a stage whisper, ‘the agent tells me they’ll take much less than they’re asking.’ Bad agent. Period.

‘How come we never sell him anything?’ Asks trainee F, gormlessly. You can pay for a expensive private education, but a polished turd is still a turd.

‘Because he always wants an angle.’ Explained negotiator S patiently. She’s too good for this business.
‘And he’ll want to buy at under market value, to make a fat profit.’ Adds T.
‘But he says he’ll give us the property back to sell,’ persist F. ‘Then we get two commissions.’
‘It’s called a secret profit and it’s illegal if the owner is unaware of the implications.’ I snap testily.
‘Bit like flogging crap policies to buyers and working harder for them than the vendor.’ Adds T, nodding towards fat finance-fiddler M’s office. He’s had a couple in there for over an hour, could be a lengthy fact-finder form, or they could be selling pies.

‘If you sell a speculator a property a normal punter could buy, not one that can’t be mortgaged or with structural difficulties,’ continues S coaching F with the patience of a saint. ‘By definition you are underselling it.’
‘Yeh, but you get it back to sell when he’s splashed some emulsion around and put new doors on the old kitchen carcass.’ Persists F. 

That’s why less scrupulous agents sell - often off-market without giving genuine buyers the chance -  to their local pet speculator and if he’ll meet them in the pub later, with a fat brown envelope stuffed with fifty pound notes, so much the better. The only back-hander I’ve ever taken in this business, was from an angry buyer who’d been beaten to a house in a contract race. It stung but I didn't sue - its hard enough to get a lawyer to call you back as it is…

 ‘He’s coming in.’ Says T, as the man in question crosses the street and makes a beeline for our door.
‘Doesn’t take a hint does he.’ States T rhetorically.
‘Don’t offer him anything.’ I mutter through a ventriloquist's smile.

‘Morning guys.’ Announces the speculator as he bowls in to the office, all designer jeans and expensive dentistry. I detest him. And here it comes…..

‘Got anything for me?’
‘Not today.’ Says T, almost too quickly. But not quickly enough for me. I try not to catch the man’s eye, but these characters have hides like a rhinoceros. He moves to my place at the spare desk.

‘Come on,’ he cajoles. ‘You must have something with an earn in it. There’ll be cheeky drink in it for everyone.’

What the f**k is that? I want to demand. A bottle of Sunny Delight with a monkey face on the front? It’s insulting to think, this odious oik thinks I’ll take his money and betray a client. But then he’s clearly finding plenty who will.

‘Deceased estate, need a quick sale. Old lady wants in to a retirement flat and doesn’t know how much her gaff is worth, maybe?’ Persists the man with an over-bright grin. I’m going to be so tempted to key his Range Rover the next time I see it bumped up the kerb outside a cheap refurbishment, with a rival’s For Sale board outside. 

I’m saved when the man’s top-of-the-range I-Phone rings and he starts talking loudly about a conditional contract and a holding deposit. He offers an exaggerated, call me, mime before leaving the office in a fug of cloying after shave.

No chance.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Expert Advice - Monday

‘I’m not too good with exams.’ States trainee F unnecessarily. I’ve seen his CV and for his family to spend that amount of money on a private education, with so little qualifications in return, merits the mother of all refunds.

‘It’s more of a test.’ Soothes negotiator S, in a comforting fashion - she has the necessary equipment.
‘You don’t even know you’re born.’ Contributes obese finance-fiddler M. ‘We have to sit multiple complex exams to sell insurance and finance.’
Only because you all mis-sold for years, I think sourly.

‘You should try being in lettings nowadays.’ Says B. ‘We have to act as immigration officials, gas safety engineers, money laundering snitches and wet nurses, all rolled in to one.’
It’s true, there is a lot of regulation - some of it conflicting - the modern property professional needs to keep abreast of. 

You’d think estate agents would need to be qualified, yet fledgling internet agencies still keep appearing, conning people for up front fees and claiming to have local property experts on hand. If expert means some failed window cleaner from a town forty miles away, who has scraped through a multiple choice computerised learning programme, with the none to subtle prompting of the training company who need the pass rate to look good, then smashing.

‘Why do they keep making us do these ridiculous e-learning courses?’ Asks assistant manager T, grumpily.
‘Because it saves on employing real, touch-em, feel-em trainers.’ Suggests B. Its not the best image, as rumour has it she both touched and felt that married bloke in the training department, who left in a hurry last year.

B  does have a point though. I almost feel nostalgic about some of the trainers we had in the past. True, most of them only trained because they couldn't sell - and I still haven't forgotten that creepy little man who handed out cuddly toys to a circled bunch of bemused and grizzled negotiators, to “help form empathy within the group”. He shouldn't have been allowed within a mile of any infant school. But at least they were human.

‘Saves money too.’ Says T. ‘They only want to cover their own arses as cheaply as possible. If trading standards, tax and revenue, passport control, or the legionnaire’s disease police come after you, head office can claim we’ve been properly trained.’

I tend to agree with T. My bean counter boss spends his life avoiding responsibility, ensconced in his office with a spread sheet and a hard-on, by all accounts. Celebrities might want to expose their butt cheeks to all and sundry, with big Belfie shots published on-line, but head office staff like their rear-ends covered.

‘Who designs this rubbish?’ Asks T, warming to his task. He has the prelude to the latest e-learning trial, on his computer screen. A few example questions are laid out Janet and John style, with four options as answers, for each question. 

‘Some over-priced consultancy who peddle the same tatty programme to all our competitors too.’ I offer, as a shaky hypothesis.
‘It’s a con, that’s what it is.’ Says T.
‘Talking of cons,’ Pipes up F. ‘Is there any way we can get a copy of the answers, beforehand, like last time?’
Almost certainly.

‘Don’t worry.’ Says S to F, as he moves towards hyper-ventilation. He probably hasn’t been this agitated since he was probed behind the bike sheds by his game’s master.
‘I’ve told you, exams don't agree with me.’ He replies shakily.
‘For God’s sake, there are only four options, and two of them are obviously wrong.’ Snaps M, grumpily. ‘And that’s before someone gets a hold of the crib sheet. You try learning what the difference is between APRs, AERs, compound and flat rate interest and how to explain it to a dullard.’

‘I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get it.’ Says F, flatly.
‘That’s why you are the world’s longest-standing trainee.’ Chuckles T.
‘Just remember, you eat an elephant a bite at a time.’ Offers S, with a smile. F looks bemused.

He’d still be a local property expert with some firms though….