Those who know me will be very aware that I have been trying to move house for some time, "some" being a very elastic word in this context.
This time round we have been unfortunate on two separate occasions. On the first sale we simply could not find a suitable property within the time frame our buyer was prepared to wait; and on the second, having found a property, we were lied to about a certain item that was only revealed in its true light after the searches and money was spent, so again back to square one and we lost another buyer, c'est la vie. It all fits in well with our moving horrors of the past but that has been covered in a post some time ago.
This is about estate agents. Over the years we have dealt with and put our trust (an increasingly diluted trust, over time) in a variety of agents, all of whom suggested only they could sell your house at the highest price in the shortest time span with the utmost efficiency. The vast majority have failed miserably on all counts and have on occasions been responsible to driving me to drink, not that I need much of a push in that direction.
People reading this who simply put their house on the market and sell and move with no problems are always amazed when discussing moving house with myself and in their eyes you can see that look of “He must have been part of the problem,” such are the stories I can tell. But that is not true, though I do believe I carry the burden of all things bad in the house-moving world, a sort of cross to bear on behalf of all vendors.
But this is not not about any personal tribulations, well only partly. It is about a certain aspect of estate agents that seems to be set in stone, the stereotype who inhabits these high street offices, the same sort of stereotype depicted as a car salesman on the Fast Show by Swiss Tony - far from being a rare species they abound in car showrooms as they do in estate agencies, I have met those as well !
Our latest toe-dipping into the house-moving arena has meant we have changed agents more than once, not necessarily because we actually believed it would make any difference but because if a property does not sell within a set period or there is a problem they all stop working for you and start working for themselves, i.e. offload your property at any price as it clutters their books and makes them look inefficient and that would never do.
Back to the stereotypes. They seem to fall into three main categories:
- The branch manager. He will normally be a bit more normal in dress, decent chinos, polished shoes, or a reasonably smart suit and the obligatory BMW or Merc, rarely will any other car do for a first visit. A theme repeated at all levels of estate agency is gravitas, the appearance of success over ability. Strangely the few women encountered at this level have all been fairly normal and for some strange reason they rarely arrive in the BMW or the Merc. This of course is a generalisation: the exceptions have been a couple of the younger ones who manage to display somewhat more than average cleavage or wear very tight skirts - to be fair, I don’t mind these diversions if they take my mind off the whole sordid saga of selling my house, even for a very brief moment !
- The negotiator. This is the level where the stereotype really kicks in. The men, mostly young go-getters, dress in a variety of obvious agency outfits, from the ludicrous winkle picker shoes that would have been out of place even in the Sixties so extreme are some, to the tight trousers that exaggerate the shoes. The waistcoat sans jacket is de rigeur here as well and a head of hair that is either of the Poldark variety or the other extreme, the polished shaven pate. Some also have now forsaken the leather document folder and taken to the ‘man bag’ - nice.
- The office manager. This one rarely comes into play. A sort of overseer, they usually talk total bollox when covering up the mistakes of the negotiators and will put you on hold a lot whilst they try and find an answer the negotiator can give for their cock-up, or alternatively say they are out of office and will phone back later with an answer. Very often the phone call never comes and you repeat the action the following day at least once. I have some time for the office managers as they sit watching this charade from a lofty position, knowing it is them that will face the ire of the client;but not always - the last agents we were with were all snake oil sellers from branch manager down.
The women, or girls as many are, do display a lot of clothes that are totally unsuitable for inspecting loft voids or guiding people around gardens in inclement weather, and the patter is missing with most of them compared to the men. They are more of a decorative add-on in the viewing area compared to the men and again they seem to mainly get the downgrades in the car stakes: the Mini reigns supreme in this area, emblazoned with the company logo. Maybe that is why the men won't be seen in one, knowing how despised estate agents are.
Another aspect of those employed, especially amongst women, is the name: a Mary or Joan just will not cut it. Lavinia, Antoinella... my current one I will not embarrass by revealing but I have never met a ‘real’ person with the same name even in these enlightened times. And if you can can combine an exotic forename with a double-barrelled surname you are made. The industry must have cornered the market in double-barrelled personnel. It obviously adds gravitas to the agency and our current agent has two on the books at this one branch which must generate extra points in the one-up stakes. Needless to say our exotically named negotiator has a double-barrelled surname, I wouldn’t have it any other way; sadly she is deficient in every other department and uses right-on phrases like scattering confetti - they are so numerous that I cannot remember a single sentence she has uttered without one. The fact she cannot remember a single relevant fact about our property is neither here nor there; she really has only attribute, a very nice bum, but that sadly is not going to sell my house.
It is often said that estate agency is a career option when you don’t have a career. After all no qualifications are needed yet you will be ‘helping’ people make the biggest and most expensive decision in their life and are dealing with sellers with properties that are a lifetime's accumulation of their wealth and savings. Both parties deserve more than a polyester suit chasing his commission at all costs.
The commission side of the business is one of the huge disadvantages of estate agents. Someone who makes a career out of selling unsuitable property to naive and new buyers so his commission racks up regardless is a first rate slimeball but they still exist.
"Why not go online and bypass the high street agent?" is the obvious response. There is no doubt that this side of the business will grow and prosper but not all is shiny gold. Two things should make anyone contemplating this route think hard: firstly, with most you pay up front, no sale and you lose your money; secondly, the prices advertised are not normally the finished deal - photos are often extra, newspaper placement (if you want it) is extra, and several other add-ons mean that overall you don't make the attractive savings you expected at first. Plus you do all the viewings. Nevertheless this will be the future, though you can guarantee that the day online outfits become the norm, having ousted the high street agent, the fees will go up: never expect a good deal from an agent.
Mind you, despite all the agents that promise to accompany the prospective buyers as part of the deal you will find that after the first couple the agents will start to phone the day before and say they are short-handed or have got their timings wrong or some such rubbish and could you do the viewing? Why? Because the most popular days for viewing are weekends and the agents or most of them still live in the "open only on Saturday morning" world and either don’t have enough staff to carry out their obligation or simply never intended to.
Do the different agents work in different ways? They will say they do but the bottom line comes first and there is rarely a fag paper between them. The posh up-market ones claim to sell the better homes and there is something in that as buyers, not knowing how they work, see the posh offices with Doris at the computer and think "this is more like it"; but the only reason they have a posh office and Doris is they charge more.
By now you will realise I am more than slightly cynical about the whole agency business. Anecdotally I could fill pages with stories of failure and misrepresentation and I imagine so could many others.
The posh agents are as mendacious as the chains. We had a good example last year, having signed the papers on a deal that included photos by a professional photographer and been shown the glossy brochures to prove it. The appointed day came for the picture taking and the manager turned up. I said "Where’s the photographer?" and he replied, "Didn’t I say? I do all the photographs !" Now he could have been a very good photographer, but he wasn’t.
We had a posh agent some years back that did nothing for three months and provided no viewers. They then phoned and suggested we lower the price, the usual first line of change when they have had no joy despite their having expertly priced the house in the first place. We dumped them and went with a local branch of a chain known at the time in Essex as Bastard Thieves because it rhymed with the same. Contrary to expectations they never stopped phoning and sending people round and they sold at an agreeable price, one of the few good agents we have had and from an unlikely source, so they do exist. How do you find one? You tell me.
There are one or two other wheezes you will come across. If things are slack you will be sent buyers who can’t afford your property to make it look like you have chance of selling when there is none. You also may get an almost immediate viewer who is a cash buyer and is in a hurry to buy; mostly these are not real buyers, they are rent-a-viewer and an offer from these has never transpired. You will also get viewers sent who have not even got their property for sale but you have distinctly stated you don’t want anyone who is not at least on the market, so they don’t tell you.
Estate agents are still not regulated other than associations run by - you guessed it - estate agents, and if anything goes wrong unless it is fraud they are very difficult to pursue for damages. Not to be regulated when dealing with with what is for most people their entire worldly goods harks back to a time when the devil took the hindmost, yet for years proposals have been put forward and then diluted or binned. They are almost a protected species.
We had a very good example in the family years ago of what would be blatant fraud in most businesses. An aunt left with a property after divorce wanted to sell and move to a flat because of her advancing years. This was in the boom of the eighties, and the property was on a private road within walking distance of Virginia Water station, one of the prime property areas in the South-East. She got no viewers and was extremely naive and I only got to hear when it was too late, otherwise we would have purchased the place as we had sold at the same time. The agent got her to drop the price in a rising market, and it did sell - to a builder friend of the agent. There was nothing anyone could do about it, and that was as good a reason to detest estate agents as any I can think of.
Now just having shown round a couple who have viewed for the third time and having been told that the nameless one couldn’t make it, the same nameless one who told the couple she would meet them here, I am even more convinced her bum really is her only asset.
It could be said that estate agents are an easy target for stereotyping and so be it as they conform regardless of ridicule. That is why if you get a good one you should stick with them: they are a rare breed, one that is actually working for you the person who pays them rather than working for themselves and a quick commission.
Update: the very nice bum showed a prospective couple round the house. Phoning the following day she almost squealed with delight that an offer had been made. "Not enough," I said so she went back. In the next phone call she was at her most breathy-voiced and successful-sounding: "An offer you can’t refuse," and so it was; well, it was what we wanted. "Only one thing: the prospective buyers have sold their place but the house they were buying before you fell through so they want you to move out by Christmas in exchange for the good price."
It was difficult at that stage not to use obscene language but I managed not to. My answer was: "If they want us to move out they will have to pay for our costs of renting, double-moving and storage, with a bit on top for the bloody inconvenience at our age."
Nice Bum goes back to the prospective buyers but returns with not enough, but pleads with us as it is a good sale. "For you and the buyer," I said, "but not us. Why can’t they rent? My wife is struggling with ever worsening arthritic knees and more. I am getting too old for all the upheaval twice over. Let them rent." Once again she goes off to convey our position.
The following day again a breathless successful voice on the phone: "Yes, they will rent, but want you to pay their storage and extra costs, plus they want to start the sale process straight away with an exchange date pencilled in," despite the fact we have not yet found a house.
"I think not," I say; big sigh at the other end. "No way am I paying their costs on anything. They lost a property: not my problem, and if the sales process starts and we don’t find something we will have to move out; and if they agree to a normal sale we will be liable if we accept their offer as they want to cover your finder's fee come what may."
This puzzles Nice Bum: "What do you want? This is normal now."
"It might be for you," I say, "but not me. All I want is an offer on the table whilst we look around and as soon as we find something we accept the offer, straight forward, no strings."
By this time NB is in despair, as the bottom (!) line is all about selling, not looking after her client. This goes against the grain. Despair is setting in. Once again she goes back.
The next day NB is despondent: the prospective buyers will look elsewhere unless we agree.
"Elsewhere it is, then."
"I really don’t know what you want." says a very down NB.
"I think you do," I respond, and with that we return to square one.