Tuesday, July 29, 2014

demon dating

When there’s a man at the end of your garden path in a suit peering at your house he’s either a well-dressed burglar or an estate agent. There’s a certain symmetry in the fact that they are both vying to rob you.

As we lived in a what the Americans call a ‘gated community’ they had to get out of the obligatory Mini. Yes, I said ‘gated community’. Unlike US gated communities, it’s frowned upon to treat it like a military compound, stockpile weapons, and take several wives. In the UK, it’s more like an open prison for the middle classes. Private estate. You see those signs malingering outside of such places.

Estate agents love gates of course. They’re willing to walk 75 metres for a place with a gate. A ‘desirable feature’ we’ll come to learn. Everyone likes their slice of exclusivity. Their little slice of Monaco in SE25.

Two facts about gates. Fact 1: they break all the fucking time. They’re as reliable as lifts, escalators, washing machines, and Yodel couriers. When they’re not broken they’re in training to be broken. Fact 2: your average south London miscreant can climb a fence. In fact they don’t need to, they can just buzz and one of your neighbours will let them in. They probably don’t even need to lie. “I’m here to burgle number 51.” Bzzzzzzt. Seriously they kept no one out. Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t exactly have to parachute in during the night. On a couple of occasions they kept several people in. One memorable Saturday morning we held two Sky vans hostage for over an hour during a power outage. Only two houses knew the secret of the manual opening and we were 50% of those. If the power went out completely, I seriously think most of them would either starve or resort to cannibalism. Reality TV producers, there’s a show locked inside those gates.

Bonus fact: when the son of one your neighbours is the bonafide pikey little stereotype, it doesn’t matter if you have a gate. He has the code. And your bikes.

So, he’s at the door. A handful of high-gloss promotional literature. The smell of eau d’aspiration is already leaking through your letter box like there’s a nervous PepĂ© le Pew outside. To be fair, they’re not so bad. They have a job to do and I — cough — work in sales, so have some sympathy, as much as my worn and tawdry soul can still muster. Which isn’t much.

All four came in as much-of-a-muchness. All young go-getters, I imagine anyone older than 25 was out selling ‘premium’ properties. Other than the one who looked he might have been a young go-getter once. He was older and gone now. All brought tales of their victories in nearby house sales, magnificent, self-sacrificing tales of glory, where perhaps no maidens were saved, but asking prices were answered in the affirmative. House values rocked in at much the same numbers. Apart from agent four, who seemed to have been blessed with a surfeit of optimism. Yes, well the beach of pessimism is a bad place for optimism like that to run aground. We weren’t convinced. We’re still waiting for the promised supporting evidence. I don’t think he was convinced either when it came down to it.

In the end, it was a toss-up between the three. We felt a bit bad in end going for one of the bigger names, but he gave the impression he wouldn’t stop at kidnapping the children of any would-be buyers in order to get the best offer. It’s mercenary, I know.

So, a few days later we inked the contract, signing over several thousand pounds despite that fact they weren’t offering a full-on TV advertising campaign, which might have offered a justification for the fees. I could only assume they’d be carpet bombing SE London with several tonnes of glossy leaflets featuring our house.

A note on valuations

There’s someone dull who will always utter the words ‘estate agents don’t value houses’. They don’t. But it’s not what the house is worth, it’s what people will pay for it. Evidently these are very different concepts. If one met they other they’d hate one another and you’d probably find them fighting in a pub car park at midnight.

That’s why house prices are so daft and drift aloft with the helium of speculation.

Friday, July 25, 2014


Money is the dull mathematics of adulthood. To buy a house, we need a measure of our own financial worth, which is effectively the house we’re sitting in and any spare change we can find down the back of the sofa. We have no idea, for the previous few years estate agents and their allied cohorts of hell had alternately depressed and effervesced about prices. Going through manic phases where it seems they’re trying to convince themselves that things will get better, before they’re punching themselves in the head again with the fact that things weren't getting better. We know what we paid for it on the grounds that we are still paying for it and will be until sometime after the heat-death of the universe. What we need to know now is how much someone else is willing to pay for the house we are living in? That’s a very different metric to what the house is actually worth.

That means we needed an estate agent. OK, we’re not entirely dumb, thirty minutes on the internet put a figure in mind. We do do some research. Especially if it’s the kind of research that doesn’t involve leaving the sofa and can be carried out with a drink in hand.

Finding an estate agent. There’s probably some dark ceremony, performed at midnight on the Devil's sabbath that can raise one. You’ll need black robes and a rudimentary knowledge of Latin curses. Possibly a small animal.

Or you can fill in the form on a property website. Click ‘select all’ in your selected areas and remove yourself to a minimum safe distance from your inbox.

On asking enough friends about an estate agent and someone will always say they know someone who sold their house without an agent. It ought to be completely possible. People might be intrigued by occasional wander through the forest of For Sale signs in their favourite neighbourhood, but it’s all search engines, post-codes and ever-increasing radiuses that find the properties. The internet doesn’t need estate agents. But they stubbornly persist, like malaria. Fact is, very few people can be bothered to sell their house. That's because most of us are not estate agents.

We picked four. The usual high street suspects and one local. We figured the locals will know the territory and could conduct a guerrilla campaign on our behalf, but the big boys will have the materiel, all that high-gloss sales patter. We’re lying to ourselves, of course, we’re not selling a palace, just a standard end-of-terrace townhouse. They’ll get out of bed for us, but then they were getting out anyway. Still, the sniff of commission is coffee to them. They’ll come even if it’s Nescafe instant

So we line them up to visit, like the world’s bizarre speed date.

A note on estate agents

Of course jokes on estate agents are cheap shots. So I’m going to take each and every one of them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

shark bait

Once-upon-a-time, in the post-beige ages (the late 1970s), at school, in that hour-long cat stretch of boredom that they’d timetabled as RE, we were once given the task of drawing the devil. As a class of thirteen-year-olds the results were predictably monsterific. There were horns, forked tails, occasionally sour scouring breaths of vindaloo fire, and he’d be carefully tending his rotisserie of souls, all that sin dripping and sizzling off them. Hell 101. I believe I drew a genie in an attempt to be clever and because I couldn’t draw a clown or Jimmy Savile.

On of my classmates (possibly the only one who now shows up in Google search without accompanying references to court proceedings) drew a nice besuited gentleman. An estate agent, he explained. We were mostly bemused.

I guessed he’d grown up moving a house a lot.

Estate agents.

We’d forgotten them. Or rather pushed them out of mind in the same way as you push a drunken party guest out of the door at 3am. When they’ve already redecorated the bathroom (and cat) in virulent burgundy-red wine sick. And you never invited them in the first place. Seriously, you have no idea who invited them. Or in fact, who they are.

We were, of course, dipping our toes in their ocean. They know. They sense the fresh blood of the buyer in the water. They salivate when they spot you outside the window. You see them, they see you, and there’s a meeting of eyes through the glass. This we know. This necessitates the drive-by window viewings. Except we weren’t in the car, so it was mostly walk-quicky-by like we were the most sedate gang in LA, the one that doesn’t even have a bus pass. We’d sidle up pretending we were just walking by, some other more important place to be. Have things to do, places to be. Slowing slightly, enough to read, but fast enough to keep momentum. It’s important to maintain sufficient escape velocity. Judge it right and you’re all already past with a clutch of information before they even grab the keys to their Mini. Eyes, of course, are snagged by glimpses of palatial properties. Number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and…

Just how fucking much? It’s like a surfboarding hippo has just landed right in the middle of your plans. One dropped out of a C130 high overhead.

You’re stopped on the pavement, mouth hanging open, plan B blown right out of the water, like the time Jaws decided that gas cylinders were just the thing for dessert.

It’s the short of shock that requires a drink or three. Even after that stern medicinal you’re still how much?

But it’s summer, another of those lazy, warm, beer garden evenings where everything eventually seems hazily possible. We’ll recalibrate our expectations, perhaps invent an entirely new scale. Figure out what we can afford. Move up another notch on the scale of grown-upped-ness. It’s a word. We’ll do some financial planning. Say it slow. Financial planning. Like we’re the government of our own little country. We can even do austerity. We can make this work.

Then we laugh until our noses dispense beer like a broken soda stream.

A note on estate agent windows

Yes, it’s an online world. You can type your search into whatever your favourite property engine is, and hundreds of results will be yours. You can’t believe any of the blurb. The stuff in the window is the stuff they’re proud off, their advertising, not the stuff that burned stuck to the bottom of their list. As such, the window is a useful barometer, and worth taking the drive-by risk.

Friday, July 18, 2014

plan b from suburbia

So, this is based on a true story.

The idea snuck in one sunny summer evening, in the pub, as we relaxed after a hike with a cold beer. What if? Everything is plausible and ineffably reasonable on summer evening with the third drink in your hand. Drink is the universal lubricant for bad ideas. They slip right in amongst the camaraderie of good ideas. By the end of the evening you’re all having a laugh and you can’t tell them apart.

Now we already had a house and we quite liked it. It wasn’t even threatening to fall down. It didn’t even look like it would fall down any time soon, despite the fact that we were living in it. The neighbours didn’t indulge themselves in nocturnal seismic drum ’n’ bass. All said, it was nice house but like many nice houses it wasn’t in a terribly nice place. You can’t afford nice houses in nice places. Not unless your CV uses the term ‘oligarch’ and you think helicopter is a viable commuting option.

Now, it wasn’t one of the places that operated under a UN mandate, just one that struggled to muster much enthusiasm about itself. An area of south London where every night there was an airdrop of mattresses onto the local pavements, as though someone, somewhere (possibly Dustin Hoffman sealed in a plague-proof bubble) was worried about an outbreak of contagious narcolepsy. There were plenty of handy local amenities such as the train embankment waste-disposal facilities that accepted everything from builders’ rubble to used nappies. The opportunities to buy fried chicken were it seemed infinite. Assuming it was chicken. If the rats had been any bigger, you’d have been able to put a saddle on one and trade in your travelcard for the next new commuting phenomenon. Did you cycle? No, I ratted.

But six years in the same place. There’s an itch to be scratched. Like wearing the same underpants for too long, it’s time for change.

Ideally, once you start to entertain the idea of moving, you need to start to construct The Plan. You’re entering the territory of the adult. Even the A-Team needed their Hannibal. There’s no shortage of things you need to thinking about. You don’t just rush in like a child who’s mainlined a highball of e-numbers and processed sugar. Ideally.

It turned out we were unsure which day the Evening Standard put out its property supplement, so we decided to pick places that began with the letter B.

So, Plan B. Yes, I’m calling it that.

Beckenham, Bromley, Bickley lined up nicely. Check a map, it’s true. They line up like they’re on parade, waiting to be inspected. Stand tall, suburb, don’t slouch! We’d wandered that way and there were trees and passable pavements. You didn’t need to worry about tripping over a mattress and your fall would unlikely be broken by a fragrant pillow of dog dirt. There didn’t appear to be any al fresco mattresses. Those wanting to lie down, perhaps through a surfeit of Special Brew, had to go home. And when I say Special Brew, I mean Chablis. The squirrels seemed unrabid and houses had net curtains that didn’t look like they’d recently been used as a shroud for a decomposing corpse (the same one they’d rolled off one of the pavement mattresses). The residents did quaint and unheard of things like tax their cars. Who knew that was even necessary? I thought those yellow DVLA clamps were accessories from Halfords.

Plan B was necessarily vague because we don’t do plans. And we were just looking. Reconnoitring. We weren’t even committing to be noncommittal. It was like poking a dead rat with a long stick to check it was dead. We’d go look around, take in the lay of the land, look in a few agency windows, perhaps sign up with a few estate agents. It can’t hurt to ask. Can it?

A note on suburbia

Much derided, I know. But once you’ve lived in a house, you cannot compress yourself back into a flat. It’s become too late, like a middle-aged serial frequenter of train station ‘award winning’ pasty franchises you’re not going to fit back into those teenage Levis. You’ll be lucky to fit through Gregg’s doorway. That contemporary lateral living space off Kingsland Road? It’s less cool when you are sandwiched between the drum, the bass, and staccato percussion of your neighbours upstairs fucking. Plus they’re doing a better job of it than you and if you can hear their boisterous attempts, they can hear yours. They’ve probably been judging your performance on Twitter. You’re no Animal.

In the suburbs, of course, no one cares about your sexual inadequacies.

But I also like living in a house with a garden where the squirrels aren’t tooled up and looking for iPhones. As I’ve not yet managed to think of a plan that will net me several million pounds and doesn’t involve a spell pleasuring Her Majesty and a large extravagantly tattooed man called Barry, that means I’m effectively banished to the hinterlands beyond zone 3.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

the property supplement

This is a blog the starts with buying a house. It’s not about buying a house. But everything has to start somewhere.

Blogs about buying houses are very dull. And I’m sure a million well-meaning and informative blogs have already thumped every breath out of the subject. It’s also not a blog where I — not-so-sotto voce — hint at how much I spent/made on a house. That’s for terribly middle-class dinner parties that would only be enlivened if they found several missing knives in the kitchen and a serial killer in the understairs cupboard.

Plus, I don’t have any good advice about how to buy a house.

I don’t have any good advice about how to buy a house.

That’s worth repeating because I don’t.

Trust me, you’re in the wrong place for advice. I don’t give advice. I can’t even take advice. When it comes to advice, I’m teflon, it just doesn’t stick. I’m not very good at buying houses, believe me I’ve tried. This isn’t self-depreciation. I’m not. Chances are you aren’t too.

Buying a house is what grown-ups do and what the rest of us try to do to pretend we’re grown up. Like most people I stumble through the process with the slightly bemused air of a man who hasn’t realised he has a serious head injury. I’m mostly surprised to find that I am standing there in front of my new front door with a key. Probably because it’s quite possible I could buy house without a front door. I can’t be expected to think of everything. It’s a complicated business.

So yes, this is a blog the starts with buying a house. Not property. Property is the word people use when they’re out there trying to build an empire to outdo the Romans. It’s the preserve of people you’d like to hit over the head with an angry shark. I bought a house to keep the rain off my head. It’s effectively the most expensive umbrella I’ve ever bought. On the plus side, it’s the only umbrella I won’t leave on a train.

But mostly this also isn’t a blog about buying a house. It’s about bears, suburbia, and an invasion of sentient wheelie bins. It’s also not written contemporaneously. These events happened back in 2013. I reserve the right to make things up, mislead, and generally tell big stinking lies.

A note on houses

They cost too much. This is not a good thing. This is not something to celebrate.

It stinks.

It stinks for everyone. Even the dull people with concrete for a soul who like to regale with tales of how much their house is worth. They’re just idiots. Excessive house prices suck the juice out the economy and the energy from people’s reasonable aspiration to own the roof over their head. If you live in London it’s a price bubble. It will pop. Interest rates will rise. There will be every flavour of horrible to savour.

So, again, it’s not that gloaty, oleaginous kind of blog, full of the kind of smug perfect-skinned people you hope will one day find themselves trapped in a small room — admittedly well appointed — with a hungry tiger and armed with nothing other than a still hot Nando’s take-out.

I know, a bit of a politics. But I wanted you to know where I am coming from. This is not the property supplement.