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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Lovely Property Sir
by Robbie Meredith
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'How can I help you, sir? Looking for a property? What kind of price were you thinking of? Let me see, what about this one, sir? Lovely property, just on the market. Up and coming area too. When would you like to see it, sir? You'll have to be quick now, houses fly in this area, they're no sooner on with us than they're gone. What about yourself, sir, have you got a house to sell? No, then how about a mortgage? Would you like to make an appointment to see our financial adviser?'
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Listen carefully when you visit an estate agent. As soon as you hear five of the above phrases shout 'BINGO' and watch them slide away and leave you alone, because stand still for five minutes and they'll walk all over you.
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It is very easy to rant about Estate Agents and, as I'm most comfortable running away from a challenge, I'm not going to disappoint you. However, in the interests of love and tolerance, I'll focus first on their good points. And yes, there are some.
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Firstly, until we live in a world where we know each other only as comrade, estate agents will be a necessary evil. Think of them as doing the job so you don't have to. Secondly, if you have a house to sell (unlikely I know) then estate agents are your friend. Even if your property is riddled with damp, infested with cockroaches, has wiring which was installed by Bloomer and Keogh (see last issue) and is right next door to neighbours who have their own personal paramilitary mural, your chosen estate agent will no doubt describe it as a charming period property with authentic features, immense potential and unusual character. Find a buyer who doesn't look too closely at their survey and you're laughing all the way to the offie. Make that ten bottles of Cristal, please.
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They'll also price your property very carefully in order to appeal to the pretensions of the 'location, location, location' classes. After all, just as no one admits to shopping in Primark, no one wants to admit that they're looking for a cheap house. Estate agents know this, and ensure that your house goes on to the market at a price comparable with the national debt of Zaire. I hate to sound like Stephen Nolan, the absolutely grotesque host of BBC NI's execrable property programme, but, if you are ever buying a home, check the difference on the surveyor's report between the purchase price of the house and the insurance value, which is how much it would cost you to fully rebuild the property. Feel the inflationary significance of aspiration.
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In fact, estate agents are extremely touchy about how much they influence ever-spiralling house prices. One of the local agents actually devotes a large part of their website to the issue, countering suspicion about unofficial price fixing by laboriously explaining how prices are all down to free market economics and nothing to do with them, guv, honest. Hmmm.
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There, thank God that's over. I can rant now. Estate agents, though they may not know it, are actually post-structuralist philosophers, realising that stable meaning is impossible in a world where the signifier floats free of the signified. They know that language is merely a construct which has no real reference in the world of material objects. Therefore, they're free to call a crumbling house 'a property of character,' or a derelict street 'an up and coming area with immense potential.' Great if you're selling, but not so good if you are seeking reliable advice about where your salary is going to disappear for the next twenty-five years.
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And, from a potential buyer's perspective, a lack of open and honest advice is the worst crime. As part of my research for this article I asked a number of people about their experience of estate agents. My survey was, of course, highly unscientific but, after they got past the word 'bastard', all of my respondents mentioned 'lovely properties' which, upon closer inspection, were revealed as anything but. Like New Labourite spinners, estate agents are experts in massaging the truth. With some agents, in fact, the vendor can pay a little extra to have their house presented in ultra-glowing terms, as an 'executive home' for example.
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It seems, from what I've heard, rare for an estate agent to offer an honest assessment of the exact nature of the property they're selling. I can't, however, damn them all. Recently, I was looking at a terrace off the Ormeau Road and the agent informed me, without being asked, that, though no problems with damp had been indicated by their surveyor, I'd probably need to budget for the cost of installing a new damp proof course, and prepare for the attendant hassle, due to the age of the property. However, this seems to be the exception. More common are the tales from potential buyers of a specialist survey revealing five figures worth of remedial work despite the property being described as in excellent condition by the agent who, after all, is working solely for the vendor. Unless Daddy is subsidising the purchase from his Swiss bank account, few first time buyers, having cobbled together enough money just to pay the deposit required in the inflated market, can afford to spend more money on substantial repair. The problem is that the process of buying a house also costs around two thousand pounds, in solicitor's fees, stamp duty and the like, so some buyers will, understandably, cross their fingers and try to get by without spending additional hundreds of pounds on a comprehensive survey, leaving them at the mercy of the agent's glossy prose.
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Perhaps I'm being unrealistic, and demanding a standard of honesty which is absent from most other commercial transactions. When we go to Topshop (or Primark in my case), for instance, to get a new pair of jeans we don't want the assistant to say, 'Well, actually, your arse does look really big in those.' However, to a large extent, the amount of serenity in your life depends on where you live, and Estate Agents underestimate the potential impact which their creative interpretation of the truth can have on the quality of your existence.
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God, I'm getting philosophical. Better stop. Another frequent complaint about certain agents is the pressure they put on the buyer to make financial commitments which might suit the agent rather than the buyer. This is especially the case with the larger national agencies who attempt to hassle you into taking a mortgage with their company. Commission complicates the matter, and some of the strategies employed by agents who can benefit from this incestuous arrangement are mafia-esque. One friend of mine claims that an agent offered to secure a cut in the purchase price from the vendor if the agency's preferred mortgage was taken. Other people tell of agents bad mouthing any independent financial advice received by the potential purchaser, or even threatening to put the house back on the market, after the offer has been accepted by the vendor, because the purchaser's own mortgage lender has taken a week or two to get their surveyor out to complete the initial valuation report.
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It is, perhaps, unfair to characterise all agents in this way. After all, everyone who has ever purchased a house has an estate agent horror story and, like used car salesmen, they're easy scapegoats when things go wrong. However, purchasing a house is one of the biggest commitments, financial and emotional, that most of us will ever make and the potential commercial inducements on offer to the agent in the house buying process leave the buyer dependent on the integrity of the individual agent. Too often, it seems, buyers feel that the agent knows something about the property which they won't reveal.
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So, if you are an estate agent reading this, try to remember how much your actions can influence people's lives. If, on the other hand, you are thinking of buying a house some time soon the best advice I can give you is, that if you get chatting to someone in a bar some night and they mention that they are a surveyor, then take them home and give them the best sex they've ever had. You're going to need their lurve, and comprehensive advice on wet rot.
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