For every action, there is a reaction….

With tomorrow’s Bank Holiday comes the end of the summer.  Cue the arrival on our screens of a plethora of adverts featuring roaring log fires, rosy cheeked infants sitting at tables covered with enough food to keep them going until February whilst their parents smile beatifically at each other, (just before they serve the divorce papers/commit matricide/announce that they are going to live in a kibbutz with Roger from Accounts).  So with the dawning of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness  I sat down yesterday with the papers to confirm that I actually could recognise some of the contestants on this year’s Strictly Come Prancing.  Before I got to reading of the spray tanned, besequinned posse, I noticed an article about a young mother who has lost a quite astonishing 9 stone.  As Cwmbran’s resident fitness and health guru-Ladies, you may look, but touching does carry a cost-I was intrigued as to how she had shed the equivalent of a conditional jockey who could use his full claim.  Boot camp? A slimming club? Er, no; she had stopped drinking 4 litres of Coca-Cola every day.  Well blow me down with a wave of a fairy wand.  Who would have thought that not consuming your very own sugar mountain every 24 hours would have such a huge impact on your weight.  As I myself indulged in a Coca Cola and its bedfellow Havanna Club 7 year old, I pondered the quite blindingly obvious effects caused by certain actions that I find myself dealing with in the world of selling houses.  Only this week, I encountered a couple who had clearly purchased the latest bestseller, “How to try and buy a house, p”£$ing off the agent and the vendor in the process”.  They also scored a maximum 10 for effort as they had clearly read it from cover to cover and tested each other on the content.

Let me revisit a very pleasant property, where in my presence they said to the vendor-a mature lady who had spent many happy years living there-how much they liked the property, how they could imagine starting a family there, how happy she must have been living there with her late husband and what a terrific vegetable garden he had created and how they would be delighted to keep it going, (obviously after removing the pile of vomit that I had involuntarily deposited on it having heard their spiel).  Tactic Number One-getting the vendor on side-was employed to great effect-even I was impressed. “Oh, they are such a nice couple, I would love to sell to them” said Mrs Vendor. “In fact, they can have the washing machine (a very recent purchase), the oven (modern and in immaculate condition), the fridge (same detail as the oven), the cat (not so modern but cats don’t live forever). Well played Mr and Mrs Prospective Purchaser.  The next day enamoured with how well their fervent following  of their recent literary purchase had gone, they employed Tactic Number Two-play it cool with the agent-with yours truly. Having rung as part of our follow up I was told, “Well, we aren’t that bothered, we quite liked it, but we have loads to view, we’ll ring you back if we want to make an offer”.  Please yourself mate, but when/if you do decide to ring back, it may already be under offer. “Oh”.  Indeed.  Continuing our follow up process, we rang again a day later to be met with Tactic Number Three-come in with an offer way short of the asking price-“Tell her its ok, but we offer £15k below the asking price and that is our only offer, we won’t move”. Okey dokey.  I rang the genteel and charming vendor to relay the offer. Word for expressive word, “Tell them both to fuck off”.  Of course Mrs Vendor, I managed to say after I had picked up the phone from where I had dropped it.  Having transposed this into estate agent speak, I rang the couple to tell them that, “Mrs Vendor is pleased that you made an offer, but at this stage she wants as close to the asking price as possible”.

4 days and 36 phone calls later we agreed a sale at £2k below the asking price and no, they did not get any white goods, nor the cat, (who at this point was adding his own offering in the vegetable patch).  The purchasers had clearly skipped the chapter that told them that under the Ombudsman’s Scheme that we must join, estate agents have to show due diligence to the buyer as well as the purchaser.  As members of the redress scheme, it is in nobody’s interest for us to try and have anyone’s pants down.  Our purchasers’ zealous following of the, “What to do to get the property at the lowest possible price” backfired quite spectacularly.  Let us not forget that a good deal should benefit all parties.

Who exactly decides whether to buy or not to buy?

To paraphrase the former resident of Stratford-upon-Avon, that is the question.  With reports in the media of surges in house prices, a housing shortage, interest rate rises and the real decider on this morning’s news-that One Direction are taking an indefinite hiatus-it is worth looking at who/what are the real power brokers and game-changers in the house selling industry.  Yes of course the tsunami in the Square Mile and the global exchanges impacts upon everyone and the ripples are felt in the comparative duck ponds of Cwmbran, but who actually decides whether the first time buyer gets the house in Fochriw?

As agents we have fought to gain the instruction (I still bear the nail marks from one of my fellow agents-he really should go for a fortnightly manicure), complied with all the necessary regulations governing vendor and property details, negotiated a sale with someone on day release, instructed solicitors and ensured that the mortgage application forms have been correctly completed. Then the fun really begins; a phone call from a firm of chartered surveyors who need access for the mortgage valuation.  This is met with one of two possible responses: “No problem, they are a reasonable bunch”, or “Here we go again…”.  Only last week a surveyor called to collect a set of keys and we supplied him with enough comparable date to choke a decent sized donkey.  History has taught me not to have the insolence and temerity to ask whether everything was ‘ok’ so I awaited the valuation report.  He had down valued the property by £1000. Yes, one thousand whole English pounds. £10,000 or even £5,000 I understand, but £1000?  What is the point?  When I asked what was his rationale and how he came to this conclusion, I was told, “Because that’s what I think and I can put it in my report”.  Well that told me.  There is nothing that we can do as agents.  In the old days-when I had hair and Kelly Maloney was still Frank-one could appeal and in fairness to the system, one could nearly always resolve the matter.  Not anymore.  In this statistically driven era that we inhabit, points mean prizes.  If a certain percentage of a surveyor’s valuations are successfully appealed, then this effects their professional indemnity. If they have already used up their appeal quota-no matter how solid your grounds for appealing-you have as much chance or reversing the original decision as Sunderland have of winning the Premiership.

Forget Shakespeare’s Globe and cast your mind back to the earlier times of the Colosseum in Rome.  The thumbs up or thumbs down given by the emperor to decide upon the fate of the gladiators before him is replaced by a chartered surveyor giving his or her life-changing decision as to whether a house has been correctly valued.  I think that I would look great in armour and a loincloth….


“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”

Alas, for Major General ‘Uncle John’ Sedgwick, a Confederate sharp shooter could indeed have hit an elephant, but instead made do with a human being at the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864.  I was reminded of my fellow military conquistador this week (stop laughing at the back, being able to quote entire scenes from Dad’s Army is the equivalent of attending SAS training…), when a landlord uttered the words that invariably make the recipient develop a nervous tic, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright”. Mmm.  Words, that in my experience, proceed a situation that is a cause for concern and isn’t alright, not by a long chalk. The,”It’ll be alright/It doesn’t matter” argument is invariably used by people who have no experience/detailed knowledge of the subject that they are discussing.  This week, the aforementioned landlord insisted that he would obtain his own gas certificate for the property that he has decided to rent out, having appointed Cheshire & Co as his agents.  Two weeks, ten days, one week, three days before the nominated move-in date we repeatedly requested a copy of the said certificate, to be told that it was, “on its way”.  Forty eight hours before the move-in date we told the landlord that the tenants would not be moving-in without the presentation of a valid certificate.  “It’ll be alright”, he said. No, no, no, it won’t.  If one chooses to move someone into a property that does not have a valid gas safety certificate and they die from a gas/boiler related issue, then we, the agent and the landlord go to jail.  It never fails to amaze me that reasonable, sensible, educated people who are professionals in their own field think that they know best when it comes to my chosen field and in particular have a far greater understanding of the law in relation to the said area of expertise.

Whilst on the subject of phrases that are guaranteed to cause uncontrollable teeth grinding and an irrepressible urge to thump someone, I had a bonanza week with one vendor uttering in a plaintive tone, “Don’t be like that”.  As Newton’s Third Law states, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’.  So, in relation to selling houses in South Wales, why am I ‘being like that’?  Possibly because having agreed upon a fee and secured a vendor a sale-for cash-they then try to renegotiate the fee.  What really pickled my walnuts was when it was presented as that they were actually doing me a favour. “I think that I can get the family to accept £300,000 (the asking price!) if you reduce your fee by £500”. Do I have £%$& tattooed across my forehead? May I respectfully suggest that you and your family not receiving the £300k will have a greater resonance than my not receiving £500?  You may be unsurprised to learn that the sale has gone ahead at the agreed price and for the agreed fee.

To complete the hat trick it was the written, not the spoken word that whilst an irritant, did actually make me smile.  Agents target each others boards, fact. Agents failing to recognise that the property that they have feverishly pushed a leaflet through the door is empty, fact.  If it is quite obviously empty, clue: no curtains, no furniture, who would you expect to pick up the letter imploring the owner to change agents as their current agent is Sisyphean?  That is correct: the said c£$* agent. The BS-ometer was red-lining this week when, in one of these epistles, the agent claimed to have the market edge because throughout the tenancy they monitor the credit status of the tenant.  WTF for?  History and a understanding of the human condition will show that as long as the tenant pays the rent on time, keeps the property in good order and doesn’t hold weekly meetings of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Clan in the garden (those burning crosses are a hazard), then nobody is interested in their credit status.  It also raises two further ruminations.  I assume that my fellow agent has it within the terms and conditions of the rental agreement that the tenant has signed that the agent can conduct multiple credit searches/constant monitoring of the tenant.  I am sure that they have.  Secondly, what about the credit status of the agent and the landlord?  That nice shiny new ‘executive’ car that the agent pulled up in-that is on the never never-how does that reflect on his/her credit score?  Why on earth is that anyone’s business and what relevance does it have on his ability to rent out a property, I hear you ask.  Absolutely £ all.  Just as the tenant buying a sofa from a well-known furniture store that, when they have finished paying for it (when the next King George is on the throne will have cost them the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation), has nothing to do with their making the rental payments without fail every month.

On a separate and final musing, Rightmove has released the results of a survey to determine the ten unhappiest places to live in the UK.  All of the ten were in the greater London area, home to unrelenting house price inflation.  Perhaps money does not buy you happiness after all.  On the other hand, it is preferable to be miserable in the back of Mercedes than on a push bike…

Let the silly season commence…

August has long been regarded as the silly season in the media, where stories make the headlines that would normally struggle to find a resting place somewhere between the TV listings and the adverts for walk-in baths. It would also now appear that aside from odd-shaped vegetables and babies with luxuriant bouffants, August is now ‘Protect the Tenant’ Month/’Get landlords to do the council’s job’ Month. Firstly, all months should be about protecting the tenant; that is one of the principle responsibilities of the professional lettings agent; as well as protecting the landlord. The two are symbiotic and should always remain as such. However, it would appear that Harrow Council’s Selective Licensing Scheme that aims to look after both tenant and landlord has been deemed by many commentators to be tantamount to harassment-of both parties. The scheme will require landlords in Edgware and the surrounding environ to make-from 1 November 2015-monthly inspections of their tenant’s homes. Under the licensing conditions, the Council also makes landlords responsible for ensuring that external areas are maintained in a reasonable state of cleanliness, including removing any bulky or non-domestic items of waste. The National Landlords Association (NLA) is warning that some of the licence conditions will lead to tenants felling harassed and hounded in their homes and it has branded the conditions unacceptable and unfair for landlords.

I agree. So why did Harrow feel the need to introduce the scheme? At Cheshire and Co we endeavour to inspect our properties every two months; for the benefit of the landlord and the tenant. We supply the inspection dates 12 months in advance, send a reminder email and text 2 weeks and then 3 days before the inspection date. Have a guess how many of the tenants fail to make an appearance? Answers on a postcard and the winner gets a signed picture of me. The list of excuses given for a no-show would fill a book. The purpose of the inspections is to ensure that the property is not being abused under the terms of the contract (3 dogs, a cannabis farm, 47 illegal immigrants) and also to determine any issues that the tenant may have with the property and to address them swiftly and in the appropriate manner. Getting landlords to be part-time bin men is pushing it in my book; if an individual owns a property with a mortgage from the Halifax, they would be rightly outraged if the H called to ensure that they had got rid of the sofa sitting in their driveway. Similarly, what happens with one rented flat in a block in which the remainder are all owner-occupied. How do Harrow Council plan to patrol the cleanliness of the area outside? Well, that paving slab is your responsibility… For tenants, a monthly inspection is excessive; once every 60 days is not unreasonable and if the property is not a cess pit and there is a problem with a wonky door/leaking shower, the problem is rectified sooner rather than later.

I would be intrigued know the real reasons behind Harrow Council’s decision. Saving money by getting landlords to do the Council’s job through refuse collection and inspecting properties for illegal activity under the guise of tenant protection is a. sneaky b. lazy and c. disingenuous.


Who actually is the protection protecting?

Those who know me will be aware of my intense dislike for self-regulatory clubs; with the exception of Slimming World where the weekly humiliation of standing up and saying, “Hello, I’m Gareth and I’m a fat b”£$ard” does have the desired effect. Which is why the founders of  all diets clubs that have been syndicated across the globe are now lying beside their pool in their penthouse in Monte Carlo, where the size of their girth is in direct proportion to the size of their bank balance and the size of the bosom of the honey lying beside them. That said, when I succeed in returning to my usual Adonis-like self, the ladies love me even more than they did before.  The clubs that I am referring to-and I use the term, ‘club’ deliberately- are those that purport to provide some sort of protection against rogue elements of a particular industry.  Mmm.  In my profession, not one that is known for being held high in public esteem, many industry professionals use regulation and codes of conduct as a shield to rip people off in a manner that would make Derek Edward Trotter blush.

Many years ago in my father’s time, one did business on a handshake and giving your word, something that I try to follow.  There were no such things as compliance officers, regulatory forms, checkers of the regulatory forms or checkers of the checkers of the regulatory forms. This week, I have come across a case where a couple who are selling a house and have completed all such regulatory forms and their ilk have, through this process been royally taken to the cleaners in a horse and carriage by one of the corporate agents who do business in the Cwmbran area.  Having looked at their situation from valuation to instruction and now to marketing, it is blatantly apparent that aside from the aforementioned coach and horse, an entire armoured division has crashed through the Property Ombudsman’s Code of Practice.  The same code that was created to protect the interests of Joe Public (and his family, estranged or otherwise).  Having shown Mr and Mrs Property Owner the pretty sticker that demonstrates that they are members of the scheme, they then proceeded to tell the hapless couple that their property is worth at least £20k more than its true value, at a fee of 2%, to then, a fortnight into the 6-month contract to tell them that they have to reduce by £20k as the price is why there has been no interest.  Nothing new there then but they keep on doing it. Why? Because they can.  Why?  Because what and where is the code of practice that is in place to check whether agents are playing by the rules?  In Wales, we now have the Housing Act (Wales) 2014, which having waded through the  blurb, means that we, as estate agents have to be “licensed” by Autumn 2015.  For starters, ‘Autumn’ is sufficiently vague to be open to all sorts of inspired interpretation.  Fear not, all those who are worried about the stipulation (a considerable bunch, on a par size-wise with those who support Lord Sewel…), we have been given until 2016 to test the scheme and if there are any complaints from the industry, there will be no fines during the trial year. Well that’s alright boys and girls, carry on as you were.  £$%* me sideways!  If you are going to bring in a rule, then bring it in and make those who need to abide by the rule aware of the consequences if they fail in their responsibility.  An agent has to apply to join and must pass the “fit and proper” test.  Mmmm x infinity. That will be entertaining.  Agents will also have to undertake local authority training but if they have passed their Landlord Accreditation Test-as Cheshire & Co did over three years ago-that will be accepted.  Everyone’s protected then: the local authority, the people who are doing the checking to see whether all the paperwork has been completed as per the guidelines and last, but most certainly not least, the agents.  The hapless soul looking to engage in a contract with the agents to use their expertise and professionalism?  Ah well, mmmm…

My advice to anyone who is thinking of selling or renting a property is to ask about as to who has a good reputation in the local community.  By that, I do not mean an agent who has sponsored a painting competition at the local primary school.  If there is an agent’s board up in your street, then ask your neighbour what they think of the service provided by the agent and would they recommend them.  Please do not just call out one agent.  We appreciate that we all are part of a beauty parade.  Finally, please people, do not believe everything that you are told, make the agent justify their advice/recommendation with hard facts.  After all, what can’t speak, can’t lie.