Property: Religion and the slump in house-buying: Agents of all sorts have been preaching the doctrine of home-ownership to Kim Perkins

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The Independent Culture
BACK IN 1967 when property sold itself, estate agents could afford to treat us buyers with indifference. I remember being kept waiting in a muddy garden while a party of 11 other hopefuls arrived. We were herded into the house by an agent who couldn't be bothered to come upstairs and smirked contemptuously as she locked us out.

Like everything else, this has changed. Agents, like the religious in a rational age, find themselves selling a notion few people are attracted to: pay the mortgage, then lose your sanity, hair and money when you move. It takes some ingenuity, but most firms have risen to the challenge and there's a remarkable diversity of approach.

There are of course those who will not be defeated. Like street- corner evangelists, these agents are trained almost to death. They have self-hypnosis tapes in the car, a morning pep talk, creative visualisation before lunch. In this way they create in themselves an almost pathological denial of reality: 'There is no recession,' you will be told, 'not in this area.' The aim is to create the same psychosis in potential buyers; the first step is to generate tension and anxiety. Loud voices and fast delivery are a must. 'Hello-Kim-how-are-you?- I've-got-something-can-you-see-it-

NOW?' becomes a single nerve- jangling word. Any buyer who tries to speak must be interrupted.

There are always at least six people standing behind the office desks, jabbering non-stop into the phones. There are huge charts on the walls and something called a hit list. Everyone who walks in the office will be told that a hit-listed property is exactly what they want and taken round on the same day - again, to create panic. Verbal pulverisation of the buyer's morale continues in the car: 'Sold that one 150 - got 87 for that - one over there coming in at 200 . . .' Inside the property, all objections are swept aside. 'What d'you think? Well? Too small? Big as you'll get . . . ' The viewing is followed up by an 8am call: 'Are you ready to make an offer, then?'

Finally, there is the weekly threat of being expunged from the mailing list if you haven't shown sufficient interest: 'Well, the point is, are you serious? We can't deal with people who aren't serious]' Potential buyers who have had a strict upbringing should avoid agents of this kind.

In complete contrast, there is the Quaker style. These agents have decided to get back to basics by not speaking unless it is necessary, and speaking quietly when it is necessary. There are no dawn calls. A brochure is handed over in almost funerary silence.

This strategy is subtle. When someone yabbers at you, you tend to look anywhere but at them, in case it is construed as encouragement. But when someone is quiet you notice the worry lines on their forehead, the missing button on their cuff, the occasional twinkle in their eyes, and suddenly you see them as a person. You trust them and you don't want to disappoint them. After a few viewing sessions, a touching snippet of personal information may be revealed: the football team he supports, his favourite meal. At least he won't hassle me, you think. You want to buy from him, and even on your way home, having not liked the place, you can still see that gentle face in your mind's eye, and you hope it's he who'll come up with the right thing in the end.

The third group of firms has adopted a manner uncannily reminiscent of the Born Again. These are people who smile a lot, never smoke, and have Murray Mints in their pockets. They offer you one as soon as they've finished buckling your seatbelt for you. They tell you how much they enjoy the job, even nowadays. In fact they enjoy it more now, because it was a bit silly in the past, wasn't it? After all, a home is a home, not an investment, that's the thing, now isn't it . . . The car purrs along, and you feel yourself nodding like one of those toy dogs in the back window. Could the sweet have been drugged? We're not on commission, you know, he says. Whereas everyone else is. The pressure of commission is what forces all the other agents to behave in such nasty and peculiar ways - it's not really their fault, in fact it's a dreadful, crying shame, but there you are. The smile spreads from ear to ear. He nods gently. It's a wonderful world . . . You stumble from the car into the cold December air. 'Bit run down, isn't it?' you say. 'Oh, I wouldn't say that,' he smiles. There are no windows, and half a roof . . . Some things never change.-