Secretarial: The Temp - The liars, the glitches and the man in the wardrobe

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The Independent Culture
WELL, I wouldn't exactly say that I've a new-found respect for estate agents, but I certainly understand that they have more to contend with than I thought before. But then again, they are completely unscrupulous in how they exploit those things they have to put up with.

There's the Canadian client, Mr Hands, for instance. I thought initially that this really was his name, until I was checking the appointment book while I knew Caroline was out with him to find that it was actually McLaren. He's known among my posh young bosses as Hands because he can't keep them to himself: McLaren is a serial groper.

Caroline and Candida are constantly complaining. "Gurrd, Hands got me full on the arse today..." "...brushed up against my breast yesterday, on the pretext of opening a kitchen cupboard door. As if he's ever shown the remotest interest in the kitchen before..." "...actually asked me if I'd like to test the power-shower with him on Monday". What they don't do, however, is get Charlie or Henry to take over for them when Hands is on the rampage.

Hands, you see, has over a million pounds to spend, and the good folk at Investment Estates reckon he's more likely to spend it with them if he gets to have his little thrills while he's looking.

Henry and Charlie, meanwhile, play adoptive son and seducer: by the time a potential female client finishes reading the details of ferociously expensive flats ("Studio: room 3.2m x 3.1m, kitchenette, bathroom, close to Harrods, pounds 178k") and pushes the door open, she has already been sized up and the one they judge best equipped to charm is already waiting to leap up from his desk and offer her a cup of coffee.

Henry has a floppy fringe reminiscent of a loyal gun-dog, and would tug at the heartstrings of anyone who grew up on the land. Charlie has that slightly mean look of Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient: not my type by any means, but where Kristin Scott Thomas goes the rest of the toffs will most likely follow, and it's almost embarrassing to see how the navy- clad chapesses will brighten up at his approach.

So the skill of estate agency is not, it seems, in putting the right price on the right property, matching individuals with what they need, or being able to tell a doozy when you see one, but in a combination of charm, ignoring requests and scattergun tactics.

If a client wants to see properties under pounds 175,000, they will be shown everything under pounds 225,000; if a client thinks that their house is worth pounds 450,000, Henry or Charlie will persuade them to add another pounds 30-40,000, even if it means waiting until the house market has caught up to sell it. And everyone, whatever their wishes, has to be shown the flat in Pelham Street, the one over the top of the Tube line, which has been on their hands for the past 18 months. "Look," says Candida, "you can't sell a property without people seeing it. And someone might impulse-buy it as an investment."

"Yah," adds Caroline, "or we might hit paydirt with some dreadful little oik who wants a smart address and doesn't know the difference." They teach you a lot about respect at public school, it seems.

Oh, but there's a further skill, and that's the skill of covering things up. "You've no idea," says Caroline. "Sometimes you go in to a flat and find that they've not even bothered to wash up the breakfast. Knickers all over the bedroom floors, overflowing ashtrays. I have to scoot round ahead of people, checking round doors. You've no idea."

So what's the worst thing you've ever come across, I ask. "Not much more than a bathroom where the client had obviously had a bit much to drink the night before," says Caroline. "But Henry had a great one a few months ago. Do tell her, Henry."

"Oh, yah," says Henry, getting up and checking his fringe in the window. "Amazing. Coleherne Court. Flat had been on the market a few months, not much movement, but I had some people who wanted a second look. Went round on a Saturday morning, opened the bedroom wardrobe and found the client trussed up like a pheasant, unconscious, gag in his mouth."

"What? My God! What did you do?"

"Well, naturally, I scooped him back in there straight away," says Henry, "and said I couldn't find the key. Something like that would have completely buggered any chance of a sale."