Fiona Brandhorst listens in on some agents' stories.
Gaudy interiors, divorcing vendors, ghostly goings on - all the gory details can be recalled immediately, from the number of the house, to what the vendor had for breakfast on completion day. So, if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.
Looks can be deceptive, but when Matt, an estate agent who does not want to give his full name, entered the porch of a house he had been asked to value and saw 12 bottles of rancid milk, long abandoned by the milkman, he had a whiff of what was to come. It wasn't just the smell that hit him as the door was opened. The hallway was practically ankle deep in cigarette butts; food covered with various stages of fungal growth lay strewn over the floor.
"I've got the constitution of an ox," says Matt, "but I retched." Upstairs, the toilet pan was broken and the owner had "peed in a series of buckets" in the bath. Estate agents are not known for their sense of humour, but Matt had to develop one, fast. "I found myself saying things like `have you decorated lately?' as the vendor was obviously taking my visit seriously. When I finally left the house I had to bin my shoes; the leather soles would never have recovered."
The nightmare didn't end there. Shortly after Matt was instructed to sell the property, the owner was found dead of hypothermia inside. It took 18 months to sort out his estate, during which time the house was vandalised. "At least the council came in and fumigated it," says Matt, who eventually sold the house to a builder and got his commission - and presumably a new pair of loafers.
Loathe them or like them, estate agents are said by some to be a breed of their own. But there's nothing like the enthusiasm of a young man with a mission to get things moving. Stephen Smith, from Bushells in south London, places his traumatic tale back in the early Eighties when he was a rookie estate agent, understandably eager to please and keen to sell. When the buyer pulled out of buying a studio flat Mr Smith was selling for an elderly lady, he was a desperate man.
"I wasn't the only one," remembers Mr Smith. "The vendor was in tears in the office. She was about to lose a cottage next to her sister on the coast. I had to do something." His boss suggested he should approach the rest of the chain to see what everyone's position was. Thirty-six properties and two days later, Mr Smith reached the top of the chain.
Number 36 was a man selling a house for pounds 320,000 (equivalent to around pounds 1m today). With only a little persuasion he agreed to buy the studio. Within 48 hours the paperwork had been completed and a long line of people had smiles on their faces. But not as big as Mr Smith's. Four weeks later he resold the studio for more than pounds 2,000 above its original price, scooping up two lots of commission and, no doubt, a promotion.
We are rarely grateful to estate agents for any effort required to sell our property. So when Jack Cooper, who runs his own agency in Hillingdon, Middlesex, received a letter from the vendor thanking him for his "effort, thoughtfulness and care" he felt vindicated for the unusual approach he had adopted to sell a three-bedroom house.
"Its major problem was its location. It was rather grand mock Tudor semi, smack bang in the middle of a council estate, and was priced down accordingly. It produced so much interest there were traffic jams in the street as people drove past to have a look." The owner couldn't cope with so many disillusioned viewers, so she turned to Mr Cooper for his "individual service".
He arranged for several families to visit in groups, while the vendor gathered her children together and went for a long walk. "It was less stressful for her, and saved me time. I wouldn't have been able to run my business if I'd shown that many people around at different times." It took a couple of months, but the house was eventually sold. So who was brave enough to sign the contract? "It was someone who already lived in quite a rough area, so to him it was an improvement."
And then there's Charles and Tim, two agents who also prefer to remain nameless. They were called to value the house of a pensioner who had died. "When we got there, various members of the family were walking around inside picking up ornaments and looking in drawers. We went upstairs to the bedroom to find the bedcovers pulled back to reveal the imprint of a recently removed body. Apparently, the old lady had died that morning." While they were standing there in disbelief, the portable TV came on behind them. "You've never seen two grown men leave a house so fast," said Charles.
Spine chillers aside, could estate agents refuse to take on an instruction, and would they have to be careful of giving the vendor the reasons why?
Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, a former estate agent who is now chief executive of the National Association of Estate Agents, believes it would be "rare and uncommon" for a property to be turned down, unless the agent felt it could be better dealt with by a specialist for that particular type of property, or if he didn't have the right client base.
"Honesty is the best policy," he says. "Good agents are well versed in tactfully declining instructions where appropriate", especially when dealing with "overpriced properties and intransigent owners".
One estate agent in Essex almost refused to take on a property, because the vendor wanted to sell it for pounds 65,000 more than she thought it was worth. (Properties on the same estate had recently sold at the lower price of pounds 290,000.) However, with her commission in mind, the agent decided to take the chance. Within three days she had four offers for the asking price of pounds 355,000. "I was amazed - there was no reason for it - but you can never account for sudden demand."
Peter Blades, from Barringtons, in south Buckinghamshire, is on the point of revising his nightmare tale. For the fifth time in a year, he's selling the same property. "It's a lovely house in a good spot, and each time I've had it under offer in 48 hours, for more than the previous asking price.
"Unfortunately, the vendor keeps losing the property he wants to buy, so he keeps withdrawing. Typically, the only time he's found a house he can move into straightaway, it's taken six weeks to get his property under offer."
If you still can't muster up any sympathy for estate agents, spare a thought for Jan, another anonymous negotiator. She was late for an appointment to meet vendors at their vacant property. She found herself stuck behind a small red car going at "around three miles an hour". She flashed her lights, put her hand on the horn and eventually overtook triumphantly, "giving them the V-sign".
She was relieved to find the vendors hadn't yet arrived when she pulled up outside their house. And yes, five minutes later the little red car stopped behind hers.
Bushells (0181-299 1722); Coopers (01895 230103); Barringtons (01753 892100); National Association of Estate Agents (01926 496800).Reuse content