Property: More trash than crash

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The Independent Online
I spent last week in that most curious of countries, the US. Ostensibly I went to celebrate Hallowe'en, which has a special place in the American calendar. It fills that awkward gap between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, thus allowing retailers to garner millions of dollars from an unsuspecting public in an orgy of orange and black merchandise.

I had no real desire to taste orange beer or black gin. But I did need somewhere to wear the M&M outfit which I won at the Fount of all Knowledge's bonfire night raffle a year ago.

Even in the privacy of somebody else's home, I have always felt a little uncomfortable encased in a foam rubber outfit from which protrudes four limbs encased in body-hugging red lame. In America, at Hallowe'en, nobody looks out of place dressed as an M&M, Hillary Rodham Clinton or even a witch.

It was not until I read the papers on Tuesday morning that I realised just how seriously the Americans took Hallowe'en.

"Blood bath", "Nightmare", "Carnage" screamed the headlines, in what I took to be the media's efforts to get the audience ready for Friday's festivities.

Apparently not. According to a reliable source, the headlines referred to a "correction" in share prices on Wall Street.

My source, by the way, was a rather fearsome-looking vagrant called Ernie. I met him as I was perusing the trash cans which masquerade in America as newspaper-vending machines.

"You got any spare change?" demanded Ernie with menaces. I said I couldn't answer his question; I had change, but I could not yet tell whether it was spare.

Ernie couldn't tell if I was taking the piss or had been on the piss. And I didn't allow him the time to reach a conclusion as I launched immediately into my inquisition about the Hallowe'en headlines. Ernie roared maniacally with laughter and explained about the stock market. I assumed at first he was an investment banker who had experienced a particularly black Monday and also suffered from rapid facial hair growth. It turned out, however, that Ernie was a genuine vagrant. He inhabited the newspaper-vending machines because: (a) they required change and (b) Ernie had perfected the art of keeping the machine open, thus allowing him access to bedding for the night and a source of beer money.

"Why steal the newspapers," I inquired, "when there are all these free publications on offer?" I waved my hand in the direction of a number of machines all emblazoned "FREE".

"Real Estate," Ernie snarled. "Too small."

Ernie was a man after my own heart - a man who would not compromise on standards just to have a roof over his head. In fact, he was not referring to the properties on offer in these publications, but the size of the magazines. I saw what he meant. The biggest I could find was Harmon Homes with 218 A4-sized pages. They got smaller: Apartment Update was smaller than Harmon Homes but much bigger than The Homefinder. By the time we got to The Real Estate Book we were talking pamphlets.

"Does anyone read these?" I asked. "Not after the market has crashed 554 points," Ernie replied.

When stock prices decline, so does interest in real estate, it transpires. Now if this were to be repeated back home, I thought to myself, then perhaps I might have a chance with the domestic property market.

Encouraged by my theory of a stock market-inspired property slump, I returned to the vending machines later in the week. Ernie was not there and the property magazines had all gone. I suspected a dramatic market recovery. One so dramatic, in fact, that Ernie had gone back to his old job - a real estate agent. My treat had become a trick. As for the M&M costume ...