Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

I suppose that I shouldn't have been surprised to find that the VW Golf that had just roared out of a side street in front of me bore the livery of a local estate agent.

I suppose that I shouldn't have been surprised to find that the VW Golf that had just roared out of a side street in front of me bore the livery of a local estate agent. It seemed so laughably stereotypically of ruthless estate-agent behaviour that I almost forgave it for nearly knocking me over. I contented myself with promising that the next time I sold my house, I would use any agency but that one.

The estate-agent car is an increasingly common phenomenon in London. Probably the best-known versions are the Foxtons Mini Coopers, with their twee location badges (MAY for Mayfair and WM for Westminster and so on) and racing numbers on the doors - rumoured, says a friend, to indicate the standing of the driver within the company.

Foxtons introduced the Minis in 2001, and it was a smart move, giving an air of nostalgia to a company that has only been around since 1981. Since 2001, the Minis have had a makeover each year, from the first Italian Job styling in British racing green to the current hippie-flowers version.

Foxtons describes its Minis as "the ultimate urban vehicle... ideal for an estate agent conducting thousands of accompanied viewings every week", and it is probably for this very reason that Felicity J Lord, the London sales and lettings agents which is part of the Spicerhaart group, uses VW Beetles adorned with its livery for the same purpose around Canary Wharf.

Many householders object to having a For Sale sign outside their house, and in the case of central London flats, a sign is either impractical, invisible or even forbidden by the managing agents. So a liveried car is a good way of getting your name on to the streets and, if you choose the right marque, sends out the right message about your company. Foxtons has obviously opted for good old British reliability, while Felicity J Lord favours Teutonic efficiency.

And yet, leopards and spots and all that. The make-my-day attitude may still lurk beneath the hearts and flowers. Foxtons' cars went through two incarnations that were slightly edgier - the Nascar hot-rod version with flames along the sides, for heaven's sake, and the graffiti version, which had the name of the company apparently spray-painted on to the side of the car in the style known as "tagging".

The yuppies at head office no doubt thought the latter was hilarious and the last word in cutting-edge style, but I can't imagine they went down well with the older householders round my way in Wandsworth, who at the mere thought of graffiti would call the council before you could say "aerosol".

Foxtons describes its latest design as "bringing colour to the urban landscape and a smile to onlookers' faces with its bold and colourful flowers". Like the Labour Party with its interest-rate election posters, it obviously believes that the public sees the hippie movement as synonymous with financial security. In the case of the Labour Party, the Make Love, Not War bit seems to have passed them by, but it is tempting to wonder whether the hippie flowers are a coded message from Foxtons to the rest of the UK real-estate industry following the departure of Peter Rollings last month. Rollings was the public face of the agency, which 18 months ago was embroiled in unseemly allegations that rivals' For Sale signs had been destroyed.

Which brings us to the problem of road rage. While I'm sure that every one of these agencies' negotiators is a truly responsible motorist who never says so much as "sugar!" when they crunch the gears, it is difficult to take a car out on the London streets these days without risking some sort of confrontation. And when your name is emblazoned on your motor, even a spat over a parking spot could result in the loss of a customer.

So what about my aggressive VW Golf with south-west London's answer to Jensen Button at the wheel? Well, to me, that Golf said: "Eighties attitude, thrusting ambition, don't even think about stepping off the pavement if you want to see another day dawn." On reflection, it's probably exactly the sort of attitude you need to sell a house in today's difficult market. But I think I'll still stick to the guys in the unmarked cars.