Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

There's been a lot of talk recently about regulating estate agents in some way, such as making it compulsory for them to belong to some kind of register or professional body.

There's been a lot of talk recently about regulating estate agents in some way, such as making it compulsory for them to belong to some kind of register or professional body.

In fact, estate agents do have a professional body, although membership is not compulsory. It's called, strangely enough, the National Association of Estate Agents, and the way they conduct business is regulated by the Estate Agents Act 1979 and the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991.

But what I feel is really lacking is a Misuse of English in Property Descriptions Act. This would outlaw the use of phrases such as "being ideally situated" and "having the benefit of" and introduce a compulsory literacy hour once a week for all those engaged in writing property details. The odd spelling test might not go amiss, either - I spotted a house boasting a "carridge drive" the other day.

We're all familiar with estate-agent euphemisms, such as "requires modernisation" (translation: needs at least £100,000 spending on it before you'd want to set foot in the place, and then you'd probably need a mask and a hard hat). Or "requires some updating" (translation: a time traveller from the 16th century would find it a bit old-fashioned). Or "mature shrubs and trees" (translation: garden is full of 60ft self-sown sycamores that, thanks to some misguided council busybody, are protected by a tree-preservation order).

But while property-selling legislation seems to have eliminated any creative element from the writing of property details along with any intent to defraud, the strangulated phrasing and the constant use of the beloved present participle still remain. Estate agents use expressions that nobody in real life would ever employ. One that irritates me is "laid to lawn". Have you ever heard anyone describe their backyard thus? "Oh, do come round and see my new garden, it's laid to lawn, being surrounded by mature trees and shrubs."

And then there's "deceptively spacious". Surely that means that it looks spacious, but isn't really? I found an example that referred to a cottage simply as "extraordinarily deceptive". Tell you a pork pie as soon as look at you, it would. The details, from the North Yorkshire estate agent Beanland Illingworth, went on to describe the interior of the mendacious cottage and finished with this: "Enclosed paved patio area with wrought-iron gate leading on to right of way giving access on to footpath leading through to side entrance lobby." This isn't particularly bad English, but I thought I'd share it with you because I hurt my brain trying to work it out.

The London estate agent Roy Brooks, who died in 1971, was famous for his imaginative property details, which were advertised in The Sunday Times and The Observer. Here's an example from 1957: "We always thought nobody lives 'south of the river', but the fierce competition to buy last week's Clapham Common bargain encourages us to offer another to those of our readers bizarre enough (or just hard up) to rub shoulders with the lower-middle classes." For him, the wording of the description was a positive selling point.

So is there anyone to take up his literary mantle? Well, I did find this description of a Victorian house at a Battersea estate agent, John Thorogood. The company prides itself on the "production of well-written property details". (It can't be coincidence that, like Roy Brooks, this is another long-established, independent estate agency.) The details read: "If you're tired of staring straight across the street at a mirror image of your own Victorian terrace, & you're not ready to trade 'the big smoke' for greener pastures, then this substantial family house with westerly views over Wandsworth Common's green expanses could be just the move for you."

Hurrah, a property description written by a human being who knows how other human beings think and feel. If anyone ever sets up a working party to look into regulating the use of the present participle in estate-agent English, someone from Thorogood's ought to be on it.