In March 2006 a BBC reporter, after spending months undercover at Foxtons, presented a damning exposé of the firm. It revealed seriously dodgy practices, like sharing private financial information on buyers with an “independent” mortgage broker, enabling Foxtons to squeeze them to the limit. The reporter also found the company forging customer signatures on legal documents and lying to suit its ends.
The day after the broadcast, a shocked hush descended. Foxtons branches were reported to be deserted amid talk of the discredited brand collapsing. But within days Foxtons were busier than ever, besieged by new customers who had not dealt with them before. Foxtons never looked back... and never improved its bullying way.
This happened because the bottom line of the message they received was not that Foxtons were a rogue company to be avoided but tough guys who would get you the highest price for your house. There is, of course, no evidence to support this, but it has struck a chord with the Great British Public which I trace back to Flashman, the cowardly school bully from the Tom Brown books.
The history of estate agency in England is divided between BF (Before Foxtons) and AF (Anno Foxtons). BF there was some decency, some trust between seller, buyer and agent and a sense of common purpose in achieving a sale as painlessly as possible. Gazumping and its ugly sister gazundering were frowned upon.
The success of Foxtons is a perfect metaphor for how society has changed and continues to change for the worse. In the words of a rival agent, struggling to maintain standards: “The public nowadays seem to prefer a flashy image and a big promise to personal and attentive service.”
Flashman rules, and we are all the poorer for it.
The writer is Property and Planning correspondent for the Evening Standard