Comment: Email trails tell house hunting horror tales
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Even though rents are supposed to be dropping, reliance on emails and extortionate tenant fees makes house hunting a nightmare
Being a north London property journalist instils you with a lot of very niche facts and, I have just learned, a false sense of confidence.
“London’s landlords are on their uppers,” I confidently told my soon-to-be housemates as we begun our quest for a rental. “The three per cent surcharge on second homes, changes to mortgage relief, and yields are way down. We’ll have lots of room to negotiate.”
I eyed the asking prices with a sly smile. “Value,” as buying agent and BBC darling Henry Pryor loves to tell me, “is only what people are prepared to pay.” I was pumped up to strike a deal.
I was also interested to investigate the current state of the online versus high street battle. I’m a big fan of high street estate agents. Not because I’ve developed some sort of Stockholm syndrome, but because at the grand old age of 25 I’ve realised I really quite like to do business in person. The teens are welcome to their nefarious emoji dealings over Snapchat; I want to pick up the phone.
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Unfortunately, getting an unfiltered, face-to-face time with another human is hard these days. A simple call to my bank last week reduced me to furious sobs as I was pitched from pillar to post, calls cutting off mid way or rerouting me from departments where I recapped my question in increasingly hysterical octaves. When I gave up and went to one of the last remaining physical outposts of the bank I was met at the door by an iPad wielding helper with the tenacity of Cerberus. I couldn’t get near anyone with an answer, and left my number instead. No one ever called back.
Now, my property search is being conducted south of the river, and as such our illustrious agents and advertisers’ honour remains un-besmirched. Ironically, a local journalist’s salary in north London doesn’t stretch to an N postcode.
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After some preliminary research on the twin portals of property, Zoopla and Rightmove (the map function really is fantastic), we drew up a shortlist and started to make some calls. Here, our problems began in earnest.
Agents would book us in for viewings on the phone, only to email later to notify that the property had in fact already been let. Never mind that they hadn’t taken down the ads online, was there not some internal system that could have flagged this up?
Then when we finally got inside a property it became quickly apparent that our suave lettings agent had never been inside the flat before. I don’t know who was more horrified at the sight that met our eyes, him or us.
Even looking beyond the encrusted grime and marauding dust bunnies it was plain to see the flat was falling apart. The photos that had been used to advertise the place were clearly several years old.
Chunks of plaster peeled off at the ceiling and black mould blooming up the walls grassing up an attempt to install double glazing that had gone array. As we poked around I could see the agent out of the corner of my eye doing his best not to get anything on his shiny oxblood loafers.
As we exited into the sunlight the agent blithely assured us that the walls would all be ‘sorted’ before the next tenant moved in, and that we’d need to pay a holding charge if we wanted to reserve it. As he handed us his card I had to admire his chutzpah, if nothing else.
Growing desperate, we booked in with another agency. The agent ducked out of the 6pm viewing, leaving the current tenants to let us in for a shufti. Nicer than the photos, we were keen but wanted to at least try to negotiate. On the phone the agent had mentioned another party had booked a second viewing. Whether they existed was another matter, but by now we realised we had to move fast.
Offer made, we were asked for a £700 refundable holding deposit and over £500 of admin fees, with £90 knocked off if we could fill out the form by 11am. The agent warned us the property was on with another agency. Negotiation status weaker than the Brexit team in Brussels we caved to the original asking rent and emailed the agent back. We got an out of office notice in reply.
Local journalists know the fear of robotic replacement. The Press Association just won a grant from Google to produce stories written by artificial intelligence, with journos simply gathering the facts for the robots churn out the content. I hope AI couldn’t have written this column. I’m not sure trying to deal with humans during the property search process made it any better.
The bill to ban tenant fees can’t be passed soon enough. Until they’re gone the market will never be truly competitive. You can get away with substandard housing when it’s extortionate to move, and there’s no incentive for agents to show up when they can email over a bill. Until then, I’d rather write about the property market than hunt through it again.