It turns out how estate agents write about houses is largely unchanged over the last 100 years.
If you visit the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge Central Library, amongst the millions of wonderful bits of local history collated there you’ll find examples of ye olde estate agents brochures. I love that about the Collection, how relatable and human-scale its contents are. Where history generally tends to only preserve and value the great and the grand, the Collection quietly gets on with holding on to the memories of how people like you and me went about our daily business in the past. The David Parr House is another example of this. If you’ve not been, go, it’s a much more important historic building than Wimpole or Kings College Chapel.
100 years ago we lived almost identically to how we live today. Sat in the sitting room, cooked in the kitchen, slept in the bedroom on the first floor. We didn’t have bathrooms in quite the same way, but other than that the fundamentals of houses are wholly unchanged from then. Indeed the basic concept is unchanged in thousands of years. At some point some clever soul decided to stop roaming around hunting and to stop in one place and build something to keep them warm when it’s cold and dry when it’s raining.
It’s probably unsurprising then that the Edwardian estate agent’s brochures I read in the Cambridgeshire Collection could have been written yesterday. It’s still all ‘large windows’ and ‘high ceilings’, ‘sitting rooms with open fireplaces and moulded cornices’, ‘three bedrooms’, ‘courtyard gardens’ and ‘WCs’.
My business partner Mr Curtis and I have some particular general turns of phrase that we dislike individually and some we agree to dislike. I don’t really rate the customary British greeting of ‘How are you?’ followed by ‘Fine, thanks’ where what we actually mean is ‘Hello’ and ‘Hello back’. My reasoning is that the ‘How are you?’ asker doesn’t actually want an honest answer, and if the askee isn’t actually fine, far from fine perhaps, it can be a really challenging thing for them to respond to. My suggestion is to go for something more genuine and meaningful. I find ‘Nice to see you’ hard to beat. Mr Curtis, on the other hand, says I’m over-thinking this, but hates it when people say ‘you guys’, the utterance of which couldn’t bother me less. We both agree, though, that as estate agents we don’t sell ‘homes’ we sell ‘houses’. Houses become homes when you insert people into them and we don’t include people in the asking price.
When we opened CC&C we fairly seriously considered not including any text in our brochures. What can text tell you that a floor plan, location plan and photos can’t? Indeed our initial research suggested many people don’t bother reading the text before booking a viewing, they just look at the pictures. We ultimately bottled out of doing it, but I regularly find myself thinking we made the wrong decision as I type yet another thing into the ‘description’ box of our software just for the sake of filling it up.
The polar approach is the lifestyle-pitch: ‘Imagine dining on the al fresco terrace, sipping a glass of Graham Norton’s Sauvignon Blanc and watching the sun go down’. Beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to do that? When you think about it though, lots of people wouldn’t want to, or couldn’t, do a number of things in that sentence. Every time we call a room a ‘Family Room’ I can’t help think about alienating the buyers who don’t have a family.
We sweated this for days, but it was the fact that, when analysed, we do still all live so similarly to one-another, and to our ancestors, that meant we stuck doing our brochures the way the Edwardians did, just with lots more pictures. Fashions change of course, for example we’re now starting to see the first signs of a push-back against the insistence of the last 15 years that a big open-plan kitchen / living space overlooking the garden is the key to a great house, but these fashions are just details, not fundamentals.
Jamie and I agree on this. And we agree that a house is not a home when there’s no one there. Jamie, however, continues to doggedly assert that a chair ceases to be a chair when there’s no one sitting there. And it is for this reason I had him fired from his position on the executive board of the Dionne Warwick fan club.