Sam Cooke

It’s not a foregone conclusion

 

Estate agents, just like real people, have a habit of winding down a bit in December. Why not? We’ve worked hard all year and it’s always a quiet month anyway so why stress about it? Enjoy the quieter times. Go home a bit early every now and then. Heck, why not take a cheeky Christmas shopping day?

 

 

But we were a bit worried about December 2019. When we all sat down and looked at the prospect of a general election and all the surrounding political noise we feared the month might end up horribly quiet, so we decided to bite the bullet and redouble our efforts. If the market was going to be quiet, we’d better make sure the few people out there who were looking to buy viewed and bought our clients’ properties. And if other agents were resting a bit, we might be able to sneak a half-decent month.

 

 

 

It worked out rather well.

 

 

 

 

According to Rightmove’s data, the same 3 Cambridge offices usually jostle out 1st to 3rd position in terms of most sales agreed in the area and it’s usually pretty close, but for December it was definitive who worked the hardest. We managed to find buyers for 28 of our clients’ properties, followed by 19 for the second place office and distantly trailed by the rest, all at 10 or fewer.

 

 

 

We’re chuffed with that.

 

 

 

Looking at the data in detail, it backed up our suspicion that the month would be quietish overall – a total of 239 sales were agreed in December, against 398 in November, a drop of 40% – but our sales level barely slipped at all.

 

 

 

We like to think we work harder and get better results than other firms do. It’s nice when the stats back it up so definitively.

 

Sam Cooke

It’s time

I’ve been saying it for a while: Now is, without doubt, the best time to buy a property in the 20 years I’ve been doing this job.

4 years ago getting hold of a house round here was a deeply challenging experience. You had to call within an hour of it going live online to make sure you were in the first 30 requests, view it within the first week at the exact time the agent stipulated, for a maximum of 15 minutes, and then make an offer the next day. If you didn’t comply with any of these you’d miss out to someone hungrier than you. Such was the flurried panic you didn’t have time to worry about minor details like whether you actually wanted it, all you knew was that if you didn’t buy this one, the next one would be £20k more. You just had to buy something. Anything.

Not so today. Today you can view something, think about it properly, view it again, ask pertinent questions and wait for the answers, look at what else has sold around to make sure the asking price is fair. Then make a carefully considered offer. If the seller doesn’t want to take the offer you can walk away and wait for something else. It’s altogether a more comfortable process.

So make the most of it. Because it won’t last.

In the last 4 years we’ve seen selling prices stabilise and rental prices rise. As the rush to buy subsides people are happy to rent for longer, comfortable that selling prices aren’t rising and they therefore aren’t falling thousands behind the market every month. Lovely.

Except that it’s not really very lovely renting a property in the UK. A big worry is that you have the lack of certainty of tenure that our rental laws bring, meaning you might have to pack up and ship out at fairly short notice, but it also costs you money every month. Take an average £400,000 3 bed semi here in the people’s republic of Trumpington. A 90% mortgage of £360,000 can be had for around 1.8% at the moment, which is an interest payment of £540 per month. The same house to rent is about £1400 per month. So if you’ve been renting that house since June 2016, waiting and watching and carefully considering whether to buy something now, you could have been paying £860 a month off your mortgage instead of to your landlord. That’s £10,320 a year. Making, at the time of writing, a total of £34,400. Which is a lot. (It’s actually more than that, as you pay off the mortgage the interest drops, but the sums are too hard for this estate agent to work out.)

As more and more people spend longer and longer renting, more and more will get to the point where these calculations trouble them. And more and more will get to the point where the need to feel completely settled overtakes any concerns over the housing market. We’re now three-and-a-half years post-referendum, remember, so there are people out there who were just a couple in June 2016 that are now a couple with 2 children. Life moves pretty fast, even if Brexit doesn’t.

Housing market slow downs happen regularly and what usually happens afterwards is a sudden, sharp rise as all of the pent-up demand comes bursting out. When it does there’s every chance it will be just as competitive as it was 4 years ago, maybe even more so. We’ve not seen job numbers in Cambridge shrink, quite the opposite, nor has the volume of available housing increased by a significant factor. So the supply and demand balance hasn’t changed, nor have interest rates. What’s changed is confidence and confidence will return, one day, possibly very soon. All you need to do is work out what day that will be and make sure you buy a house the day before.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sam Cooke

It’s like Karr said

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.

Sam Cooke

It’s hard to believe but…

 
…estate agents are people too.
 
 
 
We have hopes, fears, dreams, families, weight-loss targets, murky pasts, future plans, tans-from-a-bottle, yesterday’s leftovers in the fridge, insecurities, trainer collections, dental appointments. Heck, deep down we’re not that dissimilar to real people.
 
 
 
But sometimes we forget that.
 
 
 
We go through the house moving process dozens of times a month, it is, rather literally, all in a day’s work for us. We take it in our stride, pride ourselves on our stoic professionalism, do not flap under pressure. Sometimes the process frustrates, sometimes people lie, sometimes surveys come up bad, sometimes dates don’t match up. We get it sorted. No drama. No judgment. Another deal in the bag. Pow! Off down the gym.
 
 
 
Until it’s our own move. Then we fall to bits like everyone else.
 
 
 
Because, as estate agents can be prone to forget, houses are not transactional items, and moving house is not a business deal. Moving house is, most of the time, the mark of a massive life event. The thrilling start of a new era. The end of a relationship. The death of a loved one.
 
 
 
My least favourite scene in Fight Club is that bit where Ed Norton blows up his condo and says: ‘That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!’ He’s pretending. His point is that his home isn’t him, it’s just a possession. But I contend that he’s wrong. Our homes are more than that. They keep us warm and dry, give us security, they host our friends and family, they are an enormous part of what builds our current lives and future memories. They look after us until our kids leave home, then we pass them on to the next excited young family so they can be looked after too. They sometimes rise in value and sometimes fall, but they never stop being homes ahead of being assets.
 
 
 
Therefore, when I run for Prime Minister, one of my manifesto pledges is that I will make it compulsory for estate agents to move house every 5 years as a minimum. That way we won’t forget how horrible it can be when it goes badly and how wonderful it is when it goes well. How much it matters.
 
 
 
I reckon empathetic people make the best estate agents, just like they also make the best humans. Moving can be a stressful process, but it needn’t be if it’s run by decent people with empathy, honesty and diligence. I wonder whether that might have also been true of Brexit.

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