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.

Sam Cooke

It’s a stat fact

I love a bit of data. Some metrics.
I’m currently on holiday in Switzerland and am eyeing up a strawberry dessert thing, but without knowing how many calories there are in it how am I supposed to know if my run this morning [54 mins, 777 calories, average heart rate 156, training effort 3.8] burned off more or less than I’d be taking in if I scoffed it? It’ll just have to stay in the illuminated glass case and tempt someone else.
Luckily for me getting a bit of data on the housing market and how well CC&C are doing is pretty straightforward. Rightmove has it all. Rightmove knows when a house went on the market, how much for, when it was reduced, when it was sold and how much for. So I know with high accuracy how well I’m doing and how I compare with my competitors. The only difficulty is, Rightmove won’t let me tell you.
For example, there are three Cambridge estate agency offices who duke it out for second place in the number of houses they put on the market each month. One is me, the others I can’t say. The sharp amongst you might spot that there is therefore one agent who generally puts up for sale more than everyone else. Well done to you and to them, you both win.
Or do they?
Because what does that practically mean? It’s great to put loads of stuff up for sale, but what should matter to a potential client is how much of that sells. And that’s where I’m up there fighting for first place, and not in fact, with the first place agent for listings, but one of the other three. During April and May 2018, in what we consider our postcode areas, I put up for sale a total of 51 houses and found buyers for 49. That’s 96%. Not bad. AN Other and Co. estate agents listed 86 and sold 62, both more than me, but actually only a sales rate of 72%, so you’d have a better chance of finding a buyer with me than them. A 24% better chance in fact. So I win.
Other fun stats to look at are price reductions. There is one big estate agent in Cambridge who reduces a far higher proportion of their houses than anyone else. For April and May, on average, they had to reduce the price on 100% of their properties to sell them. 100%. The average is a little under 30%. Mine was 14%, since you ask. If only I could give you this data you could very easily see that the agent that gave you the super-high valuation is demonstrably using this as a tactic just to get your business and that, on average, there is a 100% probability that you will have to reduce the price to sell with them.
Another good one is % of asking price achieved. When the market was flying the best Cambridge agents were usefully over 100% on this one. It’s now either side of that, maybe 99% one month, 101% the next. For some agents it’s in the low 90s. That’s potentially tens of thousands of pounds a good agent can get you above a poor one with their negotiation skills.
Then there’s time on market. That’s the time from when something is first launched on Rightmove to the date it completes. A good agent will typically want that to be around 100 days. Ours for April and May was 107, one of our close competitors was 99. No one was under this other than a few anomalies who maybe sold one house in that time. But two estate agents you probably consider quite successful have much higher averages – one was 160 days and one 180. So if you unwittingly chose one of those two you’d probably be moving 2-3 months later than with other [better!] agents.
What I’d love to do is share with you is all of this data in detail. Who these agents are, their stats vs mine. It’s only the truth. But Rightmove says no, it’s their ball and I’m not allowed to play with it. I don’t really blame them, imagine how grumpy those other agents would get if I could incontrovertibly prove to you how much better I am at selling houses than they are. They wouldn’t like it one bit, no matter how true it was.
Unlike that strawberry dessert thing. Which I liked very much.

Stats are great, but sometimes you have to take an educated guess, and I don’t reckon it had anything like 777 calories in it.


Sam Cooke

It’s a compromise

Nature vs culture
The question of nature vs culture comes up a lot in my job. Not because I’m prone to Francis Galton* mis-quotes, I’m on about the other sort of nature – trees and lakes and mountains and those sorts of things.
* – For those who didn’t graduate from Long Road’s Psychology class of 97; Sir Francis was a Victorian polymath who did experiments with twins and coined the phrase ‘nature vs nurture’. To make the joke super-relevant, he went to Trinity College, which is one of the big old buildings in the centre of town. You’ve probably been past it. Did you know that the bookshelves in the library were carved by a talented chap called Grinling Gibbons? This funny name adds to my theory that the whole of Cambridge University is based loosely on the Harry Potter series of books. I’m planning to cover this theory in detail in a future column. Stay tuned.
I digress.
What I regularly find myself trying to understand from people in order to work out where they might like to live, is the balance they’re looking for between being around nature and being around culture. Cambridge is pretty good for culture. Not just because we have plenty of museums and that new grasshopper clock, but also because we have a diversity of people, a load of funny little pubs, parks to play football in, a liveliness and bustle that’s easy to see. I like going into town and meeting people from all over the world, then them taking me to some little place that I didn’t know existed despite having lived here for my whole life. But we’re less well off on the nature front. Friends of ours moved from here to the German Alps a few years back because they realised they were right at the nature end of the spectrum and that the chalky hill we have near Orwell didn’t really satisfy their desire for the big outdoors. Their village is amazing – mountains, lakes, meadows, utter peace and quiet. You’re not allowed to mow your lawn at lunch time or on a Sunday lest you disturb the silence. It’s bloody lovely. Sitting here typing this I’m fondly remembering the holidays we’ve had there – running for 4 hours up the wooded logging trails to the top of a mountain and only seeing one other human one sunny spring day was a particular highlight. The fact that the other human was selling beer out of a tiny hut called an Alm added to the wonder of the day, but what made it super special was that, because I had no money with me, he let me have a beer if I promised to come back and pay for it another day. I hope he’s not still there waiting. Sucker. But what do they do for culture? They have a few nice local bars and restaurants, maybe 6, but after that they have to drive an hour to Munich or Salzburg. It doesn’t bother them in the slightest, but it would plenty of people.
Cambridge isn’t the worst for getting to the countryside, compared to living in central London it’s a breeze. The byways and bridleways that surround the city may not be as dramatic as the Alps, but they are only a few minutes’ away from the edge of town and because they’re a bit boring they don’t attract the zillions of people you get walking up Snowden or in Ambleside, so it’s easier to find a bit of space. But then central London smashes us to bits when it comes to choices of vegan restaurants.
I listened to an interview with Brian Eno once and he said that you needed to have two houses to find the balance – one in West London and one by the sea – then alternate a few months at each until you get bored / claustrophobic. Which is a great solution if, like him, you’re Brian Eno, but less realistic if you have a 9-5 job and your bank balance isn’t showing the benefit of decades of great artistic achievement. For the rest of us who like a bit of nature and a bit of culture the usual answer is to live somewhere compromised – quite near a city and quite near some country. Like nature more than culture? Maybe move 15 miles out of town. Like culture more than nature? Consider the suburbs.
But compromises suck. You sell them to yourself as the best of both worlds, but in truth they’re mostly the worst of both worlds. When you live in the suburbs you can’t just walk 5 minutes into town, so you don’t go in as much as you would if you actually lived in the centre. And 15 miles out isn’t the countryside, it’s commuter belt.
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about this a bit. I thought I’d had my Newton’s Apple (Trinity again) moment when I decided to move down Mill Road and buy a motorhome to schlep off to the country in, but it turns out it’s quite tough round there to find a parking space for a 7 metre camper. But I now think I have it: I’d like to introduce you to my latest crowd-funded internet start-up. House Sharing. The basic idea is that you hook up with another family / couple / person like you and you share two houses – one right in the middle of a town and one on top of a hill somewhere. It’s cost effective, because you’re only paying half the running costs, it will probably solve the housing crisis because people like Brian Eno won’t have one house that sits empty the whole time and you get to make new friends. There are a few minor pitfalls, so the plan needs some fine tuning, but with your help I think it’s a goer. Please send PayPal donations to the usual email.

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