Thursday, 31 October 2013

It's not the agents who are dodgy in London, it's the buyers.

The other day Channel 4 ran a much trumpeted 'expose' on the questionable practices of some estate agents when it comes to mortgage finance. I didn't see it, but Twitter was awash with reaction, recrimination and, in one case, regret.

It all sounded terribly obvious, and so NOT news.

With the possible exception of a John Lewis salesperson, when would you ever completely take the word of someone trying to flog you something?

Whether it's a major political leader, a humble used car salesman or an Eton educated estate agent, you just know that their own interests come way ahead of yours.

What would make a far more original and contemporary report Mr Channel 4 Commissioning Editor would be an investigation into the iffy characters now buying up London property.

I can't quite believe some of things that have been happening on the sale of our second project, a small Kensington house. I need to write them down just to confirm to myself that they're real.

The first deal, agreed off-market, became mired in murky eastern european 'mafia' connections, and the second, on the open market, produced a dodgy offer that had more than a hint of tax avoidance.

Unbelievable though it may seem, I am NOT joking.

The first buyer apparently worked for a controversial billionaire rumoured to be connected to the shadowy head of a powerful organised crime syndicate.

Because of this, our buyer's application for a mortgage (probably not sold to him by the agents) sparked a bank enquiry into his connections.

I could understand this if we were talking oligarch sums, but we're not. The amount he was seeking to borrow probably wouldn't fill the fuel tank of a super-yacht.

It seems the bank's extensive credit checks even run to a Google search these days, and a couple of clicks had quickly exposed the question marks surrounding our buyer's employer.

Whether these rumoured connections are in any way true, I have no idea. For all I know it's just an unjustified smear put about by political rivals. That's the problem with the web, it's full of unsubstantiated rumour.

Sadly, after a few weeks, we had to rule this guy out. It just didn't look as though the banks were in the mood to lend to him.

The second buyer, who was one of many dozens to view the property, seemed altogether more solid.

He was from southern Europe. So, from my point of view, still a bit of a worry. But the agent had done her homework and reassured me with details of the buyers prestigious London address and impressive worldwide portfolio of past and present property projects.

All looked set fair for a fast exchange. But I just couldn't get rid of the slightly churning sensation in my gut which usually signals worry and uncertainty.

And sure enough, a couple of days after agreeing the deal a disturbing email arrives. His solicitor asks if I could meet with their client to discuss "the nature of the deal".

"What the f...k does that mean", I not so politely asked the agent.

Told that he just wanted my view on planning issues, I pretended to be out of town and offered to call the 'buyer' rather than meet him.

The moment the slow, heavily accented voice answered the mobile I just knew we were in trouble. It was like there was virgin olive oil seeping out of my handset, such was the oozing, slippery nature of the conversation.

No, he had not agreed the price, apparently. (Even though he'd signed a written offer specifying the amount, and even though he had aggressively pushed me and the agent to accept this offer.)

No, all along, apparently, we were supposed to know that he had really only ever offered £250k LESS than the offer we had in writing.

Funnily enough this would bring his offer magically below the £2m Stamp Duty band. Well, well.

No (and I keep starting sentences like this because he did), he couldn't go above this he owned various properties around Europe perhaps we would like to take holidays in these places by way of compensation for our disappointment.

I don't know about you but £250k is slightly more than my usual holiday budget. Not only that, the offer was clearly dodgy, almost certainly illegal.

Both the agent and I quickly, and very thoroughly, washed our hands of this appalling time waster.

The man was either completely mad, or something rather more sinister.