Friday, 31 October 2014

Five agents pitch for my business. Or was it the other way round?

It's been a long and stressful day.

Five agents have viewed the house, and opening the front door for the first time to the critical gaze of these professional appraisers is akin to exposing oneself in public.

Of course they're going to be polite. Of course they're going to find something (however small) to pick on and praise. Of course they're going to say how keen they are to market the property.

But what do they really think?

Occasional glimpses of their true opinions are there, if you pay attention.

"Perhaps a little more storage in the second bedroom wouldn't go amiss" means "christ, that room's bloody small and there's absolutely nowhere to put anything."

"It's an interior design that covers almost all potential buyers" means "it's incredibly bland".

Translating their views on the market requires similar interpretative skills.

"It's getting softer" means " It's pretty awful out there and prices are actually falling."

"Buyers have slightly more choice at the moment" means " Nothing's bloody selling so the market's stuffed with similar houses."

"There are still serious buyers out there" means "we met someone last week who actually seemed keen to buy."

This may be funny. But it's no laughing matter when a very significant part of our personal wealth (ha ha) is tied up in a single property.

Without naming names (sorry about that, but I actually might need these people), here's a quick sketch of today's visitors.

Agent 1: This single office agency is tres fashionable. (Or at least likes to think it is.) I actually quite like the main guy. Although I'm much older, we have a few acquaintances in common. Others in the industry have warned me off him, but I can't help admiring his tilt at the old school networks who dominate his patch. Today he arrived looking unusually depressed and downbeat. This is very rare for agents who are normally so falsely upbeat they remind you of American waiters. It turns out he'd lost a large sale the previous day when a celebrity buyer had walked away at the last minute without explanation. His visit was also clouded, I think, by the fact that he didn't think I would seriously consider appointing him. Sadly, after his performance today, he's right.

Agent 2:  A smart double act on the doorstep this time. In the past I've resisted appointing this agent as their people can be frighteningly haughty and a touch condescending. Not this time however. Just the right mix of upmarket confidence and intelligent insights means that this enormous global agency brand goes shooting up in my estimation. Without patronising me, they make me feel good about the house while at the same time managing my expectations on price. A clever and difficult trick to pull off.

Agent 3: This is the sort of bright young woman any agency would be pleased to employ at a senior level. But she and her agency don't feel quite right for this job. It's a well known multi-office London agency working in all the hot (well, not so hot these days) areas. I admire their attitude. And know they are not full of bull. I feel, however, that our house needs a bit of bull to maximise its potential.
I also feel their office (even in these portal dominated days) needs to be a bit more on the doorstep. Her office is the other side of the Cromwell Road in a land more populated by flat dwellers, transient international investors and Ferrari driving wide-boys. Our street, on the other hand, is full of families that actually live and work here. Eat at The Abingdon. Say hello to each other. And care about their neighbours. It's just too different.

Agent 4: This double act is old school from the tips of their polished brogues to the cut of their sub-Saville Row suits.  Henry Snr is very considered, clearly a very successful equity partner, much smarter than his 'toffish' manner implies and able to remain thoroughly charming while delivering bad news. Henry Jnr is all smiles, enthusiasm and optimism. They make a good, if slightly imbalanced team. I know that on a daily basis, however, I'm going to be dealing with Henry Jnr. And even though I respect this agency, I'm not sure that's going to work.

Agent 5: This is the small agency I bought the house through. They are practically neighbours and have been incredibly helpful throughout the process of buying and renovating. I like them. I would love it if they sold our house, but I'm not convinced they have enough clout to be our sole agent. They will however get their chance alongside a bigger name. Because not only are they hardworking and nice, they also know the streets around here better than anyone else. Nothing (and nobody) moves without them knowing about it. And that's invaluable.


Although the agents were technically pitching to me, it didn't always feel that way.

Having lived and breathed this house for 18 months it actually felt more like I was pitching my taste and limited development skills at them. But perhaps that's just my own insecurity coming out.

I could of course have dozens more agents round. Many of whom would almost certainly flatter my ego rather more than those above. But ego doesn't pay the bills and I think we've seen the right mix of agents.

Now we just have to wait for their valuations and think about who we'd like to work with.

The valuation is of course driven by market forces such as local comparables and the dreaded 'price per square foot' index. I doubt, therefore, that their numbers will vary that much.

Who we'd like to work with, on the other hand, is a much tougher question. And one to sleep on.

Night, night.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Bloggers Block and the W8 on my shoulders.

While you were busy slapping on the sun block this summer, I was suffering the frustrations of 'bloggers block'.

I must have started and abandoned at least six different blog pieces. And with my last effort published way back in July, friends and followers have begun pushing for an update.

It's not easy, however, to explain the combination of excitement and extreme apprehension I feel as we near completion of our W8 project.

What will be the next disaster to delay us?

Have I spent too much? Or not enough?

By how much have I blown the budget? Will it ever get finished?

Will it sell? And what's it worth, in today's less than bubbly central London market?


When we finally started work on the house earlier this year, the tiny kitchen was so old the look was a retro fashion trend. 

The semi-basement was a damp, dark, inhospitable space fit for little more than rats. 

The flank wall was a 40ft x 30ft maze of frighteningly wide cracks. 

The bathroom (well, it had a bath in it) was a lethal little cubby hole with an electric heater circa 1955. 

The roof leaked like a watering-can rose. The beam holding up the 'V' roof was so rotten you could have pulled it down by hand.

The place was a disgrace. And Lady or not, I think the wealthy owner should never have been allowed to let such a pretty little house in one of Kensington's best streets fall into such disrepair - dangerous disrepair.

Seven months later, it's basically a new house.

New roof. New floors. New electrics. New Plumbing. New flank wall render. New steel cage supporting the whole house. 

What it doesn't have yet, though, is a new kitchen or mains gas or a basement floor. Yet we moved in three weeks ago. 

To say I'm a little stressed is the understatement of the decade. For weeks now I've only had about four hours sleep a night. 


The builders have been magnificent. I can usually find fault with anyone and anything (as my wife will enthusiastically testify) but Victor Build has been almost faultless.

Even as I sit here with a half finished kitchen, a ply-boarded floor and mice running rampant round the feet of my daft dog, I can't really blame Vic and Tomas for the problems.

There is however a product I do hold responsible for causing me to age ten years in that many weeks, and I'm embarrassed to say that it's a product I chose, that I championed here in my blog and that I desperately wanted - Dinesen Douglas Fir floor boards.

These solid, extra thick boards look indestructible. But within minutes of being laid on to our underfloor heating system they curled up like cabbage leaves. 

We thought it was damp in the sub-floor causing the problem, so ordered more of these expensive lumps of timber from Messrs Dinesen. Two weeks later they finally arrived and a small army of fitters worked over a weekend to rectify the problem. Only to find exactly the same thing happened.

I don't want to get into a libellous rant about Dinesen but I would urge extreme caution to anyone thinking of choosing this currently fashionable wood. Read and then re-read the fitting instructions. We've had to throw out almost £7000 worth of planks and pay several thousand pounds for a, hopefully, more stable Douglas Fir floor from a different supplier. It's not just the money that's galling, it's the waste of time and wood.

The finish?
A pretty London cottage rises from the rubble.

Normally, of course, these problems with the floor would just be irritating delays to the project. For us, however, they've been far more disruptive.

In the middle of the 'crisis' we moved in. And have now been camping in the house for about three weeks.

The kitchen has a working oven, a cold water tap, a fridge....and little else.

We have three knives and forks, six plates, a few cups and glasses....and little else (the rest went into store for what we supposed would be a few days).

From the outside, our neighbours think we're living in bijou luxury. From inside it feels like a builders yard we've been forced to live in.

Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that we aren't the only ones who've moved in.

A colony of mice have taken up residence too.

For a few days my son and I were able to hide this fact from my wife. But when the scrabbling sounds and movement from the waste sack became louder than the TV we had to come clean.

Not surprisingly, Julia freaked. So we abandoned London and went to Somerset for some respite and some proper meals.

This went well until I discovered a bat flying around our bedroom. Even I freaked at that.

So, short of decamping to Fleet Services on the M3 and sitting out the works to both houses, we have nowhere to go that doesn't mean living with builders, delays, problems and payouts.