Monday, 29 June 2009

Tipping Point

It was an intensely hot, super sunny day three years ago and flat-hunting had driven me to the brink of madness. After several fruitless weeks of openly disdainful letting-agents asking ridiculous rents for nasty little boxes, one agent actually seemed pleased to hear from me. He could show me a flat immediately (adding, when he remembered himself: “…I’ve had a cancellation, so I can squeeze you in for a quick viewing…let’s see… right now, actually.”)

How odd - he didn’t sneer. Stranger still, he listened to me and didn’t claim that the price had risen over night. Either he was being nice (don’t be silly) or could it be that he was desperate, too?

The agent arrived in the cliché branded Smart car, and ignored me to grandly shuffle some papers. His old-fashioned spiel was complimented by a rapidly dating wide-boy hair-style, erect with gel. He was in a hurry to show me the building which would cast a shadow over my life, a nondescript oblong block of orange brick, set back from the main road.
“They’re going fast, better make up your mind!” he insisted, gamely sticking to his script. My reticence clearly unnerved him.

“I suppose I could show you another one… ooh, you’ll get me in trouble…” he joked in a feeble attempt to get me onside.
The building was mostly empty, so I could take my pick. He seemed to be reading aloud from his own advert:
“You will enjoy a magnificent vista…” Then correcting himself, he continued, “I mean, there’s a view. If you like that sort of thing.”

I smiled vaguely. I was homeless and trying not to appear needy. I mentioned the other flats I’d inspected, all identical, bleak and eerily devoid of tenants, but he pretended not to hear. Louder this time, I said:
“No really; I’ve seen a lot of flats. Too many. Must be making your life quite hard.”

He looked unsettled. I don’t enjoy messing with people’s heads, but I had to make my point. I wonder if at that morning’s team meeting, somebody had suddenly noticed a pile of unlet newbuilds, and he’d been ordered to reach a target.

My phone rang, and I took a call from a landlady who - to my surprise - couldn’t conceal her eagerness to have me move in. I’d left a message answering her ad for a below-par flat well outside my chosen area. Politely, I asked for a discount. She admitted the price was steep and agreed to go lower.

Gel-boy was rattled. The flat I was standing in was already fifty quid cheaper than the original ad, for no clear reason. I decided to look again at the foyer, and then ask for a further reduction. Bartering in tourist markets makes me feel uncomfortable, but rents had been ramped-up by landlords, developers and letting-agents – the usual suspect ingredients in a layer cake of greed.

“Look,” I said, studying that ‘vista.’ “You don’t really need a quick decision, do you? There are plenty more flats just like this one…”

I moved in and spent summer nights on my balcony gazing across at cranes and the twinkling half-lit checkerboard of empty newbuilds in the distance, listening as Dovecot Towers came alive, only for it to die a lingering death.

And now, on another sultry summers evening, I can’t help but wonder if the moment a letting-agent condescended to haggle coincided with the precise time, perhaps the exact second that everything changed, when the rollercoaster property market ride began its perilous descent, careering downwards, out of control.

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