Ugly as a Toad

BY A COUNTRY AGENT

I always turn up a minimum of 15 minutes early to an appointment without fail, except for the odd natural disaster of course. There are many reasons for this, mainly because I was always taught that to be “on time was to be five minutes late”. I have a particular aversion to being on the back foot.

You see, when you are about to walk into someone’s home and give them advice that they may or may not like regarding their largest tax-free asset you need to be in control of the conversation and confident in your evidence. I feel that being late is not only highly unprofessional, but it prevents you from completing all of your preparations; it costs nothing to be on time and be polite.

Prior to an appointment I like to do a small amount of research on the property, the local area and comparable sales prices. Turning up to the property early allows for any potential delays en route but more importantly it enables you to identify anything which may affect your findings “online” prior to the appointment.  If your research doesn’t make allowances for the poor state of repair of a neighbouring property, the newly established caravan park across the road, the motocross track or, worse still, untidy neighbours, then the price you propose might be well out.

The adverse risk of this of course is that your competitors are unlikely to have done research to this depth, place an inflated price on the property and the homeowner will prefer their advice to yours and you will not win the instruction, despite you having given what is almost certainly the best advice.

So, I had decided to make an extra effort that morning.  I was pitching for a large house and I knew there would be strong competition. Naturally, I wanted the instruction, some 8,000 square feet, 19 acres of grazing and parkland, woodland and a small lake. The views were to die for and reached far across the county but best of all it “needed work” and there were plenty of tired outbuildings begging for conversion.  It was a fabulous property and one which I had absolutely no doubt I would find a buyer for.

This was my sort of property, one which over the years I have regularly found myself both giving advice on and sourcing buyers.  Without meaning to gloat, properties such as this are not easy instructions to win, or indeed get the pricing right for as several variables have to be taken in to account; it is essential to be able to think outside of the box in these sorts of situations, providing advice that my competitors may not be able to impart.  Planning law, building regulations, landlord and tenant law, etc all need to be taken into consideration. 

I try hard not to ruin it with an air of superiority however one sometimes has to take the lead of the potential client and it is important to stand apart from the traditional corporate approach which I know our competitors would approach the instruction with:

“How splendid, of course we can help, we’ve got buyers galore moving out from London who’ll snap this up, we’ll just take some pretty pictures and it’ll sell in no time…” etc.

Absolute codswallop.

I went into my office, shut the door and collated my pitch.  This was going to be a good day I could feel it in my bones.

The vendor, Mrs Toad, was “old money”, she and her family had resided at Toad Hall for some 60 yrs. She had invested a great deal of time and energy into her home, to the point where they shared DNA. She and her late husband had spent those years, and indeed plenty of money, turning it into something quite splendid, ornate, and faithful to its Georgian roots. However with the passage of time and her husband passing away some 20 years ago the property was now showing its age. Badly.

Mrs Toad was a touch under 5ft, plump with jet black hair & a streak of white running down the middle. She looked not unlike a badger, spoke with several plums in her mouth and sat in tweed, wearing a fleece covered in holes and fingerless gloves.  She was a strong-willed lady and whilst frail in body was certainly not frail in mind.

Her eyesight was failing her, she could barely walk and was therefore confined to the ground floor of the property.  The family’s money had clearly run out long ago and as a result there were now lodgers residing in some of the rooms in order to help with the maintenance and upkeep. They were not of the same class as Mrs Toad, nor did they have the same respect for Toad Hall. I am sure that they were all very pleasant but to them Toad Hall was merely a cheap roof over their heads, it was not a living breathing member of their family like it was to the Toads, the faint “herbal” aromas from their lodgings only served to reinforce this.

In my job I get to see some wonderful examples of period architecture, I also get to see some perfect demonstrations of how to massacre it.  This was both.

As a result of the lack of available funds the property had slipped very badly into disrepair; I could feel the opportunity to flex my brain matter and impress the old girl.

As she slowly shuffled from room to room I followed and listened to her telling me the stories about what the walls had witnessed over the years, the ball room, the dining room, the kitchens. I am sure it was all remarkably interesting, or it would have been had I listened to a word of it; I was too busy trying to figure out how to tell this charming lady that her home was in serious trouble. 

The property was riddled with damp from both the ground and the roof. All of the windows were rotten and there was evidence of subsidence in several places. Without having been up into the attic it was also likely that the roof needed replacing.

You see, as you would expect, I know a thing or two about these types of properties and how to value them in several different ways, I have certain professional qualifications that prove it, and without major renovation and urgent remedial works, the property would degrade further into oblivion. The best advice here would be to sell her beloved property off piecemeal and on the cheap.  Something which I suspect that she would be horrified by because the property that Mrs Toad was describing was not the property that I was looking at.

Our tour around the house was slow and painful but closely monitored by Dickie, the eldest son and Charlotte the daughter, both of whom lived at the property in their own quarters.

“I’m going to let these two show you around outside and the other buildings as I need to rest my legs.” Mrs Toad gestured to the siblings. “Dickie, don’t forget the rose garden and the swimming pool…”

“Don’t worry mum, I know it reasonably well,” he had a look of distain on his face. He clearly thought she was a stupid old woman, standing in the way of what was rightfully his.

“…and the stables and coach house…”

“Yes mother.” he cut her off testily, walking away.

It was abundantly clear that the brother and sister despised one another. Dickie, I was informed, was a failed salesman of sorts, in his 50’s with a weight issue, bad dress sense and lodged in the poorly converted coach house with his wife and three children.  He fancied himself as a bit of a charmer and an informed businessman but actually came across as one of life’s losers.

Charlotte only cared about two things, her horses and her inheritance. She was single – she had no time for a man – and was as tough as old boots, just like her mother.  She had a weathered look about her and a large gap in her front teeth which whistled distractingly when she spoke, I imagined that she was born in jodhpurs and her wardrobe contained little else.  She both looked and smelled like a horse and walked like John Wayne.

“These would make a wonderful development, I’ve been talking to a developer who wants us to do something together on it,” he was pointing at the stable block and coach house. “He reckons we’d make a fortune.” His attempts to sound authoritative and educated in the ways of property were somewhat cringeworthy.

“What, Mark?” Charlotte scoffed, “He’s not a developer, he’s a builder and a crap one at that,” a look of distain covering her face.

“Well, done well they could certainly be of interest to the market,” I said, hating my own cliched and transparent words.

“ Yes, ‘well’ Dickie.  ‘Well’ being the operative word, Mark’s never done anything well in his life,” Charlotte repeated and over pronounced the word for extra dramatic effect, I wondered why.  “Not only that he’d make a fortune and we’d end up being no better off.  Look at the mess he made of the flats!” it was abundantly clear that she didn’t like or trust this Mark chap.

“Well, he’s just the first one I’ve spoken to, you know, to get a professional opinion,” said Dickie weakly avoiding Charlotte’s withering look.  She had made her point.

The tension and snide comments continued as we walked around. Charlotte was right, the quality of the conversions was extremely poor and whilst the buildings themselves weren’t necessarily derelict they were not in a terribly good state of repair either and the fact that they were Grade 2 listed meant converting them would cost a fortune, leaving little value in them to a developer. To be frank they’d have to be gutted and started again – it was clear that Charlotte had correctly got the measure of Mark.

The tour of the outside didn’t last quite as long as the tour of the house itself but what was obvious was the fact that these two didn’t care about the property or their mother’s sentimental affection for it, they just wanted the money out of it as soon as possible. They knew little about the process or the potential tax implications and as a result it was likely that my advice would come as a disappointment to them, it was obvious they didn’t have the money that was required to make the property “market ready”.

I soon found myself sitting down in the draughty and drab drawing room with Mrs Toad, two scruffy terriers and one incredibly smelly old Labrador were sprawled at her feet.  Accompanying her were Dickie, Charlotte and a third sibling who remained eerily quiet and whom nobody introduced.  On top of this were four of the six grandchildren (two were away at University, Mrs Toad boasted several times). 

It made for an intimidating audience.

I decided that turning on the charm wasn’t going to cut it. It was clear this was a family educated through reasonable schooling and more recently by the Daily Mail. They saw Toad Hall not as the family home but as their inheritance, it was their pathway to financial security and the chance to get themselves out of the economic quagmire they were all in. My advice needed to be belt & braces.

As I explained the intricacies of the recent changes in planning law and how, unfortunately, they wouldn’t apply to her outbuildings none of their facial expressions changed, they just sat there listening intently. I stopped, looked around at them all and then it began – the questions came thick and fast, I found myself being interrogated by the “knob” of Toads.

Understandably, they wanted to maximise the value of the property and they had firm ideas how, they weren’t about to let some jumped up Estate Agent tell them that they were wrong. I explained how much money it would take to make the property ready for sale in order to realise the return they wanted.  I told them how much current land values were and why the outbuildings were fairly worthless in their current condition; it was becoming clear that there genuinely was no money to spend making the property good.

“In the current market the property would expect to achieve around £850,000,” my voice sounding as confident as it could in the circumstances.  I didn’t finish my sentence stating that I felt that this figure was a little ambitious but with clever marketing and proactive selling it might be possible.

I had been asked for my advice and I was duly giving it, there was an uncomfortable silence. The Toads all looking like they were desperately searching their brains for an answer that didn’t exist, all with similar facial expressions.

Us agents are used to this, it happens a lot when the advice is not what the vendor wants to hear.  The dogs awoke from their slumber, wondering why the talking had stopped. I looked at a sea of unimpressed faces.

Mrs Toad was sat bolt upright, unflinchingly perfect posture, even at her age.

“Mr Devonshire, I have lived in this house for an awfully long time. I wish to provide financial security to my family after I am gone.  Are you telling me that I have lived in this property and cared for it all of these years only to hear that I will not be able to fulfil that wish?” she said sternly.

I had completely misread the old girl.  She dismissed any sentiment towards the family home, this was now purely an investment.  My heart pounded in my chest.

“Cared for,” she’d said. Hardly, the place was like a squat. The kindest thing to do would be to put it out of its misery.  Anyone wanting to buy the property would be spending nearly £1m restoring it back to its finest at the very least.

“It depends on how much money you wish to give each of these blood sucking little leeches,” I didn’t say.

I adopted my most professional tone; “Mrs Toad, you kindly invited me here today to provide you with advice which I have duly done. I have many years of experience in these matters and I am sure that we can work together to find a way to maximise the potential return from the property, however it does require considerable investment first and it is important that I be honest. I do not wish to waste your time by promising the impossible.”

All of the Toads glared at me like I had just said that the youngest one was hideous, which he was by the way.

“Thank you for your ‘advice’ Mr Devonshire, ” uh-oh, I thought, here it comes:  “I think we’re finished here, Dickie would you see him out.”

My jaw dropped.  “But…”

Dickie rose awkwardly to his feet and gestured towards the door.

“…I’m very sorry that I couldn’t tell you what you wanted to hear but it’s really important that I give you the right advice so that you can get the most from the property.”  I could hear the tragic desperation in my voice as I walked to the door into the hallway.

“Sorry Rupert, I think its best we leave it at that, don’t you.” Dickie tried his best to look like the man of the house but looked quite awkward, it was a role that clearly did not suit him.

I was glad to.

We walked down the corridor, the music from upstairs gently drumming away. “Sorry Dickie, it’s just that it’s important that I don’t raise your hopes, please explain to your moth…”

“No point chap,” he said resolutely. “We need more money than that.”

“But it’s a bit of a science I’m afraid and you only get one chance to get it right, put it on at the wrong price and it’ll never sell.” I stepped out of the sizeable front door.

“Well, we’ve got some other agents to see.”

“I’ll drop my report to you this evening, please give it some thought…”

“Will do.”

I opened my mouth to say goodbye just as the door slammed shut, I was left staring at the stained-glass window to see Dickie’s shape waddle back down the reception hall. I closed my mouth, turned on my heels and walked to my car feeling somewhat empty.

“Well that went well,” I muttered to myself.

Some weeks later it came to the market through an online budget agency at the hugely inflated price of £1.6m, with sales details promising the impossible and mentioning little about the problems with the septic tank, the footpaths across the drive, the leaking roof, the lodgers and so on. The marketing was appalling and offered little by way of fact or information.

The real victim was Toad Hall. It remained on the market at the high price for a year or so and a rumour had reached me that Mrs Toad had sadly passed away.  It wouldn’t be long before a “fire-sale” occurred, or worse.

I bumped into Dickie in a sandwich shop in the local town one lunchtime.

“How are the family?”

“Yes good thanks, eager to move now Mum’s gone.” he said sombrely.

“Oh yes, I was sorry to hear that, Dickie.”

“Well she’d been ill for a long time, so we expected it, all a bit odd though. We miss her so much.”

“I’m sure,” I said, struggling to reconcile my memories of the family all together with what he had just said. “It’s never easy.”

“It’d be easier if we could sell the bloody house though.”

I looked at him to see what he wanted me to say. “No offers yet?”

“Nah, nothing that we’d accept, all around the sort of figure you’d suggested, and you remember how that went down,” he said, without a hint of irony.  “If we don’t sell it soon the banks will take it.”

I nodded, “Sorry to hear that Dickie, good luck and my best to your family.”

I didn’t tell him that we’d already been called by the bank to provide some advice.

Rupert Devonshire is “A Country Agent”.  A married father of two in his mid-fifties, Rupert has worked in the rural property market, selling some of the North of England’s finest country properties, for the past 30 years. Writing as “A Country Agent”, Rupert shares with us some of the amusing highs, and indeed lows, of his career to date.  Whether he being is attacked by a swan, propositioned by a cougar or watching an ostrich chase a surveyor, there is usually a hysterical undertone. If you have read any of his tales, you will appreciate that Rupert Devonshire is probably not his real name.