What I learnt working as a lettings agent in London
An edited version of this blogpost appeared on The Debrief.
Last summer I spent three months working as a lettings agent in London.
I was waiting for my graduate scheme to begin in September, a Masters had left me broke and the job came along effortlessly, through a friend of a friend. It seemed like an enjoyable way of earning easy money: showing people around posh flats in the West End.
I pitched up at the tiny Fitzrovia office and set about learning the tricks of the trade, the naughtiest of which was called ‘creating a lead’.
It worked like this: you had a flat in a particular area that was attracting no interest so you wrote a description of a similar flat in the same area, used a generic picture from Google Maps, added ‘more photos to come’ and marketed it at a low price.
Of course, this flat did not actually exist.
When people contacted you about the imaginary flat, because they knew a good deal when they saw one, you explained that unfortunately that flat had just been taken, but you did have one very like it, in the same area, the rent was a little more, but negotiable…
You booked them in to view the flat that nobody was interested in and, hey presto, you had created interest.
Trickery was an essential part of the job. I checked BBC Weather updates to pinpoint the sunniest times of day to show our dingy basement flats. I went to war with other agents who hid keys to stop me showing flats. I learnt the buzzwords: spacious; outside space; competitive market, and if all else failed, the buzziest word of all: London.
London was how you explained everything. High rents? Hello, it’s London. Titchy space? Yes, but this is London. Fierce competition for shitty, overpriced flats? What else did you expect in London?
Despite the deceit and the vague suspicion that some of it wasn’t, you know, legal, being a lettings agent was a hell of a lot of fun.
My clients included a student who insisted on picking me up from the office in his car - it was a different sportscar each of the three times I met him.
He explained that he was looking for a flat in Marylebone instead of Knightsbridge because he wanted ‘to keep real and be humble’. Sadly his dedication to reality and humility wavered and the last I heard from him was an email asking if I could show him flats in Sloane Square.
Then there was the thrilling ongoing saga of Lulu, a Nigerian politician’s daughter, who had failed to pay rent for six months. The landlord had only just noticed the five grand missing from his account. Lulu became an enthralling anti-hero.
She had managed to get her university lecturer to act as her guarantor which meant that if for whatever reason she was unable to pay the rent he would be forced to cough up. Whether this lecturer had just been incredibly foolish or if their relationship had gone beyond the usual student-teacher dynamic was endlessly discussed in the office. Either way, the poor man was now liable to pay the entire £5,000 plus interest and his frantic calls to my colleague Gemma became a daily event.
Lulu earned our admiration through her sheer brazen ballsiness. She would telephone crying, mention mysterious ‘family problems’, promise to pay the money by a certain date and we would watch powerless as that date came and went with no transfer.
In one particularly memorable excuse, she emailed Gemma to explain that her bank had frozen her account. She attached ‘the letter from the bank’. It was a word document with no masthead, no date and the bank’s name was nowhere on it. In fact, I think it was signed off, ‘Yours sincerely, The Bank’.
‘She must think we’re fucking stupid,’ Gemma spluttered.
We became obsessed with her. We trawled through her social media accounts, made up of inspirational quotes, lascivious selfies and pictures of her living the high life in various European cities.
We decided she should be our role model and whenever we had any kind of dilemma, we would ask each other: ‘What would Lulu do?’
I never found out what Lulu did, in the end, do. When I left, the landlord was instructing a solicitor, having eventually come to the conclusion that Lulu had no intention of paying her rent and now, safely back in Nigeria, nothing could be done to force her to.
I couldn’t help but feel a grudging admiration for the only tenant to take on the insane rental system and somehow emerge victorious.
Poking around people’s homes was a perk of the job.
One flat in Bloomsbury freaked out everyone who visited. It was owned by a couple who fancied themselves as interior decorators and had done up the one bedroom basement flat as though it was Downton Abbey - black and white diamonds in the hallway, navy blue walls, brocade curtains and saggy velvet furniture. Gemma nicknamed it ‘the flat where terrible things will happen’.
There was the New Cavendish Street top floor flat, rented by an OCD banker. He arranged his toiletries in freakishly neat rows and left a bright pink copy of the Cosmopolitan Guide To Good Sex on his coffee table. The place gave me Patrick Bateman vibes and I half expected to find murdered prostitutes in the cupboards.
Once, while trying to shift a flat in Portland Place, I opened the curtains with a flourish to show off a view only to discover the tenants had stacked the window sills with tottering towers of Pot Noodles.
Towards the end of my stint, one day encapsulated the insanity of the London rental market.
In the morning my phone rang and a well-spoken voice said she was calling on behalf of a Petunia Paddleplash who wanted to see the flat in Rathbone Place.
Obviously Petunia Paddleplash was not her name but it was something equally preposterous and made-up sounding. I quickly googled it as I didn’t fancy waiting on a pavement in Soho for a ridiculously-named woman who did not exist.
But she did! And Petunia Paddleplash lived up to her name. She was beautiful, in a horsey aristo way, did something posh at an auction house and had had a baby with a Canadian billionaire.
Twenty minutes later I watched as she climbed out of a chauffeured Range Rover with a baby on her hip and the billionaire by her side.
I half-heartedly pointed out the flat’s wooden floors, high ceilings and original features while eyeballing him.
He was disappointingly ordinary - a smiling, scrupulously polite man. The only quirk was the odd platformed trainers he was wearing.
Despite my best spiel, they didn’t take the flat. There was no bath and Petunia said she needed one for the baby. My suggestion of a plastic tub fell on deaf ears.
I ended the day with a viewing of a one bedroom flat in Old Street that I was desperate to unload.
Things had become frosty between the current tenant and myself, I disliked schlepping on the tube to show the place and it annoyed me that no one ever made an offer. Some flats are snapped up as soon as they come on the market, others linger. This one was a lingerer.
So I had high hopes that Petra, an accountant who worked in Angel, would take it. She was enthusiastic. She didn’t ask about the damp in the bathroom, the titchy kitchen or the noise from the bar below. I was feeling buoyant when she started saying ‘we’.
‘Will you be living with your boyfriend?’ I asked ‘Or husband, or…’
‘No, my two children.’
I smiled as my heart sank. The landlord would never agree to have a mother and two children in the tiny one bedroom flat.
She kept talking, about her children, a seven-year-old boy and a girl, two.
‘But where will they sleep?’
‘They like to sleep with me,’ she said. ‘We’ll bring my bed, it’s a king-size.’ She nodded. ‘I’ll take it.’
‘Oh great,’ I lied. ‘I’ll email over the details in the morning.’
I was already composing the email in my mind telling Petra someone had beat her to the flat, when she sat down and said: ‘Let’s do it now.’
I sighed, pulled out my phone and did the sums. The flat was £350 a week. The holding deposit was four weeks rent. £1,400. There was six weeks rent in advance. £2,100. The agency administration fee. £300. All in all, £3,800.
‘But what is a holding deposit?’
I began to deploy the buzzwords: secure the property, fierce competition, all agencies have them and finished by yelping: London.
But Petra obstinately would not buy my bullshit. She asked straightforward questions that I could not answer. I gave up.
‘Petra, I’m sorry. I know the charges are ridiculous but they’re the charges. I can’t tell my boss you’ll take the flat but won’t pay the holding deposit. She’ll laugh.'
‘I can’t take it then,’ she said flatly.
We walked out of the flat together. It was excruciating. I couldn’t think of a single suggestion. She couldn’t live in a house share with two children. Moving further out wouldn’t be significantly cheaper - we had just taken on a two-bed in Barnet, the very end of the Northern line, and were marketing it at £400 a week.
This summer job didn't seem such a lark as I watched Petra walk away along the grubby stretch to Old Street station.
My friends and I moan about the London housing crisis because we can’t buy flats in Clapham or Stoke Newington, like our parents did. We don’t live like the characters in Four Weddings And A Funeral, or even Bridget Jones’s Diary.
And that’s sad. But for a seven-year-old boy to sleep in the same bed as his accountant mother and two-year-old sister isn’t just sad, it’s bad.
Soon after the viewing, my graduate scheme began and my short-lived career as a lettings agent came to an end.
I learnt a lot in those three months: confidence, the art of the spiel and, I’m afraid, that in London, right now, the deck is stacked: the landlord and his agent almost always win.
*Names have quite obviously been changed.