Moving Notes #2: Sigh, Agents

This is part two in a series. See the previous post for a bit more context.

When we embarked into this whole process, I had very little experience with moving and flathunting: I’ve lived in my mother’s house back in Italy, in Ireland I found an apartment fairly quickly thanks to a colleague “passing on” a viewing he didn’t need, and in London I found the flat through the relocation consultants that were assigned to me after the move. The same was true for my wife, who’s been mostly living in flatshares before.

And in the middle of a pandemic, the flathunting process seemed even more annoying, as it had a number of immediate and delayed effects. The first one was restricting our options in how far we wanted to move. While the whole situation meant that work is not expecting me back to the office for quite a while longer, and that meant we could have looked at options further away from London, such as Birmingham (which we had considered briefly before, particularly as I was looking for a new job earlier in the year), going and finding a place would still have involved a significant travel on mass transit (trains) and spending time in shared accommodation (hotel). Plus risking of being locked up there if a new lockdown was announced before we would have found a place.

So at the end of the day, we decided to focus in the same area in West London where we’ve been living. This had the non-negligible advantage of letting us keep the “support network” of friends we found here – most of them while playing Pokémon Go, of all things – and of sensible takeaways, shops, delivery services, …

It also had an effect that I hadn’t figured out when we started. As we knew that virtual viewings weren’t going to be particularly useful to gauge a new place, including the feeling of the area or neighbourhood, we had to take a difficult decision: as my health issues make me particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, my wife would be taking the vast majority of the viewings. What we didn’t realize then, is that the real estate agents wouldn’t be able to drive her to the apartments they selected — and they totally failed to account for walking between different flats.

While she’s perfectly capable of walking miles, and she did – including hatching a number of Pokémon eggs! – when an agent books two flats that are 40 minutes walk apart to be viewed within 20 minutes of each other, you know that something is wrong. If something could have managed to make me more annoyed at car users who can’t figure out not everyone wants to be in a car all the time.

Eyes On The Prize

Before I start rambling on about the horrible services provided by most agencies I dealt with, let me explain what was that we have been looking for.

When we started the process, we weren’t sure we would leave the apartment. We were just informed that our landlord was trying to sell the apartment, and if he did we would have some time after the sale process starts to find a new place. Then again, as I did say in the previous part, we got to the point where the agency dropped so many balls, that we felt compelled to leave anyway.

And while the apartment we were living in was doing okay for us, beside the noise and the agency, there were a few things we were happy to change when moving. The flat we had been living was what I chose myself when I moved to London: a bachelor working at an office, with an occasional need to work from home, and with the far-fetched possibility of hosting guests for board games (only happened a handful of times in three years) and an even less likely chance of hosting friends visiting from abroad (I did technically have space to host one person sleeping over, but then turns out that living sandwiched between three hotels, it’s much easier to just let them have their own space).

As by then it was clear that for at least another year there wouldn’t be a commute to the office in my plans, it was clear that the office needed more space (particularly, storage space) and that it would be used nearly exclusively for working, rather than gaming. Turns out that after spending eight hours in the same room having meetings and writing docs, you don’t get to feel very good about sitting in the same chair and fire up a game, even one you like a lot.

What we definitely wanted was to keep Hyperoptic as ISP, or if that wouldn’t have been possible, at least have another gigabit fiber provider. It turns out to be very useful to not have to worry about my wife’s streaming lectures while I would be having a meeting. Plus the Hyperoptic support has been one of the best ones I’ve ever dealt with, and I know how annoying ISPs can be.

So our aim was, if possible, to find a three-bedroom flat – that way we could each have our home office, and we would have more space to “change the view” – with Hyperoptic. But we also would have been happy to settle for a more spacious, or more comfortable two-bedroom, particularly one where the master bedroom is not shaped like an S-tetromino like our previous flat.

It’s 2020, Learn Your ISPs!

I hate the words “unskilled labour”, because they fail to convey the importance of a variety of skills, but I would lie if I said I hadn’t chuckled at people calling real estate agents such in the past. The reason for it was that three years ago I had significantly different experience between the best and the worst agents I interacted with. This time wasn’t an improvement. But before I go on ranting, let me say that there’s plenty of skill in being a successful real estate agent — we could tell who was safe to deal with and who to run away from fairly quickly. So, kudos to the good ones, it’s not an easy job.

The first problem with pretty much all of the agencies (except one) has been that going through an aggregator such as Rightmove, they will ignore the details you provide in the contact form. I had explicitly sent a message stating that I’d like to book a viewing for the shown property, and possibly a selection of similar flats with Hyperoptic or similar level of connectivity. I also stated how I was busy with work and meetings, and wouldn’t be able to take phone calls easily, so email would be my preferred contact method.

Only one agency read the message and followed up on it. And turned out to be the most professional agent we have dealt with. So let me praise them: riverhomes and Tamir Gotfried in particular, did an exceptional job in taking in our requirements, and not wasting our time showing us unrelated or unsuitable flats. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a flat that fitted our requirements (Virgin Media being the best ISP they had available at that point — and I have personal reasons to sticking to Hyperoptic at least).

From nearly every other agent, we got the same type of excuses of not knowing what ISPs would be available — or not knowing how to check. Let me be clear here, I have no problem with checking that myself, but most of the agents refused to give the address of the flats they wanted to show us until the day, if not after the viewings. So instead of being given a list that we could pre-filter, they insisted in showing us a lot of flats that had vDSL as the best connectivity option.

Now, the Rightmove website (but at the time not their mobile app) had a drop-down from CompareTheMarket that shows the average speed available “at the postcode” — which for us would have been a good proxy, as we were looking for a flat in an apartment building, and buildings generally get their own postcodes. Unfortunately, most agencies lie out of their teeth on Rightmove (we’ll get back to that in a moment).

This is not particularly new. When I moved here, I had one agent insisting that a 25Mbit DSL line, that the landlord subscribed to the flat, and couldn’t be changed, was “fiber”. She wouldn’t accept my point that “That’s not fiber”. Sure the marketing material may call it “fiber-powered” or “SuperFast”, but it’s not fiber in any way shape or form. And in 2017 I expected an agent able to tell me whether a flat has floor heating or radiators should be able to tell me if a flat has DSL or fiber.

On the other hand, the agent that showed us the apartment we eventually rented said it had floor heating, while the only heating we have is heatpump based.

Do You Even Rent?

As I said, most agencies beside one ended up being a lost cause. Overall, the worst experience we had was with Foxtons — and it feels like we dodged a bullet of an agency worse than Dexters. But similar problems appeared with many.

Among the selections of flats we saw, with different agencies, there was one flat one floor up from a nursery, with the balcony overlooking into their back lot. We’re a childfree couple – as I noted talking about Sarah Millican as she makes us feel quite a bit more welcome than others – and that kind of flat would be a very bad fit. And, by the way, that’s an important part: if I did choose a flat knowing that there’s a nursery literally under my feet, and then complained about the noise, I would be a horrible person. Instead, I just want my peace and quiet and will avoid that location, stop.

Another flat had a thermostat (or possibly AC control unit) that was enclosed on all sides by the back wall of a “built-in” cabinet. With no separate sensor. It’s a great way to have basically no control over the heating in your bedroom, but the agent couldn’t even tell that this would be a problem. Maybe not even the landlord. As we saw a different flat in the same building with Foxtons, we also found that the built-in wardrobe was not part of the first flat at all — it was probably added to look like the flats in the upper floors, but for those, the thermostat is by the door, and outside of the cabinet.

Speaking of Foxtons, the first few options they showed us were not exactly what we were looking for. When they asked us our “approximate budget”, I gave them a bit of leeway in what to show us, and said there would be a bit of room to stretch. The stuff they showed us at first was well within the budget, even conservative I’d say… but smaller (and significantly so) than the place we were living in. So I explicitly pointed at one of their properties and said “Here’s more of what we’ve been looking for — this one seems well out of our budget right now, but if there’s any chance for it to drop by 10%, we’d be happy to stretch our budget to meet it.” And that kind-of helped.

Aside: the reason why I pointed at a flat outside of the budget and asked if it could come down is to apply a bit more of the techniques discussed by Getting More. We did our homework: we knew that the rent demanded for the property was on the high side of the market at that point, and we could tell the flat hadn’t moved in a number of months according to Rightmove. There was a chance that the 10% discount could still be lower than the loss in not finding anyone to rent the flat.

I say kind of, because the agent then did propose showing us a few more flats that, overall, did fit our needs a bit better — except that only the one we pointed at had Hyperoptic available. One of them was still tempting, and we were very disappointed by the lack of ISP options, given we knew the building right next door was Hyperoptic-ready, but it also was a “duplex” (which in this country means on two floors, but is a word that would confuse most Italians), and my wife was (reasonably) worried about me trying to go downstairs to grab sugars during a sugar low. I already nearly fell on the stairs during the visit.

But we did end up seeing the flat that we pointed at at first. It turned out to be even more spacious than the images shown, but it was also… dirty. I can’t use any other word, the wall over the cabinets was full of black spots that looked like mold, the extraction fans had dustbunnies visible inside, and in general it seemed to have quite the layer of grime all over, but that was partially understandable given that it still had tenants inside. We still put in an offer for a rent a bit higher than we were hoping for, but still in the “stretchable” part of the budget, and on the advice of the agent, we suggested a three years contract — the landlord was supposedly looking for someone to stay long term.

“I don’t feel comfortable renting from your agency”

After we put in the offer, the trouble started — the first call (from another agent at a different office) was to tell us that the landlord wouldn’t accept a three years contract, and requested a single year renewable contract. They also wouldn’t accept our first rent offer, and so they asked what would be our best for it. I did say we could go up £50/month but no more, but since that was enough they tried convincing me reminding me that I wouldn’t have to pay for heating — because that’s part of the service charge and so paid by the landlord. And according to them the law changed so that wouldn’t be possible to do anymore. It started smelling fishy, but then I relented, and accepted to raise up to £100 from our original offer.

The second call, informed us that the tenants of the time wouldn’t be leaving on the 1st of October as originally intended, so we wouldn’t be able to enter the property on the 15th as discussed. Instead the tenants would be leaving (hopefully) on the 1st of November. This is, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 related: the tenants were going to be flying back to their country, but the flights for October were cancelled, so hopefully they’d make it for November. I was back then sceptical, but I have not bothered checking if those flights reopened at all. That had us a bit worried, but since at that point we hadn’t given notice for the flat yet, we were okay to moving it to one more month later. Ensue call number three, asking us to move in on the 1st of November rather than 15th — despite the fact that our tenancy was terminating on the 26th, so the options would have been no overlap, or a much longer overlap than expected.

The fourth, but not final, call was to let us know that once the agents explained to the landlord that they wouldn’t be able to charge the hot water to us anymore, the landlord decided that our offer was not just too low, but even the advertised rent was too low! Indeed, they decided to ask more than 10% more money for the rent than originally advertised. We said we were no longer interested in the property, and thought we left it at that.

Yet another call, this time from the agent that showed us around had her just short of begging us to reconsider — saying that the rent would be “all bills inclusive, except council tax”. I said I wouldn’t trust it but we’d think on it, while I did the math. The only way that the increase in rent would be even covering the costs of bills would be if the heating would cost more than double what we were paying for the two bed (which sounded unlikely) and if they also paid for the same Hyperoptic service we had. But that also meant that we wouldn’t have control over the bills, which sounded very unlikely.

In particular, the thing they said about the hot water not being chargeable to the tenants was totally a lie. While the management company for the development (which is still the same for the old apartment, our current apartment, and the apartment we were discussing) did make things more complicated by not issuing separate hot water bills, hot water is counted as an utility and can be charged to the tenants. So, I really doubt that it was going to be “all bills included”.

Anyway, at that point we started looking further afield, and given we had done the math for the budget stretching, we started looking at slightly higher rents too, as options. That turned out to find other snags, which you can continue reading about afterwards, but also meant we found the flat we currently live in through another agency altogether. That agency, by the way, requires you to pay a deposit when you make an offer, which is only refundable if the offer is not accepted, and not if you withdraw the offer.

After that, the Foxtons agent who showed us around contacted us asking to show us three more flats, one in the same development, one across the street, and one… well, the last one we don’t know, because from the night before to the day we were supposed to see the flat, it was taken off the market. But this time, we were promised no more back-and-forths: the flats were managed from the same office as the agent, and her own manager would be the point of contact.

One of the flats was actually interesting. While the total square footage was not higher than the one we did end up renting, it was a three-bedrooms apartment — so smaller rooms, but with more space for privacy. And supposedly we could have had it for a bit less than we ended up renting (even considering the lost offer deposit). We considered it, and put in an offer with a couple of requirements (namely to remove the furniture that would be redundant to us, and to get the Hyperoptic socket installed — the flat was “ready” but the socket was never installed).

Then we got another one of those calls that we started dreading from them: the landlord appeared to have accepted the offer from another couple some time before with a different agency, but then some money didn’t change hands, and so it wasn’t clear if the place was officially rented or not. She would call us back by afternoon to confirm. We heard nothing until 8pm, by which time we sent an email pointing out that we weren’t interested in the property anymore, and that we would take an offer elsewhere.

The day after, the agent tried to call me (I was in a meeting, couldn’t pick up), texted me, spoke with my wife, texted her, trying to convince us to see a few more properties. I had to be rude and state explicitly that we wouldn’t feel comfortable to rent a property from Foxtons by that point, since two of the flats that we considered with them ended up having so much drama.

Agents, Lies, and Rightmove

Rightmove is probably the most commonly used website to look for housing, to rent or buy, in this country. It aggregates listings from any agency that would publish (I assume, for a fee), and provides a way to contact the agencies without exposing too much personal information up front.

Unfortunately, it’s also a nest of liars.

Since we have been looking for properties not too far from where we were living, we knew quite a bit about the area already. So when we would see a listing with a GPS point attached to one of the fancy, posh buildings of the development, but with the name referencing one of the older, still-to-be-fixed for cladding buildings, we knew we were made fun of.

Some of the listings are just slightly confusing. The flat we used to live in was advertised as having a “residents’ gym”, which turned out to be a half-truth: there’s a residents’ gym, and technically we could have gotten access to it, but as my wife went to check, the management company asked her to pay around £200. Turns out that being a resident is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Leaseholders do get free access by virtue of paying the service charge, but tenants need to pay separately. Except some tenants might have access already because the landlord already got the fob on the accesslist, and nobody is checking. Our fobs were not in the accesslist.

The same flat was advertised for sale (and still is at the time of writing) as having a concierge service. There is no concierge service for the building we lived in. I think it was meant to be there, as there is a strange door on the corner that looks like it could have been a concierge, but it wasn’t — only two buildings in the development have a concierge, and that was not one of them.

But the biggest lie is for properties that are not actually on the market at all! We found lots of those, and I complained to Rightmove about it. The first one we saw with Foxtons was from a building that’s still being finished, so they are releasing flats in “drops” — when my wife went there with the agent, the building’s concierge told them that they didn’t have any available flats to show. When we contacted another agency because of a very nice looking, spacious apartment down the road, we found out that it was not available at all.

Turns out that my complaints to Rightmove fell on deaf ears: according to them, even if a flat is already off the market because someone sighed up on it, the agencies are not required to take them off their site at all. They may mark it as “let agreed”, but they are not required to by their Terms of Service. The only moment when they are required to remove it from the site is when the new tenants move in.

So it seems like most agencies have incentive to sign up their best properties to be rented months before they are to be resided in, and keep them on Rightmove as a way to catch contacts. That way they will show you something else, which might not be what you’re looking for, but they might have more margins on.

Final Results

At the end we settled for a two bedrooms apartment, like we had before. We stretched our budget, I want to say, significantly, in part considering the likeliness to spend at least one year, possibly more, working from home, and so wanting to have a more comfortable living for the time being. We didn’t move very far — we literally are in the next building over, and the savings in doing the move mostly ourselves (more to that in a future most) probably made up for the first year of extra rent.

The agency we found the flat with was one of those with the trap listings, but they acted more professionally than Foxtons overall (again, there will be more to say about that), and we no longer have to deal with a property management agency.

But of course the trouble, or the annoyances, didn’t just disappear after finding a flat, so you’ll be able to read more notes and more trouble later on.

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