When you are a victim of this country’s housing crisis – and heaven knows there are millions of us – it can be hard to decide with whom to be most angry. Is it the successive governments who have failed to make home ownership an achievable ambition for much of my generation? The foreign investors who ramp up prices but leave their properties empty and unloved? The tenancy management companies that fail to listen to tenants’ concerns about safety and living conditions? The MPs who, because so many of them are buy-to-let landlords, won’t do anything to help those of us stuck in expensive rented accommodation?
Or is it the buy-to-let landlords themselves, greedily hoarding all the property while the impoverished and the young struggle to make ends meet? Older people, sitting in five-bedroom houses much too large for them? Gentrifiers? Or should we even be angry with our own peers, who, by accident of birth and family and privilege have been given that crucial leg-up into the security and stability that is lacking for so many of us?
So many candidates – but perhaps none is so unpopular, so mistrusted and reviled, as the estate agent.
It is a profession that regularly features on those lists of the most disliked jobs in the UK (journalists being another popular choice, I am obliged to add). And with so many horror stories involving scams and ruthless profiteering, is it any wonder? So charged has the housing situation become, so steep the fees, and so ludicrous the bubble, that recent news that so many of them are going out of business is unlikely to tug at the heartstrings of many.
A study claims that one in five high-street estate agents is now in danger of going bust as a result of oversaturation and a growing threat from online rivals. While it’s unbecoming to revel in the misfortunes of others, you can at least note the level of anger towards the industry. Two years ago, residents of Islington and Stoke Newington may recall how estate agents’ property signs in the areas were covered over with others reading, “Estate Agents: Everyone Hates You.” Branches of Foxtons have been subject to graffiti and have seen demonstrators protesting outside their shop fronts (one inspired adult even fashioned a Foxton’s estate agent Halloween costume for their child).
I had a friend who worked briefly as an estate agent who even hated herself. She struggled to tell people what she did at parties, and admitted to me that she occasionally had nightmares about being invited on to a TV quiz show and having to introduce herself to the studio audience: “My name’s Harriet, I’m from Essex, and I’m an estate agent!”
Cue a chorus of boos.
This disdain is not without reason. The “admin fees” charged by lettings agents were getting so out of hand that, at the end of last year, the government announced the decision to ban them. A report from the charity Shelter found that nearly one in four people in England and Wales feel that they have been charged unfair fees by a letting agent. One in seven had been charged more than £500.
And that isn’t the only reason that customers feel fleeced – there are the tiny flats that turn out to be not at all as advertised: poky, damp hovels barely fit for human habitation which agents insist are stellar opportunities. There’s also the pressure tenants can be put under to come up with the cash, often resulting in them signing up to unfavourable properties on contracts with even less favourable terms without being given enough time to think about the consequences.
It’s particularly difficult when you don’t have much money. I have interviewed people who have disclosed their budgets to agents who – used as they are to dealing with cash buyers and Russian oligarchs – rudely laughed them out of the place. Stipulations regarding guarantors also make it very hard for those on low incomes. The insistence that a guarantor earn above a certain amount or own property of a certain value is a barrier to poorer tenants.
I could go on and on. This isn’t about glorying in the demise of estate agents, but acknowledging that they have gone unchecked for far too long. Estate agents are changing the fabric of our neighbourhoods, and our perceptions of how we experience our search for that very simple and human thing to want – a home. But they are not the only ones at fault. Anyone who has been at the wrong end of an agent will be able to tell you about that lonely feeling of no one having your back or being able to help. As with so many of these stories, a lack of regulation and a systemic indifference that allows for the exploitation of the desperate and the vulnerable is as much to blame as the agents themselves.