28 March 2009

I love looking for a house. it combines so many of my favourite pastimes, from talking to liars, to getting lost in unfamiliar streets, to spending my weekends looking at other people's toilets, to being landed with an unimaginably huge debt that will be impossible to fully repay in my lifetime. If only I could somehow incorporate peeling my eyeballs with razor blades into the experience, house-hunting would be the perfect way to spend a hot summer afternoon.
I particularly value the opportunity to interact with the ladies and gentlemen of the real-estate profession, whose old-school job skills - such as the ability to lie while wearing a suit - are often overlooked in this high-tech age of file-sharing, twittering and blogs.
I am not sure what estate agents are for*, but I always imagined that their role might include publicising the price of a house. This turns out to be the one thing that they are most reluctant to do. Instead, they put the house up for auction, then tell you that the buyer would prefer to sell before their home went under the hammer, and invite any "serious offers" (presumably to discourage "comedy bidders", who might suggest exchanging a house for a jar of plankton, or a suggestively shaped gherkin). The only help an estate agent can give is to name an approximate figure the buyer may be willing to accept, such as - to pick a round figure - "about $1 million".
I have found that "about $1 million" can mean anything up to $1.3 million, but most commonly refers to $1.1 million. Of course, $1.1 million is not "about $1 million"; it is $100,000 more than $1 million.
If I were fired from this job - say, for bringing the magazine into disrepute by punching out an estate agent - I might choose instead to start a fish-and-chip shop**. If an estate agent came in and asked the price of a bag of hot chips, I would say, "About $1.50," then give him a bill for $100,001.50 - because that's exactly what they do.
If estate agents exercised their talents in almost any other industry (i.e., if they stood in the aisle of a supermarket, wearing a suit and lying about the prices of dry goods) they would quickly be escorted from the premises.
In a bid to figure out what estate agents actually think they do, I turned to the corporate world's magnificent contribution to postmodern literature, the "mission statement". One branch of a prominent national real-estate chain claims: "The challenge for our company is that you should be served with the utmost respect and that, as we traverse the plains of time, you feel a sense of pride in having travelled upon part of our journey." Hmm, nothing about selling houses, then.
Another outpost of an Australian real-estate empire aspires "to offer clients the highest standards of real-estate solutions, either internally or by drawing on the vast infrastructure of our franchisor, through a comprehensive range of services based on all aspects of property across commercial, residential and investment market sectors". Pricing homes for sale does not come into that one, either.
Elsewhere, one of the big countrywide signage polluters strives "to live up to tradition as well as develop new strategies to cope with the changing world and market", whereas they might be more usefully employed putting a value on property, then sticking a notice in the newspaper, advertising it. But it seems estate agents do not consider this a part of their job. They are too busy traversing the plains of time, drawing on vast infrastructure, and living up to tradition.
Only one office of a major sales company gives a clue to its true function. It is "committed to exceeding your expectations", which estate agents regularly do - to the tune of about $100,000.

* Shark bait, maybe.
** Perhaps as a prelude to a career as a novelty politician, a short period of imprisonment, and a turn on Dancing with the Stars.