Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Home is where the gazumping isn't - part the first

I gather from the lack of comments or responses in any form that no-one read to the bottom of my last blog. Perhaps it was too long, too dull, too detailed, all of the above; in any case, I'll take that as a sign that I shouldn't add any portion of it to the one day in history project.

What is gazumping? Well, that is best described by explaining the process of house buying here in sunny England (a-hem). Now, I will warn you that I do not by any stretch of the imagination have a complete understanding of the house buying process in England. I have read up on it (awhile ago) in a useful book which I highly recommend to anyone who does want to buy or sell a house in England, called (coincidentally) Buy, Sell, and Move House. (The English don't move, they move house, which conjures up a cumbersome yet convenient image whereby you don't need to do much packing nor unpacking, but loads of padding and bracing!)

I have bought and sold houses in Connecticut and California, and the processes and fees are radically different between the two. The process here is closer to Connecticut, but it really is something else.

Starting with the search for a house. Were it not for, I think most Americans would go nuts trying to find all the houses for sale in a particular area. (Unfortunately I didn't discover it until late in the process). There is no MLS here, at least not in evidence. Real estate agents, called estate agents (I guess they're not concerned whether it's real or not), work for their company. They don't work for buyers, and only slightly for sellers. Before I get some irate estate agents flaming me, let me explain. In the US, you ask a real estate agent to work with you on buying a house. That agent may work for a company, or they may be independent. They are licensed to work in the particular state they work in (at least, I think most states have a licensing procedure), and they don't usually charge any fees up front. Their earnings are derived solely from the sale or purchase of a home. Now this real estate agent (if they're reasonably good), will take your requirements, enter them into a search on the Multiple Listing Service, a nationwide database of properties that licensed agents have access too (and maybe others, for all I know), and come up with a list of properties that at least roughly fit your criteria. These properties could be listed by any agent, any company, so long as they subscribe to the MLS, which most do (except individuals who sell their own house, and there are some services you can pay to list you on the MLS).

Your real estate agent will then take you to several of these properties (the ones you indicate interest in based on a screening of the listings they give you) on a given day. You might see 7 or 8 properties if the agent has the time. The agent is the one who coordinates the visits, makes arrangements for access to the properties, etc. You just sit on your duff twiddling your thumbs and wait for the phone call. Some estate agents specialize in a particular geographical area, and vet the houses themselves before they show them to clients.

Admittedly, all this service comes at a price, anywhere from 4 to 6% of the final purchase price (to be split between the buying and selling agent in some way). But if you're a busy person and you have a good agent, it's worth it.

Now, let's compare to the English estate agent. There is currently no licensing requirement as far as I can tell, so any schlump can hang up a shingle and call her-/himself an estate agent. But it actually works out OK, in that you don't work with a single agent when you're buying (or even when you're selling - you can actually have your house marketed by more than one agent/company at the same time!) You, as the buyer, have to look at all the various estate agency Web sites and see what they have on offer. They are all organized(organised) differently, with different search capabilities and criteria available. Many have a sign up for mailings, but they'll put you on a paper mailing list and send you glossy sheets in big envelopes when a simple email would have done, thereby offending my environmental sensibilities. Were it not for Rightmove, you'd have to look at about 10 different Web sites every couple of days for new listings. Fortunately, Rightmove comprises the listings from all the agencies, although not from any of the "for sale by owner" sites (though I found listings at those sites are pretty thin).

To arrange viewings, you must coordinate timings with the various agents. So for example, if you want to view 3 houses listed by 3 different agencies, you have to call each agency to try and arrange a time. Odds of getting the time you want on a Saturday are slim, and so there's this telephone ring-around you play until you can get some reasonably close viewings, rather than hanging around the area waiting for the next viewing. It's a good thing I didn't have a job...

Oh yes, and when you give agents your criteria, they look like they're paying attention and are oh so polite, and then you get all sorts of property listings you wouldn't even look beyond a textual description of. It's so hard not to say to them "What part of 'must have a garage' is difficult to understand?" but you can only give a tight smile and say, "No thank you, we really do need a garage." (thinking 'as I've told you 6 times already'). At least they get a much smaller percentage out of a sale. We had the unfortunate experience of losing a house because we weren't ready to make an offer (I was, I LOVED that house, but I'm not bitter), and even though I called the estate agents TWICE and told them to make sure that they called us if there were any interest shown on the house at all and gave them all sorts of telephone numbers, one day I looked at the listing on the Web and saw the new information "Under Offer". I burst into tears. (I also called the estate agent and said in the politest way I could that I thought they were completely incompetent and that I was crushed due to their inaction. I think the actual words were "I was wondering what I needed to do to make sure that I am informed when there is interest in a property. I called twice and stressed our interest in this property and explained our position to 2 different agents, and was most disappointed to find out that the property went under offer without our having the chance to bid." all in the most pleasant voice I could muster. Those of you who only knew me way back when would be flabbergasted, I'm sure.)

Anyway, back to the point. (this is getting awfully long...I shall stop here and continue in a separate blog entry)

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