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THESE are dark times for the real estate business. Housing prices are still high enough to force buyers into a sobbing foetal position, but too low for sellers to act out their fantasy of diving headfirst into a pile of dollar bills. But the real victims, apparently, are the property agents. I read earlier this week that so sluggish has the market become that they have been forced to do other things to make ends meet - washing cars, driving taxis and the like.
While the lack of activity in the market certainly has something to do with it, I suspect that some of the agents headed out the door in this Exodus had no business entering the Promised Land of 2 Per Cent Sales Commission in the first place. Earlier this year, I spent two months looking for a house, and am convinced that at some point during the property boom of the last few years, everyone and his uncle went out and got a real estate agent licence. Now, I'm not sure about 'everyone', but his uncle is ill-equipped for the challenges of persuading someone to part with millions of dollars for a bit of enclosed space in the air.
Take, for example, The Sweater. This fellow, I met when I went to view a penthouse unit. The only thing penthouse-ly about this place was that there was no other unit above it. This place was a penthouse in the technical sense, in the same way you could technically eat cat kibble to stay alive on a shipwrecked vessel. Split over two floors, the unit had its master bedroom on the upper level, surrounded by shimmering expanses of concrete that reflected heat into the room. In a way, this was a multi-purpose room: bedroom and greenhouse. The agent arrives, perspiration dripping down his face and, in the bedroom/greenhouse, begins intently flapping the front of his shirt in and out. "Wah, up here so hot," he wheezes. I persevere, nonetheless. "Tell us about the place," I say. He mops his brow and thinks a moment. "This one is the last unit left," he manages.
"Oh good, good," I say, mentally edging towards the door, desperate to put this unit - so awful that no one else would buy it - behind me.
And then, there was also The Stammerer. Talking to him, you became the fascinated audience of his elevator-esque complexion. Every time he had to open his mouth, blood would rapidly drain from his face, before coming back up again. At the end of our visit, his lips trembled with visible effort. "T-t-t-thank you," he said. The hand he offered me was shaking.
There was also Eternal Sunshine of the Clueless Mind. "Where is the walk-in wardrobe you mentioned in your ad?" I asked ESCM. "Here," he says, indicating a cupboard, about the depth of my body, had I still been a lithe university student. "But this is just a built-in cupboard," I say, confused. "Yes, built-in, walk-in. This one," he says happily. Out in the corridor, I notice a garbage chute, one that looks suspiciously communal. I turn around and ask if this means there isn't one in the unit itself. "Yes, very hygienic," he says, beaming.
I have met dozens of wonderful, competent property agents, mind. And to be fair, it is hard to be halfway-decent, with the kind of sellers and properties you have to work with. "When can we view this person's house?" I ask another property agent, one whom I'd really liked, on account of her possession of all her marbles. "He says that if you want to view, you can stand outside his house to see," she says. This takes place over the phone, and I am glad she cannot see my expression. It has been a month since then, and every week, I stand guard over the URA website to satisfy myself that this toad's house still has not been sold.
Some houses are no prized hovels, either. "Why are you not interested in this unit? May I have some feedback?" an agent had texted me. I'd texted back: "The unit has a patio. There is a small toilet window that opens directly onto that patio. That window BELONGS TO THE NEIGHBOUR (emphasis mine)." Seeing this place was a great lesson in empathy. Who is in more distress here, I'd wondered, as I stood in the seller's backyard under his drooping garden umbrella. Me, because someone can look into my patio and see me guzzling a mojito in my housedress at any point? Or my neighbour, wet, naked and vulnerable in her bathroom, knowing that some drunk stranger is lounging about outside directly under her shower window?
The thing is, a few weeks later, that unit was miraculously sold. Who on earth would have bought this place? I'd wondered. No, more importantly, which property agent had managed to sell it? Now that chap, he's not driving taxis or washing cars. In fact, as you read this, he's probably just sold a crappy penthouse with a hot bedroom, tiny cupboards and no garbage chute - to some shmuck who only saw it from the outside.