I opened the door of the bedroom and saw a middle-aged man lying face down on a bare mattress in his underwear, unconscious. He was surrounded by empty beer cans. He was sharing the room with two others.
In the kitchen, two men who spoke no English were watching football on a tiny TV, smoking cigarettes over a brim-full ashtray. The cooker was thick with grease. The sink was filled with unwashed dishes.
The place stank.
I turned to Rochele, the Foxtons agent who asked me to meet her here, with a view to moving in. “You’ve just got to see it,” she said on the phone.
“It’s a Polish migrant-worker doss-house!” I hissed.
“Think of the potential,” she said, without batting an eyelid. “On paper, it’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Technically, it was “exactly” what I was looking for. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and just two blocks from the nearest Tube station. Right in my price-range too — which was surprising given how big it was. Like everyone else, I was being priced out of my rented flat in central London, and was hoping I might get something that fit my budget in the Siberia of Zone 3.
Until now, my finances looked like they might stretch to a large one-bedroom or a small two-bedroom with a 40-minute commute to Business Insider’s North London office. But Rochele from Foxtons had found me something bigger, priced for less.
All I had to do was evict the immigrants.
This was the moment I realised why Foxtons — the UK’s most-hated property agents — are so successful. Rochele went way, way beyond the call of duty compared to the other estate agents I had been dealing with.
London’s property market is bonkers right now, and it’s a seller’s market. So property agents know they don’t have to work very hard to sell things. I had tried the smaller, local agents offices, and their service was terrible. One didn’t return calls. Another offered to show me only one place. A third wasn’t open on the weekends. Another didn’t do meetings after 5 p.m.
Rochele, by contrast, showed me three places a day and drove me to them in her car. She met me in the evenings and on weekends. She always returned emails and texts. She really, really wanted to get a deal done with me.
In London, it’s trendy to hate Foxtons. Their staff are young, polished yuppies whose aggressive sales tactics gentrify neighbourhoods. Their services are more expensive, according to testimonials on its own website. When a Foxtons arrives in your neighbourhood, with its green Minis covered in the company logo, it means all the poor people are about get forced out, the thinking goes. People vandalise its storefronts in protest. The company also has a wonderfully cynical staff bonus policy, according to The Telegraph:
Junior agents drove branded Minis but if they consistently smashed targets they were rewarded with an unbranded BMW. In short, the top sellers won their way to professional anonymity.
The company is so ruthless that even its bad news is pretty good. Its shares are in decline after reporting rising revenues but a slight decline in profit.
But I wondered if, for all its faults, the key to Foxtons’ success was that Rochele understood that her clients have jobs, and can’t look at houses during the day. She was willing to do the one thing most London agents can’t be bothered with: See clients in the evening and on the weekend.
Ultimately, I didn’t get my place through Foxtons. (And, obviously, I didn’t evict the migrants.)
But the way I found my new place actually underlines why Foxtons is going to continue to steamroller through their competitors. I found a place on a tiny, independent, local estate agent website. The photos of the house made it look terrible, and were all mistakenly published sideways. (Most property agent photos are photoshopped to add in blue skies, or taken with side angle lenses to make them look massive, and displayed the right way up.)
This was the only house I saw that actually looked worse in pictures than in real life. And when I visited the place, I realised that the agent had failed to draw on the plan a half-bathroom near the front door. It had been sitting on the market for months — an unheard of situation in London. On the web, the place looked like a dump. But inside, it was a gem.
So I moved in.
Rochele had worked harder than her rivals. So I felt guilty when I called her to say that I wasn’t going to go through Foxtons. You can complain about Foxtons all you like, but there is a reason they exist — moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do, and the experience is a lot easier if you’re dealing with someone who really, really wants to help you do it. You might not like it but that’s probably where Foxtons gets its business from.
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