Calm down dear and have another skinny latte – says Louisa Fletcher

Now, I don’t think of myself as a bimbo. But I certainly am aware that I do posses some very ‘endearing’ feminine traits. Among those would be the ability to make decisions on really important issues, sometimes with little knowledge on the subject and without taking expert advice, yet presuming to ‘know best’. Worse still, when it all goes horribly wrong and I am proven not to be omnipotent, I then tend to sulk and go into a state of denial, telling everyone that will listen that it will all be OK and, whilst things haven’t gone according my original plan, it’s not the biggest disaster in the world. Even if it is a catastrophe of epic proportions, as a stubborn she-devil, I’d never admit it. Sound familiar to anyone else? Or am I the only honest person here?
Another thing I’m fantastic at is indecision. Shall I, shan’t I? Worse still, I occasionally find myself halfway through a task or project – decorating my bedroom would be a good example – to find myself having a complete change of heart. Then having decided that my current course of action possibly isn’t the right one, I sit on my arse for a while, prevaricating and navel-gazing, until another idea enters my head which, momentarily, has more appeal. A bit later still, and then I finally may decide to embark on a different course of action – normally to both the original idea and the second, supposedly ‘better’ solution.
So what’s the answer – self help groups called ‘Women’s Anonymous’? I can see it now, ladies old and young, sat around in groups, nursing skinny latte’s and declaring, “Hi, my name is Louisa and I’m an awkward, contrary female” to a round of applause. You can imagine – it would probably take two hours for the sessions to get started as we’d all be so busy deciding if it was a good idea to be there in the first place, then changing our minds three times over how to set the chairs out.
OK, so I know you’re asking, what has all this got to do with property? Isn’t she supposed to be surmising how the American Sub-Prime lending market is going to bring about the mother of all property price crashes over here? Or shouldn’t she be giving us some handy hints about how to buy property in Surrey for less than a tenner and make a fortune out of the housing market just by painting the living room magnolia? Ah, well my friend, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s the very same Princess-Tiara-Tantrum mentality which I sometimes suffer from that is, currently, responsible for the biggest change for decades in the home buying and selling process – Home Information Packs.
You see, it goes a little bit like this. When good ol’ Tone swaggered into power in 1997, buoyed on the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement, one of his nifty vote winning policies was that he was going to improve the housing market, and streamline things to ensure that less time and money was wasted when suckers like you and I decide to hawk themselves into debt for the rest of their earthly days to buy a tiny dwelling that any self-respecting rabbit wouldn’t describe as a bijoux hutch. Initially, the job fell to a certain Mr Prescott to make this magnificent piece of manifesto workable reality. But he was too busy playing croquet, so delegated the task to a couple of female colleagues – Ruth Kelly and Yvette Cooper. And that’s where things went, to use a popular colloquialism, ‘Pete Tong’.
Blessed with the same approach to life as many other intelligent and educated women, our two ladies-of-Westminster-who-lunch decided, quite possibly over a Caramel Macchiato, to improve the home buying and selling process using what can only be described as ‘bird logic’. Why bother talking to anyone in the property industry and at the coal-face when, as a woman, you know so much better? What’s the point in asking consumers and those actually affected by the very issues you’re trying to eradicate what they may want? And why on earth would you do the bleeding obvious, when you can have so much more fun getting everyone to do something that you and only you think is sensible, if a little expensive and complicated to implement?
And so, in 2002, the outline for Home Information Packs was released to a breathless property industry, awash with anticipation at the ‘miracle scheme’ that was going to make their lives easier. At first, everyone complained; the mortgage companies pointed out that, far from the upfront survey being sufficient for lending purposes, it was about as reliable as asking Kevin the teenager to mark his own homework. So they would still need to carry out a survey on any property against which a mortgage would be secured. The conveyancing solicitors then argued, quite reasonably I thought, that although HIP’s would mean the Vendor had to pull together local searches prior to putting the property on the market, these would be so far out of date by the time the deal was near to exchange, it would be best to do a new lot of searches on behalf of the purchaser, once an offer had been agreed. Surveyors up and down the country bemoaned the fact that they were so busy already, the added pressure of trying to turn round a Home Condition Report and Energy Performance Certificate prior to the property going on the market was going to slow things down. A lot. Then, of course, the estate agents – who are a belligerent lot anyway – waded in, complaining very loudly that HIP’s would signal an apocalyptic end to the current buoyant housing market, and that property prices would fall through the floor. We all know that the lazy bastards were really worried that they’d have to work harder for their money, but some of us thought that, worryingly, they may for once have a point.
So, with the entire property industry up in arms, what did Cooper and Kelly do? Well, they went out to lunch, compared handbags and decided to ignore everyone, and carry on regardless.
As a result, it was made clear to everyone that the packs weren’t going to go away, so an entire industry of HIP-Providers sprung up, run by entrepreneurs who thought that this was, literally, a licence to print ten pound notes. Millions of pounds were invested. Thousands of jobs were created. Ordinary folk saw the chance to give up their boring jobs and retrain as self-employed Home Inspectors in readiness for H-day (the industry term for the date HIP’s were due to go live). They spent life-savings on qualifications to get themselves accredited in time for the launch, which they were assured would result in a lucrative new career. And while that was going on, the property industry still groaned and complained, but the louder they shouted, the more our girls just ignored them. As we do.
Then finally, last summer, the ladies had a stroke of genius. Remove the need for the Home Condition Report! That way, the packs will be quicker to put together, they said. And much cheaper. A brilliant bit of feminine manipulation, in keeping with how we manage our husbands/partners/fathers/sons/male work colleagues every day. Let them think they’ve won, and we’ve listened and taken on board what they are saying, when actually they’re doing what we want them to do anyway. Well, that was the theory. The reality was that, in making the upfront survey a voluntary component of the process, in one fell swoop, Cooper and Kelly managed to ensure the hundreds of people that were halfway through their training to become Home Inspector’s were jobless, and thousands of pounds out of pocket to boot. With no redress and no way of getting their dosh back.
But, our lovely ladies’ of lack logic hadn’t finished yet. So whilst the property industry, who had now collectively developed a nervous twitch, held their breath and waited for the next gem, a cooperative of complainants from the ‘old boys network’ of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Law Society and the Council of Mortgage Lenders decided that it was time to bring out the big guns. “If we can’t reason with these bloody women,” they chorused, “we’ll go to the sensible chap in charge and sort it out like men.” Which normally involves a lunch, copious amounts of Montrachet, a heated discussion and much back-slapping. But no handbag chat, obviously.
After a couple of expensive restaurant bills and much guffawing, someone somewhere put pen to paper and voiced their concerns formally to the government. In late May this year, just days before the original launch date of HIP’s, it was suggested to Cooper that she may like to have ‘a bit of a rethink’. Being a woman, no doubt this was met with a wobbling bottom lip and a Princess-Tiara-Tantrum moment, but ever-true to her Y-chromosomes, Yvette came out fighting. Deciding to ‘phase in’ the HIP’s initiative at a later date in the year, starting with four bedroom houses to ‘ease the industry’ into the system, I’m sure she felt that no-one would have noticed that anything was wrong. That would be other than the investors who saw millions wiped off the value of their HIP’s-centric business plans that day, and the thousands of people who were made redundant a week later by firms who had geared up for the ‘big bang’ introduction of packs in June. Due to the lack of direction in terms of timescales of when the rest of the UK’s property market would be subject to HIP’s, the pack providers couldn’t sustain wage bills of staff that they just didn’t need. But did the government reimburse them? Umm, nope.
So, if I’m here saying what a mess this whole thing is, I hear you cry, how would I have made the home buying and selling process better in the UK? Well, that’s simple.
I’d have regulated Estate Agents – they are, after all, the one part of the process where you don’t have to be qualified, or even have a brain, for that matter. I mean, for heaven’s sake, I read the other day that an agent in Kent has just appointed a seventeen year old as a manager in one of their offices. The lad only left school about six months ago, but apparently he ‘competently manages many professional landlords’ portfolios’. I just wonder if they realise that their entire worldly wealth is being dealt with by adolescent with aspirations on a garishly pimped-up Mini Cooper. Methinks not.
Regulation would mean that minimum standards of customer care, corporate responsibility, core competency and staff qualifications would be enforced across all estate agents, not just the ones that take it seriously at the moment. Dodgy agents would be no-more, and in their place, finally an industry where every consumer would feel safe and protected when dealing with their biggest asset, rather than the ‘take pot luck’ situation we are in today. There’s even a voluntary industry body, the National Association of Estate Agents which, if Kelly and Cooper were feeling lazy, they could have just decreed that it would be a mandatory requirement to be a member if you wanted to practice as an estate agent. Then there wouldn’t have even been much paperwork to deal with.
So, there you have it. Proof positive that to err is human, but to really stick a spanner in the works, it takes a woman. And I should know – I am one.