Squeezed Middle: Playing hardball in the house-hunt

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

New Statesman
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Curly and I have our tactics sorted. We are playing hardball. If the estate agent thinks he can have one over on us, just because his suits are shiny and his patter is cockney, he’s got another thing coming. We may look like a couple of yogurt-weaving pushovers but we have one clear advantage over him – we are not desperate for this house. If the price isn’t right, we will simply walk away.

Let’s face it, the place is a dump. It has no functioning kitchen or bathroom, it smells strongly of rotting fish and it is situated less than a minute’s walk from a major ring road. No one in their right mind would want it. The estate agent is lucky we’re around to save his bacon.

“We’re not going a penny over 225,” says Curly, snarling. “And if he doesn’t like it, well, he can stick it.”

“Yeah, damn right,” I snarl back, my finger hovering over the call button. I am about to press it when a shadow of doubt flickers across my mind. The house is on the market for £240,000 – do we really have a hope in hell of getting £15,000 off?

There’s no point putting in an offer that’s going to get us laughed out of town. I withdraw the finger. “I don’t know, hon. Perhaps it would be more realistic to go in at 230. We don’t want them to think we’re not serious.”

“OK,” says Curly immediately. “Yeah, you’re right, 230 it is. But if he doesn’t accept that, we just walk away.”

“Absolutely. Just like that. We’re walking.” I press call. The estate agent greets me with feigned surprise. I tell him we are making an offer of £230,000. The line goes silent briefly.

“I’m gonna be honest with you, now,” says the estate agent, in the manner of somebody who is never honest with anybody, ever. “I want you guys to get this house, you know I do. But at 230, it’s not gonna happen. Just last week, I had people queueing up to view the house across the road; better condition, I grant you, but it was on at 360.”

Three-sixty! For a tiny two-up-two-down in the outermost reaches of east London! I get a sinking sensation in my tummy. We haven’t got a chance.

Curly is doing a frantic mime depicting somebody walking away and never looking back. That’s it – hardball.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if you reconsider.” I hang up. For about a second I am proud of myself. Then a feeling of crushing despondency washes over me. So farewell, then, to my lovely garden with a picnic table and space for the boys to play football. Goodbye to the book-lined study, the cosy wood-burning stove. Goodbye to a kitchen with space for a kitchen table. Goodbye to all that; hello to an entire lifetime spent eating dinner in the bed/living room amid piles of Lego and train sets.

After about five minutes, we call back to offer 240. To his credit, the estate agent does not laugh.