Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How I Lost My Innocence

Posting on Tabubilgirl has been somewhat sporadic for the last few months. There's a reason for that. Mr Tabubil and I have bought ourselves a flat - or an apartment, in North-American speak. 
           The flat that we've been renting for the last two years is a wonderful flat.  We love it and we would have lived here forever and ever - were it not for one leeetle issue: 
            The street that runs outside our window is loud. Deceptively pretty, verged with green grass and ancient trees, our narrow little street runs almost all the way from one end of the city to the other. These two lanes are a major cross-town artery, and heavy traffic runs along it from dawn 'til Christmas. Rush hour lasts till ten at night, with all the honking and squealing that go with mile-long traffic jams, and when happily sozzled people, driving with dashing enthusiasm and panache, come back to Santiago from the discotheques in Vina del Mar (a city two hours away on the coast) we have two extra rush-hours at four-thirty every Saturday and Sunday morning. Complete with air-horns.
Sometimes the nicest flat in the world just isn't stay-able.   

            Hunting for a flat to buy is a very different process to hunting for a flat to rent.  The stakes are higher, and the real estate agents are correspondingly more predatory.
            "They'll try anything," my Dad told me. "They'll take you to see places that have nothing to do with what you asked for. They'll guilt-trip you when you tell 'em so - look at you with sorrowful, puppy-dog faces as they explain how they're doing exactly what you asked - only more so, because what they've got right there is better. Don't be buffaloed.  A seasoned estate agent would eat raw puppy dogs for breakfast if it'd help them land a sale. And smile, and offer compliments to the chef."*

After our recent experiences with real estate agents in Australia I wasn't exactly inclined to come down on the side of the real-estate agents, but some of Dad's rhetoric was coming across a wee bit personal - eve bitter. And the very same day that he called me up to talk, a flat showed up on Chile's real-estate website, Portal Inmobilario, that hit every single one of the points on our want-list: it was in the right suburb, situated on the quietest corner of the quietest of streets, and it had a price smack-bang in the middle of our ballpark. There were even photos to go with the listing - not photographs of the insides of bathroom cabinets, or flash-lit corners where ceilings met walls (the people who sell flats on Portal Inmobilario have highly eccentric ideas about what other people want to see) but twenty-six photographs of actual rooms. And the rooms were beautiful
            I called the agent on the listing and made an appointment for that afternoon.  Maybe I had just  circumvented the whole puppy-eating circus and found the place on my very first go. I was so optimistic that I invited my mother-in-law to come with me. Just in case it was so much too good to be true that I needed a strong mind to provide a balancing opinion. The price was low, for what we'd be getting. Perhaps there were problems with the drains? We could deal with drains - a week or two with a good plumber and Bob's your proverbial, right? The place was a gem - there were photos to prove it!   

When we arrived at the address on the listing, we found the agent waiting for us outside a smart, freshly painted little block of flats.  There was even a tightly manicured garden of flowers out front.  It was lovely. 
            The agent smiled warmly and held out a hand. "Charmed"  he said, and turning his back on us, he walked briskly away up the street.  "If you'll follow me -" he called over his shoulder, "we don't want to be late."
            Running after him, I caught his arm and very politely (I like to think) asked him what the heck he thought he was playing at.
            "Oh!" He said. His eyes were very wide and very surprised. "You thought that this was-?  Oh no. Oh dear me, no. We don't give out the real addresses of the places we're selling." 
            He explained to me that in Chile, real-estate agents have to give out inaccurate addresses so that apartment owners aren't bothered day and night by people who've seen the apartment on the Portal and aren't really serious about things. It's the caring thing to do. 
            Four blocks of fast-paced rationalizations later, we came to a stop on the corner of one of the most chaotically noisy intersections in our half of Santiago. There is an apartment building there. It is a building that Mr Tabubil and I walk past almost every day. And when we do, we look up that that building and shake our heads and say "Spare me from ever having to live next to this sort of chaos. Ever." And we shake hands and affirm that we won't.
            So I looked the agent firmly in both eyes and said "No."
            The agent put on a puppy-dog face that would have won a muddy Labrador Retriever a reprieve from a year's worth of bath-times.
            "And I came all this way…" He sighed a sigh. "What in the world are you looking for?"
            Raising my voice to be heard while a fire-engine donged past and six taxis took him on with screaming car horns, I told him what I was looking for-  the whole Tabubil spec: square footage, price-range, wants and not-wants -
            The agent's doleful face cleared like a wet Sunday afternoon before an unexpected ray of sunshine.
            "I understand."  He cried. "I understand. Absolutely! You're so incredibly right. Do you hear the noise?" He swept his hand through the air, taking in the whole honking, heaving intersection. "What you want is quiet! I've got another flat - it's exactly the size you're looking for, just a few streets away. Would you like to see..?"
            And, because the address he gave was on a street we knew - and because it was a quiet street, we said yes. We were practically right there anyway.  

When we got there, the street was empty, as advertised, the building was pretty, and according to the agent, the flat in question was at the back, facing out onto a garden. While he rhapsodized, we were joined by his wife. She had armfuls of forms, and it turned out that to even enter the building I had to fill out those forms in triplicate, hand over my RUT (national ID number), and make written promises of exclusivity and follow-up.
            And yet, we still went inside. After all, we were already there. The flat the agent had praised to the skies was barely a quarter of the square footage he'd promised me - and only if you included the building's emergency stairwell - all six flights of it- and the little cupboard in the elevator lobby where you threw out the trash. The kitchen was a swing-door closet fitted out with a single gas burner and a sink the size of a postage stamp, the "matrimonial bedroom" might have fitted a single mattress if you squeezed and didn’t care to close the door, the 'garden' was a rubbish-filled parking lot, and the rest of it, well - my mother-in-law took one look at the beaming agents and leaned toward me and said, out of the corner of her mouth, "Do I ever wish you spoke Dutch right now" and came down with an acute case of the coughs.

            We couldn't get out of there fast enough. 
            Literally. The agent and his wife had blocked the door.
            "Perhaps" they said, fixing me with two pairs of beady eyes, "your expectations are too high. This place is every thing you asked for. Were you imagining a palace?"
            "I was imagining something that half-way approximated what I said I wanted." 
            Standing with his hands gripping both sides of the door, the agent shook his head. I was the most optimistically optimistic gringo who ever tried to buy a property in Santiago. Did I even know how lucky I was? Why - these two flats I was seeing today were the only two flats in my price range in this half of the city. Double what I was quoting was the bare minimum for a place smaller than this. Why - they were dealing with apartments at triple my price fifteen times a day! 

            Considering that his own agency listing on Portal Imobilario had had no less than sixteen properties in or below our price range, I admired his poker face.  Behind me, my mother-in-law's coughing fit had given up all pretense and turned into full-blown giggles.  Ducking under the agent's arm, I slipped neatly through the door into neutral territory.   My mother-in-law followed me, shooting the agent a rather-too-decipherable look and laughing all the way.
            Back down on the street, we found ourselves back in puppy-dog- territory again. The agent and his wife trailed us all the way to the end of the block, thrusting out handfuls of papers and promising that we'd regret not taking the specs of the best place we'd ever see in a year of looking.       
            We didn’t turn back. Blessed are they, it is said, who have not seen, and yet have believed. Blesseder still, I reckon, are those who come to belief sufficiently far in advance that they might go apartment-hunting in very pointy heels - the better for bringing down on the insteps of insufferable real estate agents! 

*I appreciate that this is painting real-estate-agents with a very broad brush. If anyone chooses to feel offended, go sell your real estate with hearts and flowers and bunny-rabbits laid on, and come back to me with testimonials. We'll talk.

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