It was in 1967, about a week after I left school just before my 18th birthday, that I got my first job as an employee at Montagu Evans & Son as it then was in Central London. A junior in the town planning department, along with errands for the surveyors, the job included colour-washing plans for appeals. It took a while to get the hang of the standard expected but once I’d got the knack I found it relaxing to spend time at a drawing board with paintbrushes and water-colours.
ME acted for major developers and I was on the planning team for the development of Brent Cross shopping centre, town centre schemes in Stockport, Saffron Walden and Cardiff, the latter involved a land use survey of the city. One job involved preparing plans on parchment for a private Act of Parliament to build on a disused cemetery.
My mother, more ambitious for my future, remarked that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life colouring plans so despite the pecking order whereby longer-serving juniors were given first refusal when vacancies arose I applied for and was transferred to another department. Others were not amused by my jumping the queue and the longest-serving junior left soon after.
In the management department, I looked after some residential properties. A block of flats in Sutton, Surrey, some tenanted houses in Brixton and West Ealing, London and an estate in Homerton, East London. The properties in West Ealing and Brixton were owned by an elderly spinster. Every year it fell upon my boss to take her out for lunch. When he suggested I do the honours, I was told I could keep the visit short but I got on well with the client so I didn’t. In Homerton, the weekly rent collection was every Monday morning. I’d travel straight there from home arriving by about 10am then walk the streets, knocking on doors and collecting rents and by about midday I’d travel by bus to ME’s office in Holborn, my raincoat pockets weighed down with coins and notes.
It was one of those estates where everyone knew one another and whenever a property became vacant someone related to someone already living on the estate would take over. I used to dress up for the occasion and plodded the streets by the same route every week for over a year cash-in-hand, but my successor wore a suit and after just a few weeks he was mugged, the cash stolen. After that all tenants were required to pay the rent either by cheque, postal order or banker’s standing order.
Elderly client didn’t have the money for urgent repairs so we avoided local council enforcement by selling her properties in Brixton. To be rid of the responsibility entirely, she instructed us to also sell the 6 houses in West Ealing. In those days, ‘tenanted’ meant Rent Act controlled and regulated tenancies and tenanted residential property was valued not as nowadays as a percentage of capital value with vacant possession but by deducting estimated management costs and repairs from the gross rent, then multiplying the net rent by the years-purchase (YP is another way of estimating yield). Each house with sitting tenant valued at £1200 was offered for sale individually in the market whereupon all 6 were immediately snapped up by property ‘dealers’ – it was to be my real taste of decision-makers.
Five evenings a week I was attending evening classes at the College of Estate Management, then in South Kensington to study for qualification for the Chartered Auctioneers Institute (the CAI later merged with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors). Frankly if it hadn’t been for my father’s sniffiness about the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, I could have become an associate member of the ISVA on the strength of my ‘O’ levels and without examination subsequently a Chartered Surveyor when the ISVA also merged with the RICS.
I might have worked my way up the career ladder of Montagu Evans had it not been for my getting claustrophobia on the London underground tube-trains so with travelling to and from work becoming impossible I left their employ in 1971. At a loss for what to do, my father, a chartered surveyor (BSc (Est Man, FRICS) offered me a job at the Harrow, NW London, estate agency branch of his firm.
I took a drop in salary from £11 to £8 a week but was given a company car. A strange experience being the boss’s son being shown the ropes by the long-serving estate agency staff and working in a town that was alien to me, I didn’t last long selling houses and ever since I’ve admired anyone that deals with the general public on a regular basis.
Whether my training at ME in Central London had prepared me, or helped reinforce my propensity for long-term thinking, in Harrow, out in the sticks, I found myself in the deep end of local insularity and indecision-makers. My father was based at his office in Acton, London W3 where behind closed doors managed estates of tenanted property and blocks of flats for landlords and residents alike. I worked at a desk in full view of passers-by where anyone off the street could open the door and enter. The Harrow office was all that was left of 3 estate agency branches that my father and his former business partner had bought from the final days of Corry and Corry. In their heyday, Corry had dominated the residential property market in NW Middlesex/South Hertfordshire, with little or no competition. Amongst old particulars found whilst having a clear-out was a lesson in inflation: a 7 bedroom/4 reception room detached photogenic house, a prime address priced at £5000. The other branches were in Rickmansworth and Eastcote. Rickmansworth didn’t last long for some reason and was disposed of. During my teens when at school I had a Saturday job at the Eastcote office helping with a building society agency; people depositing and withdrawing savings.
The Eastcote office, on the wrong side of the road, only paid its way from building society commission for by then more dynamic agents had set up in the wake of Corry. Harrow office was the jewel in the crown: panel surveyors for banks and building societies, including the Halifax. It must’ve been something to do with our corporate image in the eyes of the public, because the quality of agency instructions tended to be better than run-of-mill properties our competitors got but it didn’t matter because unless a property was good enough to sell itself the local agents circulated instructions on a half-commission sharing. I’d got involved with a local association of estate agents whose code of conduct was constantly under attack from what we respectables called sharp practice. Unable to stop the tide, I suggested a change in the rules; the proposal was voted in and led to the disbanding of the association.
Having had my fill of an indecisive general public, I turned to residential investment and commercial property. A contact from my time at Montagu Evans led to the acquisition of a block of shops and offices in Brentford which my contact, himself ex-ME, viewed in fog and exchanged contracts a few days later. During the early 1970s there was a rise in inflation caused by the oil crisis, base rate rose from under 8% to over 14% and property prices were on the up.
Having become friendly with some property dealers, I was hearing about propositions that were not on the market and felt I was in the swing of things. In one example, a dealer while at a theatre one evening overheard a conversation about a buyer hesitating whether to buy a large portfolio for several million pounds. Next morning, the dealer contacted the seller and within hours had exchanged contracts. I suggested my father’s office to manage the properties that passed through this dealer’s hands: it proved a successful relationship while it lasted, despite my father being more accustomed to the definition of investment as meaning years rather than days and weeks.
Harrow office was autonomous, with an overdraft. After the manager left, I head-hunted someone locally respected from another agent and with the chartered surveyor for surveys, we were all made equity partners. I was 23 and single, my colleagues in their 30s and married with young children, my father in his 50s with my mother and my sister. My father was not a wealthy man in his own right: amongst his wider family were cousins whom I was told had had Rolls-Royces and chauffeurs pre-war, but his own circumstances were much more modest.
My father’s main assets were academic giftedness, never spending a penny of capital, and only living off income: I have never managed to emulate those achievements! My father wasn’t involved with the running of the Harrow office on a daily basis and we three were left to our own devices. It was decided, I don’t remember being consulted, we should each contribute equally to the total revenue. I think that was one of the factors contributing to the failure of the partnership.
My work was longer-term and wishful thinking, theirs short turnaround and certain. Ups-and-downs, interrogation and often stressful, in 1975, my relationship with the others having become untenable, I resigned to set up on my own. The split was backdated: required to reimburse expenses I’d incurred whilst under the same roof. I also bought my car from them for the princely sum of £1100 which is the only time in my life when thanks to the devaluation of the Deutsche Mark the value of a second-hand car increased when I sold it a year later.
Shortly before I set up on my own, I’d had a good year, all my long-term jobs having reached fruition so wanting a place of my own to live in I’d bought a house on Harrow-on-the Hill, a terraced 2-up-2-down in need of modernisation. I paid £9800 with £9000 mortgage from a building society. The property needed a lot spending on it to make it habitable and I got an improvement grant from the Council which I later had to repay in full because I forgot that I couldn’t sell the property for 5 years.
I didn’t have much in the way of savings, having to reimburse my ex-partners which I paid in instalments, and the cost of setting up on my own, it was a struggle. The first year on my own I earned £975 after tax; my accountant enquired whether it was worth it.
To be continued…