Good For Business?
A story of greed, photocopying and laminate flooring
A few years ago a couple of young property developers in Yorkshire found themselves very busy, buying tired old houses, tarting them up and selling them on for a healthy profit. Nothing wrong with that, its good business.
However, as most of their customers were not cash buyers, mortgages were required and the lenders wanted surveys doing; no good lending money to buy a pile of rubbish after all.
So this is how I first found myself looking at houses for these guys, checking them for damp, dry rot, woodworm infestation or corroding wall ties. The trouble was that after looking at a handful of properties, and seeing the look on these guys’ faces when I suggested they needed to spend some money on them; it became clear that our new clients were not good for business.
Suffice to say that I’m in the business of curing problems, not just covering them up. Plus, I have a reputation to think of too and these guys were clearly con artists; doing business with them just felt wrong.
“Sorry lads, I can’t look at any more for you, you’ll have to look elsewhere” I said.
“Oh come on Bryan, we’ll pay” said Con Man One.
“Cash too” grinned Con Man Two.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I said I was too busy and recommended an old friend who I knew could use the money; he was an honest timber and damp surveyor, so I gave them his number.
A few months passed and one day my old mate rang me, in a bit of a state. “Bryan, I can’t understand something, could you help me”?
It transpired that he received a report from his own company; on his letterhead, signed by him, reporting on a house near Leeds, which he’d never visited – this was why he was confused – well who wouldn’t be?
“It’s got my name on the bottom, but it’s not my signature and I’ve never even been there” he exclaimed.
“Who’s the vendor”? I asked
“Con Man One and Con Man Two”, he replied.
Ah, so that was it. Only the vendor has an interest in masking defects and this report was a ‘no evidence’ one, on a house the twosome were selling, after having done it up.
I apologised for getting him involved with them in the first place, they’d clearly scanned one of his letterheads (he’d done many surveys for them by now), and had typed their own, favorable findings on it, before sending it out to their unsuspecting buyer and lender.
My mate was upset, but being a one man band and of little means he was intimidated and didn’t want to involve solicitors. I explained that with this he could get an injunction to open up the mortgage paperwork and get these lads on a hook, but to no avail. He contacted West Yorkshire Police, who didn’t want to know about this ‘civil matter’. Though why fraud like this, with an easy paper trail to follow wasn’t of interest to them is a mystery to me.
A few hours after our conversation I get a call from Con Man Two, denying any involvement in the fraud. He cannot explain why the buyer has been sent a false report on the house he and Con Man One are selling, which is on a letterhead of a guy they use and only of benefit in helping to sell the house to the buyer. I tell him to get lost, call him and his mate crooks and tell him to never darken my doorstep again, using some colourful expressions not suitable for print etc….I hear no more about it.
However, over the following weeks I’m troubled, because despite the loathsome twosome having a fall out (over money no doubt), they are apparently, spectacularly successful and they’re often seen driving about town in various exotic sports cars and such. It just doesn’t seem right, but I shrug it off, feeling a bit guilty for hating them; they’re dishonest yes, but am I being just a bit jealous? Maybe.
We were still in the housing boom then. I see lots of dilapidated houses being bought up and Con Man One in particular is selling these veneered, but rotten edifices like hot cakes. How’s he getting away with it? I ask myself. Surely Yorkshire’s estate agents, solicitors and such, see them for what they really are? I confide in one or two of my contacts and am encouraged when I see they too have blacklisted Con Man One.
Months go by and now and again I found myself surveying one of Con Man One’s houses; always the same:
Laminate floor downstairs, extending even into the cupboard under the stairs (where I’d be most likely to get under the floor for a peek at the timbers).
Cream walls and white woodwork everywhere – the odd IKEA print on the walls
Nice modern Kitchen with stainless steel everything – a wine rack with empty wine or champagne bottles on the side
Carpets throughout, glued down with no underlay
New ‘budget’ double glazing
Cheap but modern fire – or open hearth with vase of twigs or bowl of coloured pebbles in it.
New bathroom with laminate flooring, tile pattern and a cheap electric shower, Chrome towel rail with nice clean towels and matching flannel too – so stylish.
New paint sealing around the loft access hatch.
Sounds good eh?
Yes it does; though not if a quick walk around highlights:
Gutters with grass growing out the top
Blocked air bricks which should ventilate the floor timbers
Paths higher than the Damp-proof course
Smooth decorated walls achieved with ‘dot-and-dab’ plasterboard
High damp readings on walls with no visible blemishes (just decorated)
Floors which move a little underfoot, perhaps making the cooker rattle as you walk past, or the bottles in the wine rack clink
Old chimneys bricked up and the redundant flues not ventilated
Chimneys left uncapped and the flaunching and pointing is poor and cracked
No extractor fans in the kitchen or bathroom
Bad external fabric, like loose render and missing pointing
Slipped roof slates and tiles.
Now then, any reasonable surveyor would by now be bristling with indignation because clearly the house described above is a sham and will be a poor buy for any client. I can’t get to the bottom of the defects because Con Man One has covered most up, but I’ve seen enough to know they’re there. All the attention the developer has given the house is cosmetic. The real maintenance issues which matter have been ignored at best – hidden at worst. Any half-decent surveyor looking at this house would know this and would pass this essential information on to the buyer, wouldn’t he?
Why then did Con Man One thrive in Yorkshire and then all over the North of England? He had no bother selling his houses and became very rich indeed. You could say he was hideously rich.
So of course Con Man One is flying high, he is rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of Yorkshire, his easy smile and Rolls Royse open doors to more and more opportunities and I see him on the telly and in print too, being interviewed and his opinions garnered and valued. He’s no longer a hairy little scrote on the make – he’s a captain of business, on the board of many a fine firm, whether developing houses: flats, sports arenas, shopping malls and more. He counts top bankers and solicitors as friends and they fall over themselves to help him promote his business to unsuspecting buyers.
Now that a few years have passed, the inevitable has happened. It turns out that allegedly, this guy is a crook – shock horror, how could this be?
Why is it that all the professionals like me, who came into contact with him knew this years ago and blew him out, yet some of the best known firms in Leeds still cuddled up to him? They knew what he was, because he couldn’t hide it, it was as plain as the nose on his face. I believe that they chose to look away and take his money. Those reputable solicitors, bankers and estate agents who avoided him are to
be applauded; those who took his shillings are no better than he.
Turns out he may be in a spot of bother with the police and frankly, I rather like that. But that’s not going to help the poor first time buyers who he sold tarted up rubbish to or later, the investors who were taken in by his false promises of great returns on ‘quality re-furbished rental opportunities’. They are the real loses; left with damp houses with little prospect of selling them on and in some cases facing financial ruin.
Those few companies of surveyors, solicitors, estate agents, bankers and marketing guys who helped him fleece thousands of people should be ashamed. Alas, I doubt they are.
So – if during this, now flat housing market, you find a bargain house, with all those nice touches which look so good in house magazines and on ‘changing rooms’ and such – please, wont you get a qualified and independent surveyor to look it over for you? Ideally a surveyor you’ve found yourself and not one recommended by the vendor’s estate agent or anyone else with a potential conflict of interest.