Selling Mayfair: The Very Different World of Prime Central London Realtors

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A guilty pleasure of mine is a show called Selling Sunset, where impossibly glamorous women realtors strut about equally impossible giant houses, trying to sell them to incredibly rich people. It is set in Los Angeles — and it is all youth, beauty, high heels, and infinity pools. 

The London real estate market is quite the contrast, but as Sophie Elmhirst explains in this glorious piece for The Guardian, no less fascinating. Instead of beautiful blondes, the top end of the London market is dominated by middle-aged white men who have been selling homes since the 1960s, and who mistakenly call WhatsApp, “WhatsUp.” They mutter darkly about the new generation of realtors, who fill Instagram with videos of themselves giving tours of London mansions, but for now, it is still the old guys who are leading the charge. Elmhirst vividly illuminates their larger-than-life characters, admittedly in a slight tongue-in-cheek fashion, incredulously documenting Gary Hersham of Beauchamp Estates, her main subject matter, as he “shuttles between representatives of New York financiers, Middle Eastern royal families, the now-almost-quaint Russian oligarchs,” swerving from conversation to conversation, “from soothing compliments to bawling out an underlying.” Made possible, as he proclaims, with the help of “Emily, his fantastic secretary.” (After reading this I couldn’t help feel fantastic Emily must deserve some kind of damehood.) 

The houses are somewhat different as well: not an infinity pool in sight. Instead, foreign buyers are trying to claim a piece of something more intangible — history. Elmhirst explains how London realtors play up a fictional image of England, “a fractional way of life that required a townhouse, acreage, staff — and died between the wars.” They know that “[e]xtremely rich people from other places adore it, and want to recreate it,” and they are happy to oblige. The estate agent Foxtons even picked their name “because it sounds posh.” This brought to mind a Longreads essay on this phenomenon, “Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness,” and it is a subject matter I find endlessly fascinating. If there was ever a show about these British realtors, I would definitely binge-watch it, but for now, we will have to make do with this wonderful article.

They all have their particular styles. Langton is frank and humorous – he was “drunk for about a week” after his first sale of a house in Fulham for £4,000 in 1968 – with a telephone patter that spans the problems with Barnes Bridge (“no one wants to repair the bloody thing”) and the woes of the job (“it’s not all beer and skittles, I can tell you”). Forbes, an ex-Gurkha, who started out in Knightsbridge with an A to Z and a battered old car, is gracefully self-deprecating: “I think people bought from me out of sympathy, I didn’t know a thing.” Wetherell is more stately, with the air of an old English hymn. (“I like selling history,” he told me.) Abrahmsohn, meanwhile, is more of a talk-your-head-off kind of guy, “a big Brexiteer”, full of stories of negotiating deals through a limo window, proud of his “vines and networks” that spread across the world. “I work on psychology, and a lot of chutzpah.”

And then there’s Hersham, the character-in-chief, famous in the industry for his hair (flamboyant), his company’s impressive sales record (“100 units a year”) and his personality (so dominant and capricious that it can make the inside of a Volkswagen Golf feel like it’s laced with explosives). One fellow agent characterised Hersham’s selling style as, “lock them in the car and don’t let them out until they’ve bought something”. “Shout at someone and play hard until you get the price you want,” suggested another. Hersham does not trade in self-effacement. “Can I have an offer now, please,” I once heard him brusquely instruct a buyer on the phone, as if purchasing a multimillion-pound house was no longer the buyer’s choice. “As I’ve said to his face many times,” said Payne, who used to work with Hersham, “he’s a lunatic, but he’s a phenomenal operator.” (Hersham’s self-assessment of his industry reputation was less kind. “Some hate me, some think I’m not straightforward. Abrasive. Difficult to work with.”)

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