The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Property Agents

My fondness for property agents is limited. The first encounter with the practitioners of this profession happened in Ireland. I was not entirely innocent by then, I already spent a semester in Greece as an exchange student, and a year in Singapore on another exchange, but I could find shelter in a student hall in both countries. Ireland was different. I was there to lecture, not to study. The climate was damp, cold, and damp. The population’s average blood alcohol approached the lethal percentage from above on any given day. There were also property agents to deal with.

Having exhausted all my financial resources in my final days in Singapore, I had barely a few euros to start my life in the rainy city of Cork. I set about browsing through classifieds, calling the cheapest options, which were in the range of four hundred euros a month at the time. Back in 2006 that would have got me an almost nice room in an outlying condo in Singapore. Calling the ads, I came to notice the curious phenomenon that I was never talking to the landlord/landlady; the phone was always answered by a strange creature called a property agent. The naive person I was, I had no clue that a property agent is about as likeable as a bedbug.

Row of dilapidated houses in Cork

Prime real estate for rent.

Finally I found an ad that was quoting just three hundred euros for a room. The rendezvous was fixed with the agent. Shivering in the cold drizzle, I was waiting for her at the agreed location. She arrived half an hour late, stepping out of a nicely heated SUV. We were not on equal ground. The room was in a house that is so typical to the North Atlantic Archipelago: grey inside and outside, a sordid living room downstairs, bedrooms upstairs, and has a one-square-meter yard on the back so that people on the street have a place to throw their empty beer cans. The room itself was not a room. It was a 1mx1.8m area above the staircase, with a door adding some sense of separation from the rest of the house. The space taken up by the slope of the low roof was partially compensated for by the equally sloping top of the staircase. The window had a single glaze, the walls were made of plywood, and the wind found its way in through the cracks. It was colder inside than outside, but at least it was not raining. All this pleasure for a month’s worth of deposit, and two months of rent paid upfront, plus the agent fee for the magnificent services the agent had rendered. The lease agreement also made me responsible for generally everything, such as breaking something in the house. I was wondering what was there to break. The plywood would only bend, not break. My house mates were undergrads who succeeded in the remarkable feat of being pissed drunk 168 hours a week. Two of them were girls, and since we shared the bathroom, I learned about many aspects of female hygiene that I was never particularly interested in.

The property agent who got me this excellent deal was the archetype of the entire species. The following traits are typical for property agents, irrespective of geographic origin or place of operation:

  • Usually they see the room or apartment for the first time when they visit with a client.
  • He or she is not responsible for the property being unsuitable for human dwelling. They will rent you out a nook in the sewer if they can put a door on it.
  • They will always be late to show how important they are.
  • The preferred vehicle of a property agent is an SUV. They need to compensate the utter uselessness of their profession by a large car that does as much damage to the environment as possible.
  • Their only interest is getting the highest rent for the worst possible property, as their commission will depend on the monthly rent. This makes them the enemy of anyone looking for a rent.

This last point is the most important one. This is what makes them so akin to bedbugs: they take your blood without giving anything in return, other than excrement on your bedsheets.

Buangkok HDB estate

Agent-infested area in Singapore.

After a year in the slimy climate of Ireland, I was exploding with delight to return to Singapore to commence my graduate studies. This time I had to face the forces of the property market. I found out of a perfectly irrational national pass-time in the country: Singaporeans love being a part-time property agent. It is easier to become a property agent in Singapore than a maid or a taxi driver, and this has bitter consequences. This is a country that has tight measures on everything, even mosquitoes have to apply for a permit if they wish to breed. Given that the proliferation of property agents is largely unregulated, I conjecture that there are more property agents in Singapore than mosquitoes.

Most of the Singaporean agents will not talk to you if you want a short-term rent, or they will make an effort to make you feel retarded for wanting some flexibility. The average agent speaks the most heavily accented Singlish you ever heard and he or she is also more likely to have a speech impediment. Yet, this is not the worst part. The little training the Singaporean property agent receives is all about how to be an efficient racist. The completely rude, inconsiderate, and inappropriate first question they ask when you make a call, sometimes even before they say “Good afternoon”, is your race. Indian ethnicities suffer the most, agents simply hang up on them. Eastern Europeans appear to be safe, at least for the time being. I did several calls for my friends when they were looking for a place, tricking the budding fascists into face to face interviews. These were the rare occasions in my life when I was thankful for having a thick Eastern European accent.

Dead mynah

This migrant to Singapore got a heart attack after talking to an agent.

Since I did not want to pour money into such an establishment, I tried and successfully avoided agents for most of my stay in Singapore. With some time spent on searching, I usually found short-term leases. I had to go through hundreds of ads that said “no agent” only to find an agent at the other end of the line, but I dealt with them the same way they dealt with their non-preferred clients. I heard the agent situation improved after new regulations were introduced, but it happened well after I left Singapore, so I am yet to see what it means in practice.

Agents are not terribly hard to avoid. On- or offline classifieds work best anywhere, although most countries will not have English classifieds, and if they do, you should avoid them. Sometimes there are deals to find on Couchsurfing or AirBnB. A good technique when moving to a new country is to contact someone on Couchsurfing to host you for strictly just two days, then bribe your host to call numbers for you. A local will always get a more realistic quote.

Property agents have infected most countries and their negative impact cannot be overestimated. For instance, when I was looking for a studio in Santo Domingo, calls were answered by these monsters. Terrible ground floor apartments were on offer with stinky bathrooms, starting at $600. This is a country where the average salary is in the range of $300 a month. So, leveraging on my caring Couchsurfing host, we dived into the local classifieds and we found a breezy third-floor unit with a balcony and a gigantic mango tree in the garden, all for the fraction of the price of the agent-inflated room. If there was justice on this planet, property agents would all perish in exceptionally gruesome accidents and violent acts of crime.


  1. Kathleen says:

    This post made me laugh, thanks! 😀 And your giant mango tree sounds fantastic! Shame you didn’t have a better time in Cork though. It’s the miserable weather that makes all the drinking essential. LOL.

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