The real estate roller coaster swoops again

Here we go again—property prices are on the rise and all sense and order has flown out the window

As the successful bidder ducked his head and stepped into a glass-fronted room to seal the deal, people in the packed auction room applauded. It was a heartfelt moment during a dreary event, the sale of mortgagee properties.

I have never been to an auction before but I’m guessing people don’t usually applaud. We clapped for the man and his lifestyle block because he quite obviously was in love with it, because we imagined that this love would mean great things for the property and his family, and frankly that made us feel warm in a cold room with a somewhat flinty atmosphere.

The other bidders—property developers, I would say—were emotionless, no bad thing for an auction bidder, of course, but up against the lifestyle block man with his enthusiasm they just seemed mean. "Let him have it," you wanted to say, as they pushed the price higher by increments of $10,000 (a good second-hand car) and then $5000 (a leather lounge suite) and then $1000 (a pair of designer chairs, or a kitchen benchtop, or a new fridge) until they finally stopped, picked up their jackets and left.

There’s much about the whole real estate game that feels a bit mean, especially in Auckland, where prices are crazy, even now. The parameters of play are never entirely clear. What price does the vendor (or in this case, the bank) want? How many people are genuinely interested in the property? Is the CV any indication of what the property will sell for? Can you believe what the agent tells you?

I don't particularly want to pick on real estate agents, who get the same kind of abuse as lawyers and journalists, but their international reputation for obfuscation and slick verbiage is, in my experience, entirely accurate—and spookily so given cultural and geographic differences. Just as so many male real estate agents seem to wear gold link bracelets and overpowering cologne, so too do they smile maddeningly and refuse to offer a sensible indication of what sale price they are seeking. "What do you think it's worth?" they ask, and unless you work for Quotable Value what does your opinion matter anyway?

An agent rang me to get an opinion on a house we looked at last weekend on a whim—at over $1.2 million CV it is well beyond our reach. "What do you think it's worth? he asked. I told him low to mid $700,000s. I don't fricking know. Thing is, my "opinion" on the matter will have been noted and taken back to the vendor, who will either be incredibly disappointed or deem it useless, and rightly so.

A somewhat dilapidated old bungalow in our neighbourhood recently went on the market. It has heaps of potential as agents like to say, and its lounge, kitchen and one bedroom look out on to the estuary. It could be amazing. It could also be a money sinkhole. There is no listed price, but the CV is well over $1 million. I asked the agent what she thought was a reasonable price for the property and she told me she didn't know. I believe her, to a point. The property hasn't attracted a lot of interest, which would point to a below-CV sale price, but the owner is not keen to go below $1 million, which would be a crazily high sale for our neighbourhood.

At this point I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't sell at all, despite the amazing view and potential, which means prospective buyers and the owner will have to dance this mad jig again.

Enough mystery. Why can't house sales be more like car sales—and doesn't that tell you something about the hideousness of buying real estate, given how awful it is to buy a car? At least with cars, though, there is a sticker price. You know roundabout where you stand in relation to the car's affordability.

I think all houses should be advertised with stated sale prices. How much less stressful would it be to visit an open home if you knew what the owners wanted for it? I'm tired of going to open homes for properties that I gather, after awkward back-and-forth with the agent, are not affordable to me. Just post the price on your ad and if you get a huge response, then people can fight to out-bid each other, but at least give us some idea of whether we even have a chance.