Bidding Wars Get Weird in One of World’s Hottest Rental Markets
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Bidding Wars Get Weird in One of World’s Hottest Rental Markets

London applicants try flirting, flowers and boasts about 5K-race times—it’s ‘a dance’

By JOSH MITCHELL and Yusuf Khan
Wed, Jul 19, 2023 8:03amGrey Clock 4 min

LONDON—Lola Agabalogun recently responded to an ad for an apartment only to find 100 other renters had called about the same flat in Hackney, one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods.

So the 27-year-old ex-New Yorker did what a growing number of other desperate tenants are doing in London these days, and what some landlords are even requiring. She pulled out her laptop and wrote what she described as a love letter to the anonymous landlord, describing how wonderful the flat and neighborhood were. She even mentioned personal details like her love for tennis.

No matter. She was outbid to the tune of £400, or about $520, a month.

In New York, “You show up and if you have the right documentation you get the place,” she said. “Here, there is more of a dance.”

London rentals have been tight since a pandemic surge in home sales took thousands of rental flats out of the city’s already tight supply. Then, hordes of workers and students returned to the city. Average rent has soared 49% from the April 2021 pandemic low, according to real estate agency Knight Frank, the second-sharpest growth of any major global city after New York.

“When the phone started blowing up I actually considered pulling the plug out of the line,” real-estate agent James Dainton said of one particularly hectic period last summer. “I said to the team, ‘How do we actually deal with 70 to 80 applicants?’ We try to be as fair as we can, but at the same time when you’ve got that many inquiries, you’ve got to be a little bit cutthroat.”

That means raising tenant requirements—including paying multiple months of rent in advance, having family members or friends cosign the lease and even requiring that tenants tell the landlord a bit about themselves.

Personal statements, long used by real estate buyers to pull on sellers’ heartstrings to win a coveted property, are now part of London’s rental world, used by landlords to discern whether tenants are a good fit, agents said.

Potential tenants discuss their hobbies, weekend activities, alma maters and other interests, Dainton said. One recent client, an American expat, boasted about his athletic prowess. “He told me he can run a 5K in 15 minutes,” Dainton said. “I was gobsmacked—I can’t get lower than 24 minutes.”

The runner didn’t get the flat.

Carman Leung, a 26-year-old recruiter from Sydney, distributed a PDF file to agents that included career highlights, hobbies such as aerial hoop—in which she strikes acrobatic movements from a metal ring suspended in the air—and her ability to speak Spanish and Cantonese. After multiple attempts she found a place, for a rent that was 25% over her budget. She said she wasn’t sure if it was her willingness to pay the price or her note that finally persuaded the landlord.

Bidding wars are still common, with the person willing to pay the most or take a long-term lease often winning the flat. But some landlords are willing to accept lower rent in exchange for intangible qualities, agents said.

“It’s like an audition,” said Oliver Cruikshank, director at Keatons, a lettings agency based in East London. “Personality can come into it. If the landlord feels they connect with the tenant they may decide on that, as these two parties are potentially stuck with each other for a long time.”

He said sometimes “people who usually don’t get no for an answer” are rejected. “People come to us who are earning a quarter of a million a year, and we’re saying we cannot accept their offer,” he said.

Greg Tsuman, director of the real estate agency Martyn Gerrard, said one client recently showed up to an open house with chocolates and flowers for the landlord. “So, a bribe,” he said half-jokingly.

Tsuman said landlords themselves are being squeezed. A tax-law change and rising interest rates on mortgages have pushed up landlords’ bills in recent years. Many are raising prices out of necessity, he said.

Tenants and advocacy groups said requiring personal details violates their privacy and increases the risk of discrimination.

“It was when my friends and I began composing a simpering personal statement just to rent a flat that it finally clicked for me: Britain’s rental market is broken,” a Sunday Times columnist wrote this spring.

Tom Darling, campaign manager of the advocacy group Renters’ Reform Coalition, said the housing crunch has turned London’s property market into the “Wild West.”

Darling recently toured a dozen rental flats. Landlord agents asked for everything from a biographical essay to a photo. “The estate agent said it was to form a connection with prospective tenants—which is just a recipe for discrimination,” Darling said.

He liked a place, and he debated whether to include in his essay that he had attended Oxford, worrying he might come off as elitist. He included the detail, and mentioned he was in a stable relationship, clean, tidy and career-oriented.

“It’s slightly degrading, that process of having to sell yourself to find somewhere to live, and you’re trying to think about the ways in which to write your own history,” he said. “The more you put into each application the more liable you are to feel personally about it.”

In the end, he was outbid on the place.

Letting agents are also being schmoozed. Freelance writer and Miami native Grazie Sophia Christie moved to London from Boston five years ago and recently searched for a new apartment. She sought old-world charm, but one flat she saw looked more like a frat house.

“The bedrooms were old and musty,” she said. “Things needed to be repainted. There were stains and broken tiles in the kitchen.”

When she asked the landlord if he would make the repairs, he scoffed. “He said that he already had an offer,” she said.

For subsequent flats, she tried a different tactic: implying she was wealthy and flirting with agents.

“You have to incentivize them to send you a flat before it comes online” and get the letting agent to tell the landlord you are a great future tenant, she said. “You just have to be really friendly and chatter.”



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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.

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