Real estate agencies camouflaged behind handwritten 'I buy a flat' posters in Madrid

A mobile phone number and first name written by hand, with thick marker, on a leaflet. Below, a message: “I am buying a flat in cash. Urge. It doesn't matter what state it is." There are papers like this in all the mailboxes on Calle de Toledo, in the center of Madrid, and also on neighboring perpendiculars. One possibility is that whoever distributes them has received an inheritance and needs to allocate all that money in a hurry, a lifelong neighbor who has written the paper by hand and has photocopied it at the corner stationery store.

Sandra (not her real name) answers the other end of the phone, in a kind and cheerful voice. After informing him of her interest in selling an apartment on the aforementioned street, she asks for details of the property: square meters, condition, age, height and an approximate price, "to test". After a few minutes, she identifies herself as a real estate agent who works for different agencies and investment groups. “If she gives me some more details and I can visit the house, we do a study and put her in contact with a potential buyer,” she explains. Despite her insistence, she does not detail the name of those real estate agencies.

Sandra is not, therefore, a neighbor from the neighborhood or an individual with a lot of unexpected money who is looking for a flat in her area. In Parque de las Avenidas, in the district of Guindalera, there are more signs like the one on Calle de Toledo. “I buy a flat. urgent [subrayado] for this area. It doesn't matter state." All caps and a phone number. Again, handwritten, although this leaflet shows the marks of a photocopier with the ink cartridge low.

Andrea (not her real name) answers the phone quickly. “I do not deny that we are a real estate agency. When I need something urgent, because we have an interested client profile, a very specific profile, we do it like this. My colleague Juan goes and he puts up these posters and if not, I'll come over with a little letter signed with my name and my data”, she explains when asked about the poster. Andrea works as an agent at the real estate agency Encuentro, which has several offices in Madrid. This one, specifically, on Calle Pilar de Zaragoza, not far from the handwritten signs pinned under the windshield wipers of parked cars.

Guindalera is within one of the districts with the highest per capita income in the city and, furthermore, with the highest percentage of the population over 60 years of age. Only Retiro –next door–, Moratalaz, Latina and Chamberí have a larger proportion, all above 30% of the total. Andrea continues speaking: “Many times we believe that everyone handles technologies and it is not like that. In this area there are very old people who do not use the internet or do not know you, because we are further down the neighborhood, past the area.

After agreeing to pay a visit to the alleged flat for a few days, it is another woman who contacts her just hours later. In this case, she does identify herself as an agent of the company and strongly emphasizes that real estate like this can be sold "in one fell swoop." "I have managed to sell first plants for two million euros," she boasts. A moment later, she begins to gloss over the benefits of the area. "It is very well connected, it is a very good area, with a lot of green," she says. And she comments that among her client portfolio there are not only couples, like the one who was interested in the apartment in question, They also work with investment funds. “Mexican groups come who are buying many flats, for example. That is why we work in the area and we are offering them what we have”.

The cartels proliferate through different streets and areas of Madrid, but on the other side of the line an individual never answers, a person with a lot of money willing to buy. The call is answered by agents who work with real estate agencies or directly by agencies with an office in the neighborhood who opt for these posters instead of the usual letter in the mailbox, with the company's letterhead so that people know, up front, that they are talking to a realtor.

"We found these handwritten signs, with their own names, simple, that give you a feeling of closeness, of proximity, that what they really do is break the systematization that the population has about this sector," explains José Mansilla, anthropologist and member of the Urban Conflict Anthropology Observatory (OACU). A marketing strategy derived especially from the image problems of the real estate sector after the economic crisis of 2008. "This form of advertising breaks to a certain extent the armor that the client may have when entering a real estate website or a agency, which is much cooler. Here it's the opposite, I'm from the neighborhood, I'm looking for this. It makes you think that it is someone close to you and that its function and objective is simply to build a client portfolio, ”he says.

In the case of Encuentro, the real estate agency that distributes in Guindalera, has an office near the area, but it does not fit the profile of a traditional neighborhood business. In a teletype of the Europa Press agency, the company advertised itself as "pioneer in innovation in the sector". “In 2020, during confinement, they launched a 100% online sales service, through which it was not necessary to carry out any physical procedure in the purchase-sale,” the news said. "Now it has revolutionized the sector again with a new sales strategy aimed at offering the seller a guarantee of selling his flat in just 15 days", he continued. The success rate of this system at that time (May 2021), they calculated, was 98%, with sales in an average of 11 days.

Alan Hernández, president of Inmobiliarias Encuentro, defended in that same news item that his "immediate sales service worked thanks to an exclusive strategy that combines a strong investment in digital marketing on multiple channels together with an innovative closing strategy and the actions carried out in set” its entire commercial network.

In 2017, a report from the Catalan newspaper La Directa It already warned that this type of strategy had medium-sized real estate companies in general behind it. One of the real estate agents they investigated at the time even offered them the services of the Catalan eviction company Desokupa. elDiario.es has contacted three agents or companies that advertise through these posters, as well as several people who buy other types of goods, such as cars or specifically large vans. In one of these calls, one of the agents does not close the door to buy even a flat that is rented and whose tenants do not want to leave. "In that case it's more difficult, because clients need to come in and see the flat to appraise it, but let me talk to them and we'll see what can be done," she says.

“The real estate market has become a real jungle due to rising prices, especially in central areas, but also in the outskirts. Fauna of all kinds: real estate agencies that give you financing with the company next door, Tecnocasa and Quirón, for example, with the low doc system, with little documentation, etc., ”says lawyer Javier Rubio, a housing expert at the Center for Advice and Social Studies (CAES). Rubio considers that there are many practices of this type that proliferated in the gestation of the previous bubble and that could be returning, such as the phenomenon of lenders, auctioneers or reverse mortgages, added to new practices such as Desokupa's actions. “It is a catalog of practices that are beginning to appear because we are in a totally unregulated real estate market,” he points out.

These posters, Mansilla completes, have to do with reaching an elderly audience, which is not on social networks, but also the 40- and 50-year-old generations with a certain emotional bond with the idea of ​​the neighborhood. “When people wanted to buy an apartment in my neighborhood, when I was little, they talked to the broker, who was someone close, who was loud, but you knew who he was, where he lived. When you play with these signs you are reminiscing about this role, someone you can put your trust in,” he says.

These appeals to proximity are also used by real estate agents who present themselves face to face, with a letter in the mailbox. “Recently we have sold several properties with characteristics similar to yours and we have been left with an important portfolio of buyers. They are not investors, they are people who are really interested in buying in the neighborhood, who know it and want to start a new life”, reads a letter from the company Habitazone deposited in a mailbox. “Playing the neighborhood roll is done by everyone. It is a pure and simple romanticization of a lifelong neighborhood, despite the fact that the neighborhood of the late 1980s no longer exists”, continues Mansilla.

This return to the neighborhood is a paradoxical turn for one of the sectors that has contributed the most to breaking down the traditional neighborhood structures of large cities, essentially through the continuous increase in prices that has expelled the younger generations to the peripheries. In Madrid, for example, the rental price has risen three times as much as wages in recent years. If salaries have grown by 10%, the cost of renting a house has skyrocketed by more than 33%, according to a comparison of data carried out last year by elDiario.es based on the highest values ​​provided by the INE and the Idealista portal offer. This makes the Spanish capital the second European city in which it is most difficult to find housing at a reasonable price, after Athens.

A work of more than 25 investigative journalists and data and visualization experts from 16 European countries conducted the seven-month transnational collaborative project Cities for Rent: Investigating Corporate Landlords Across Europe. That analysis shows a singular photograph: total investment in housing in Europe increased by more than 700% between 2009 (7.9 billion euros) and 2020 (66.9 billion euros), according to data from Real Capital Analytics.

The researchers warned of reports of negligence and abusive tactics by "corporate landlords" in most of the cities investigated. “Tenants complain about Blackstone in Madrid and Amsterdam. From the Swedish company Akelius in Paris, London, Copenhagen and Berlin. From the also Swedish Heimstaden (which is actually owned by Fredenborg) in Ostrava –in the Czech Republic– and again in Berlin. And we have also received stories of abusive tactics in Lisbon, Dublin and in other cities, ”they indicated.

In Spain, for example, the measures that the Government of Mariano Rajoy adopted since 2011 opened the door to opportunistic funds. According to the 'Cities for rent' document, 85% of real estate transactions between 2007 and 2009 were from foreign investors. Arena for Journalism in Europe conducted another investigation last year on the presence of investment funds in the different European countries. In the case of Spain, they found that these funds bought more than 400,000 homes for opportunistic purposes after the fall in prices that caused the bubble, although the researchers warned of the scarcity of available data, so there could be many more. The opportunistic funds that made the largest purchases were Blackstone, Cerberus and Lone Star, all of them from the United States.

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