Another week, another Italian. Though the snow might have seen off one couple until spring is safely upon us, they’ve been doing positive PR on my behalf and recommended me to a friend looking to buy a pied-à-terre in London.

I do find there’s a broad definition of this type of property depending on your perspective. Some would say a studio flat qualifies, while my Italian lady wants a raised ground floor flat opening on to communal gardens of about 2,000 sq ft – what many would see as a permanent residence.

The fact that what she’s looking for is quite unique makes my job easier but we look at a variety of flats, just so she can be sure. Penthouses with roof terraces, second-floor flats with access from the building into communal gardens – all are nice but she still concludes her first instinct was the right one.

We get on famously and she’s just the sort of client and person I like. It’s always telling to see how someone treats the cleaning ladies who invariably let us into properties. Some clients look through them as if they weren’t there, neither occupying the same planet nor breathing the same air. Others, like my new client, greet them politely, engage in eye contact and thank them when we leave.

In one flat we looked at a harridan was shrieking at her cleaner for some alleged offence; I think the gist was that the cleaner had not sufficiently removed a stain in her cashmere jumper. My client turned to me and stated simply: “Mal educato”.

Si,” I responded and we both glared at the seller in question.

The last flat we saw ticked all the relevant boxes and was located just a stone’s throw from Sloane Square, so beautifully central. It has been done up well so my client wouldn’t have to co-ordinate builders and architects from overseas either. (I did offer her my French friend, Charles, a superbly talented interior designer based in London who could have supervised any work she might need but in this flat it wasn’t needed.)

My client spent her customary five minutes in the property and, as we walked out, she turned and said: “We take it.” Over the previous three days, she and I had morphed from the first person singular to the first person plural and I felt the communality of our purpose. “Shall we pay what they ask?” she queried.

“No,” I said. “They’re asking far too much. In my opinion, about £500,000 over what I would like you to pay.”

Bene. Offer that then.”

I dropped her at Victoria as she was en route to Gatwick airport and homeward bound, then started musing on our dynamic. She has complete trust in me, which is touching and, of course, as it should be. I thought of how swiftly and easily I could have made my commission if I had allowed her to pay the asking price and knew some of my less scrupulous colleagues would have done so.

I wish that all my clients were so straightforward – knowing what they want, at what price and being content when I find it for them. I did explain to her that we probably wouldn’t get the flat at the price I suggested but that we would let the owners sweat a little before going up. And she was happy to be guided by my wisdom.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the word “agent”. The definition is “one authorised to act on behalf of another” but also “one that acts or exerts power”. In my professional life, I am an “agent”, though I’m always loath to say “estate agent”; there’s something about the term that makes me shudder, so when asked what I do, I habitually reply “I run a little company”, hoping that the “little” will temper what could be heard as pretension if it were not in the sentence. Obviously, I write The Secret Agent column for this fine newspaper and at the moment I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a tale of a group of alleged “anarchists” in late Victorian London that questions the trust we put in institutions, which is rather apt given the current economic crisis.

This week, I acquired my own agent too: a literary one, though I’m trying very hard not to refer to it continually – as in “I’ll discuss that with my agent” or “You’d better take that up with my agent” – particularly when that response would be completely irrelevant to the question or discussion. Still, it’s a great delight to have someone exerting power on my behalf and looking out for my interests, as I do for my clients. I hope that, in time, he views me in the same light as I do my new Italian. Perhaps he already does.

Some details have been changed.

secretagent@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/secretagent

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