‘More people’s lives are ruined by their neighbours than by anything else,’ says Tony Amstrad. ‘Sure, people have other kinds of nightmare as well. They get bypasses built outside their front window, they get dry rot, they have low-flying aircraft and so on. But bad neighbours cause more trouble than all those other things put together. I don’t just mean neighbours with loud music or with dogs locked up all day, or criminal or drug-dealing neighbours. I mean plain grumpy neighbours, unfriendly neighbours, snobby neighbours, neighbours with kids the wrong age, neighbours who like growing Leylandii to an enormous height ...’
Tony Amstrad pauses. He has obviously done this introductory spiel before. But he does it well. The pause comes before the big question. Until now he has not been making eye contact. Now, he looks me full in the face and says:-
‘So why don’t we have surveys done on our prospective neighours?’
It’s a good question.
‘You have surveys done on everything else, don’t you ?’
Yes, we do.
‘When you move house, you try to make sure that everything is foolproof. You get structural surveys done on the new place, you have legal searches done by the solicitor, you make sure the purchaser has enough money to pay you - everything. You think of everything. Except one thing. Your new neighbours. The one thing that matters more than anything else, in human terms.’
Yes, we get the point. You can move on now, Tony.
‘That’s where I come in. When someone finds a house they like, they call me in and I find out if they are going to like the neighours as well. After all, it’s the one thing we never ask the vendor. And they’re never going to tell the truth if it’s awkward, are they? When you buy a house off someone, does the someone ever say, “Oh, by the way, the people at the bottom of the garden are the unfriendliest people in the world and like throwing rubbish over the fence, but I’m sure you’ll get used to it, though we never did...” ? I think not.’
Right. So what can you do about it, Tony?
‘A lot. I move in. I pry. I ask questions. I call on people. I pretend to be a Jehovah’s Witness, or a salesman. I go to the local pub and ask questions. I gossip at the local shop. In two days I find out what the purchaser would take a year to find out. Of course, I also have to take into account the kind of people I’m working for. I mean, if I’ve been hired by a retired army couple to suss out the new neighbours, and I find out that their new neighbours are also retired army people, that makes it easy for me...’
You mean, you’d report that they’ll get on like a house on fire...?
‘Wrong. You might be surprised to learn that it’s generally bad news for two army couples to live side by side. In any village, any community, there’s generally only room for one retired army couple. If you do have two couples and there’s a difference in rank, or in seniority of regiment, you could be in a lot of trouble...’
So when you’ve done your intelligence gathering, you submit a written survey on the neighbours?
‘My God, no,’ says Tony Amstrad firmly. ‘That’s far too dangerous. That way libel lies. I’d be in all sorts of trouble if it got in the wrong hands. No, I do a spoken report, a complete conversational rundown. Very thorough, very informal.’
And do people ever change their minds about buying a house because of your neighbourhood survey?
‘Not often enough,’ says Tony. He pauses. He does not elaborate. After another pause, he does.
‘Thing is, everyone thinks they can change their neighbours. It’s like women who think they can change the man they’re marrying. But you can’t. The cold neighbour never warms, the man who knows by-laws backwards never eases up, the slob never ceases being a slob.’
And has Tony ever been sued over a faulty survey?
‘Just the once,’ says Tony. ‘I was hired by a young couple to do a neighbourhood survey on the posh estate in Bracknell they were moving into. There was another young couple already living next door. In my survey I said they’d all get on like a house on fire.’
And they didn’t?
‘Oh, yes,’ says Tony, smiling oddly. ‘Yes, they did. In fact, the husband of the people next door fell in love with the wife of my client and ran off with her. My client sued me on the grounds that I should have warned of this happening in my neighbourhood survey. But the case was thrown out. Nothing in writing, you see.’
One last question. What kind of neighbours does Tony Amstrad himself have?
‘None,’ says Tony Amstrad. ‘I live all by myself in the back of beyond. When you work with other people’s neighbours all day long, the last thing you want is neighbours of your own.’
The Independent Tuesday June 8 1999