Real Estate Buzzwords to Watch Out For
Nothing is ever what it seems, especially real estate.
Chances are that anyone who has looked to rent or buy an apartment or home has at some point been disappointed to find that the property barely resembled what was advertised in the real estate listing. Perhaps the third bedroom turned out to be a closet or the kitchen that was supposed to be fit for a gourmet chef barely fit a microwave and a fold-up chair.
While they may not like to admit it, much of this stems from a deliberate attempt by real estate agents to put a positive spin on the property in real estate listings, even if that means stretching the truth.
“It’s a numbers game. For those who do it, the goal is to get people to the property and hope they’ll buy it,” said Paul Campano, senior sales associate at Keller Williams Realty. However, as Campano admits, he’s unsure about how sound the logic is behind this method since prospective tenants will likely just see the place and walk away. “I’d much rather under-promise and over-deliver.”
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Making Homeowners Happy
As it turns out, there is another big motivation that drives agents to put out dubious listings.
“You have to keep in mind that the agents report to the homeowner or the landlord,” said Tara-Nicholle Nelson, consumer educator for Trulia.com, a popular online real estate search engine, and a former real estate agent herself. “These days, they audit all of the agent’s online marketing, and they want to make sure that the agent is doing their job to market the home in its very best light. So the agent, in turn, is also concerned that they are marketing the property well enough for their client.”
The result is a slew of real estate listings that exaggerate the good parts of a property and either omit the flaws or couch them in buzzwords and phrases that might have multiple misleading meanings. And according to those familiar with the real estate industry, these sorts of deceptive listings have only become more common during the economic downturn as agents and landlords have grown more desperate to attract weary buyers.
We spoke with several real estate experts to find out the real meaning behind these buzzwords and phrases so that you know what to look out for and how to read in between the lines of a listing.
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It may seem like a harmless word, but according to Campano, when used as an adjective in a real estate listing, it spells trouble.
“Cozy is always a potentially dangerous word. It’s really not describing any physical characteristic. Instead, it’s likely a signal of a very tight space,” he said. So, for example, if you see the word “cozy” next to bedroom, Campano says it probably means “you better get that full-size bed out of storage.”
Other buzzwords that tend to mean the same thing include “cottage” and “intimate.”
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"Needs Some Work"
Every home and apartment needs some fixing up after it has been lived in for a while, but the question is how much.
“My general rule of thumb is that homes are generally in a little worse condition than the listing’s language would indicate,” Nelson said. “If it says it needs TLC, it’s probably more of a handyman’s special; if it says it’s a handyman’s special, it probably needs contractor work. And when agents express in a listing that a home needs a whole lot of work then it probably needs a whole lot of work.”
Moreover, as Nelson points out, buyers and renters should never expect that a property that “needs some work” only requires a small touch-up job. “If that’s all it needed, a lot of homeowners and agents would do that themselves to make the property more competitive on the market.”
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On the other hand, many listings will highlight just how much work has been done to fix up a place over the years, by using buzzwords like “modern,” “updated” and “remodeled.” Yet, it’s important to put these words into perspective.
“People take a lot of liberty with the degree of renovation they’ve done,” Campano said. “I guess when you’re talking about homes that are 100 years old, a kitchen renovated in the 1970s is modern by comparison, but I think that word lends itself to a great degree of interpretation.”
Nelson echoes this point. “It’s very common to see these words on homes that have ‘40s construction or older that were remodeled in the 1980s. But they are not really up to date, so you are still pretty much going to have to redo the home.”
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Many people dream of living in a penthouse of their own, but according to Campano, just because a listing says penthouse doesn’t mean it’s exactly that.
“There are rooms where yes, it’s the top unit, so it’s technically a penthouse, but the room itself has no view,” he said. “So it’s a very grandiose way to describe what is just the top floor.” In this sense, it’s not untrue, but rather misleading.
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Similarly, apartment hunters should be wary when they see the phrase “tree-top view” in a listing.
“If the apartment is on a high floor or has a great view, the listing will mention it,” said Diane Saatchi, senior vice president with Saunders & Associates Realty. “But a tree-top view usually means you have a view from the second or third floor, which could be nicer than looking at a shaft, but what you want is to be above the trees.”
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"Steps from..." Nowhere
Anyone who has ever looked for real estate in New York City is likely familiar with the phrase “steps from…” as in this apartment is “steps from Columbia University” when it is really located 70 blocks away in Washington Heights. The same is true in other cities and locations.
“Neighborhood proximity is a big red flag,” said Campano, who markets real estate in Boston. “I’ve seen places listed as being in Davis Square because it’s become a very trendy place. And yeah, they’re close, if you consider a mile and a half close.”
When in doubt, the best thing to do is get the address for the property in question and plug it into Google Maps or another mapping service in order to find out definitively where it is located and what is nearby.
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It’s a nice word, but according to Saatchi, it usually only means one thing. The house is old. Very old.
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Who doesn’t want a bit of peacefulness in their home? Unfortunately, even tranquility comes with a downside.
“Tranquil may mean that it’s just not near anything that you care about, that it’s kind of far away from any amenities or public transportation and stuff like that,” Nelson said. By the same token, when a listing says the property is in a “convenient” location, that may be an indication that it’s too close to those things and therefore too noisy.
However, according to Nelson, this is one example where buyers and renters have to exercise some common sense. “I’ve worked with people who want a quiet place that takes them only 10 minutes to get to work. But you can’t have it both ways. There are definitely trade-offs.”
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Real estate listings are often full of jargons and acronyms, but one that should cause house hunters to think twice is FSBO, meaning for sale by owner.
“People tend to think there’s an opportunity to save money because there’s no agent involved, but actually FSBO should be a little bit of a red flag,” Nelson said. That’s because homeowners looking to sell their property often have “very unrealistic expectations about pricing and other things.” These expectations are usually tempered by the real estate agent working with them, but without an agent there, you may have to deal directly with the owner’s outsized expectations.
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Sins of Omission
Ultimately, the biggest red flags in real estate listings may be the descriptions that the seller neglects to say.
“If it’s better for a home to be downtown and the listing doesn’t say that, then you know the home is far away from there. If a house doesn’t have much light, then the listing won’t mention light-filled rooms. And if the property is on the ground floor, the listing probably won’t mention it.”
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Aside from the misleading words, it’s also important to be mindful of the potentially misleading photographs that accompany real estate listings.
“Photographs can be very deceiving. There are wide angle lenses that can make spaces seem bigger than they are,” Campano said. On top of that, he notes there are virtual staging companies that will “virtually impose furniture into a photo of the space,” in order to make the room look more filled in, even if those pieces of furniture might not be able to fit into the room in real life.
For more about how real estate photographs really work, as well as some of the ugliest photos ever used to advertise a piece of property, check out this MainStreet article.
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