By Elizabeth Festa
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 2, 2006
Maybe all you're looking for in a house is four bedrooms and a garage, with a sound roof at the right price. Plenty of people would like to sell you one.
But perhaps you need a little more glamour in that open-house listing to get you motivated. Why not go see the house with the turret retreat, where you can write "the Great American Novel . . . or smoke the forbidden stogie," as one real estate broker recently described an attic?
If you're feeling literary, but not on so grand a scale, take the opportunity to seek out "simple living a la Henry Thoreau" -- in a Washington condo.
Will a "tailored" front patio provide your home -- and your new life there -- with proper manners? Perhaps a "garden wonderland" in back will finally allow you to let your imagination take flight.
Or you can find a home "Under the Tuscan Sun." All you need to do is hop in the car and drive to Washington, not Italy, to see that "sun-drenched" wonder for yourself.
Or so the real estate agents hope.
Brokers who write the blurbs for property listings are trying to lure you in with their ads and fliers, a task made more challenging in a market where houses can sit unsold for weeks, despite price reductions and rebates.
It is difficult to assess whether writing has turned more fanciful as the market has slowed this year, but "it certainly wouldn't surprise me," said Joel Kuipers, an anthropology professor at George Washington University. "When social and economic conditions change, language can change."
"All you can predict is that the language might change. It doesn't necessarily become more ornate. It can become more direct and hard-hitting and move toward a harder sell," he said.
Aggressive language is appearing more as the market has cooled, according to agent Frank Borges LLosa, founder of three-year-old FranklyRealty.com, which specializes in the Northern Virginia real estate market.
"I work more with buyers, so I look for trigger words like 'bring all offers' and 'motivated sellers,' " LLosa said. "I also hesitate when I see a listing with a ton of exclamation points, as they tend to exaggerate the features of the house, but on the other hand, it can show another sign of desperation and an openness to a lower offer."
Price and location still influence people the most, agents say, but many think descriptive words can attract potential buyers and create images of a desired home.
In one recent listing, John Smith, an agent in Prudential Carruthers Realtors' Capitol Hill office, described a townhouse as "cute and cuddly." Another ad boasted of the lucky buyer's ability to walk to work, picking up coffee and a croissant en route, while suburban friends have to deal with road rage.
"The whole gizmo is to attract a buyer to the property," he said.
Kathy Davison, with Coldwell Banker in Capitol Hill, has been using alliteration in her listing ads for 20 years to "create something that wasn't bland," she said.
A recent Davison listing that sold within weeks proclaimed: "FAMISHED FOR A FABULOUS FLATFRONT ON A FAMOUS BLOCK? Come feast your eyes on this femme fatale! Even the finicky will find her fetching while fledgling families and canine fanciers will contrive to fraternize."
To Davison, a condo is "pixie perfect, proudly self-possessed and peerlessly positioned for easy access to senate, judiciary." Such phrasing conveys the property's attributes and appeals to the right buyer for that property, without resorting to "trite expressions like 'cozy,' " she said.
Too much elaboration can turn off buyers, pointed out Kevin McDaniel, a Re/Max Allegiance agent in Northwest Washington. "It's like a personal ad where you misrepresent yourself, are balding and overweight, and don't look like Brad Pitt," he said.
Since July 31, real estate descriptors such as "embassy-style" "turret," "flow," livable" and "low maintenance" have increased nationwide, according to an analysis by Paul JJ Payack of San Diego-based Global Language Monitor.
Payack, using public and nonpublic databases and print and electronic media, applies an algorithm to data about language usage nationwide to produce what he calls a Predictive Quantities Indicator or PQI, meant to show a so-called directional signal indicating trends in buzzwords based on their weighted frequency in common use.
For this article, Payack ran an analysis of real estate advertisement catchwords and ranked the change in use since the beginning of the year and, to gauge use with more specificity, from July 31 to mid-October.
His analysis shows that "spacious," along with "dream," "granite," "architectural" and "sexy," are down in popularity from the beginning of the year.
"Flow," a word meant to convey rooms opening up easily into one another, got the top PQI score among 34 real estate keywords provided to him by a reporter. It was followed by "embassy-style," "enormous" and "lazy," all words connoting a lifestyle of to-the-manner-born comfort, mint juleps on porches and drawing-room cocktails.
However, words related to size, such as "intimate," "grand," "enormous" and "spacious," fell compared with other adjectives in the past quarter, according to Payack's analysis.
Indeed, "spacious" as well as "charming," "fantastic and "great neighborhood" -- to say nothing of proliferating exclamation points -- have been correlated with a lower sales price, in an analysis by Steven Levitt and Chad Syverson, University of Chicago economists, for the 2005 working paper, "The Value of Information in Real Estate Transactions." The paper, written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, was the basis for a chapter in the 2005 book "Freakonomics" by Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
"I think the listing description language matters in some ways but not in others. It almost certainly signals to home shoppers certain attributes of a house that aren't otherwise available or obvious on listing sheets," Syverson noted in an e-mail. "In doing so, it affects who chooses to actually take closer looks at the house."
He doubts whether language has much effect on selling price. "While it might have some weak influence on price by determining the type of buyers who view a house, particular words won't raise what any given consumer is willing to pay."
Basically, he said, the way an ad is written won't change a dumpy-looking house.