Thinking about buying a two-story house in a three-story neighborhood?

That may not be a good idea if you want to have good luck. A building that is dwarfed by its neighbors is a classic example of bad feng shui.

Feng shui, which means "wind and water" in Chinese, is a 3,000-year-old Asian belief in creating spiritual balance by altering the environment, said Pius Leung, a real estate broker and consultant in Houston.

"It is the Chinese art of placement," said Leung, a native of Hong Kong. "We believe our lives are magically linked to our environment. Certain places are better and luckier than others, so if we change our environment, we can change our lives."

Feng shui is based on the balance of yin and yang, things that are naturally opposed to each other, he said.

"Feng shui means a balance of yin and yang," Leung said. "When we achieve a balance, we create harmony. When we have harmony, we have feng shui."

Though feng shui is thousands of years old, the concept has been of concern to the real estate industry only in the past decade, as immigration has swelled the number of Asian home buyers.

Michael D. Lee, a broker in Castro Valley, Calif., and an expert in multicultural real estate issues, said good relations between agent and client require that the agent cater to the client's needs, including being mindful of cultural differences.

"Our country has traditions that are only around 200 years old," Lee said. "Newcomers often have a culture that is thousands of years old. It's tough to leave these kinds of traditions at the gate."

Though real estate agents on the West Coast were quick to catch on to feng shui, because California has long been a destination for Asian immigrants, many agents and brokers in the rest of the country are still trying to figure it out.

Kira McCarron, the vice president of marketing for Toll Brothers Inc., said the builder tries to be sensitive to such things.

"It is more of an issue in our San Francisco and Los Angeles divisions, so we review floor plans and take care to consider lot locations and house numbers to be sensitive to buyer beliefs," she said.

Virginia L. Le of Vienna, who is a consultant on multiculturalism for the National Association of Realtors, said being sensitive to cultural diversity involves more than just feng shui. For example, in cultures where extended families are the norm, larger houses are desirable, and showing a small house can be taken as an affront.

But feng shui is a paramount issue for many Asian home buyers.

"There are feng shui practitioners who can tell prospective buyers if a house is right for them," Le said.

Often, if a house possesses an "imbalance," the practitioner can suggest ways to correct it, Le said.

The measure of a successful real estate agent or salesperson is to accommodate changes in sales strategies to obtain listings and move them quickly. In a changing market, the hard sell no longer works. A careful, knowledgeable, helpful and measured approach does.

A house must have good "ch'i," Leung said. Ch'i, which means "air flow," is the unifying principle of energy, linking everything to create a favorable circulation of life force.

"Ch'i is the leading factor affecting human life," he said. "This energy is sometimes called 'dragon points,' and a house built on dragon points has superior ch'i."

Five elements--metal, earth, water, fire and wood--must be in proper juxtaposition for good feng shui.

Feng shui also has become important to a growing number of non-Asian home buyers, said Angi Ma Wong, a feng shui consultant in the San Francisco area.

"More and more people are trying to harmonize their habitats," Wong said.

Wong provides some examples of bad feng shui:

"Interior stairs should not face the front door, nor should the exterior stairs point straight out to the curb," she said. "Both represent the family's wealth rolling out."

The best orientation of a building is determined by the owner's birthday and the time of birth, Leung said.

"Don't be surprised to see a contingency in the contract that says the transaction is subject to feng shui analysis," Leung said. "People take this seriously, as seriously as termite inspections."

How seriously? In Singapore, Leung said, the Yellow Pages list 800 feng shui consultants.

"And the best ones usually don't advertise, and take on work at their convenience, not yours," he said.

Most feng shui inspections will be done first, before anything else. If the house passes feng shui inspection, "then any other inspection is not that important to the buyer," Leung said.

Whether the client believes in feng shui is not as important as the real estate agent taking such a belief into consideration, Leung said.

"That raises the agent's credibility another notch in a diverse real estate market," Leung said.

If a buyer wants to obtain good feng shui, he or she should be alert to "killing" or "poison" arrows blocking or across from the entrance or pointing to the building, Wong said. This includes lampposts, tree trunks, corners of other buildings, steeples or gables from other buildings, straight roads, tunnels, highways, and bridges aimed at the entrances.

There should be more doors than windows in the house; otherwise the homeowner will have problems with his or her children. Front and rear entrances should not line up--the New Orleans shotgun house is an example of one that does--"because the ch'i will rush right through and not bring its benefits to the rest of the house," Wong said.

If the building faces south and there are lots of big trees, "this is good ch'i," said Leung. "The thrones of the kings of ancient China faced south, and the kings' backs were to the north."

Beams in the house "represent separation from one's family," Wong said. "There should be no beams above the master bed. If beams run between the occupants as they lie on the bed, it represents separation or divorce. Beams across the bed mean that one's life will be cut short."

Master bedrooms should be behind the horizontal center of the house. Beds also should not be placed at the short wall of a pitched ceiling, Wong said.

Placing toilets in the front of the house is bad feng shui, she said. A stove in the kitchen represents a family's prosperity and wealth, and should be placed against a wall in order to have support, not an island or peninsula.

Feng shui is a concern even after death. Many Asians believe that where their relatives are buried will affect their fortunes, "and I've known some people who will rebury their relatives so that their luck will improve," Leung said.

"Current generations will spend considerable time and money to find the best burial sites to benefit future generations," Leung said.