Because real estate is such an important cog in an otherwise lackluster economic wheel, there is a tendency right now to overemphasize the financial aspects of buying and selling houses.
But a real estate deal has always been much more than just money exchanged for property. It's an emotional roller coaster, filled with highs and lows for everyone involved.
Especially first-time buyers.
"Being a real estate agent is almost like being a doctor," said Kathy Conway, a Prudential Fox & Roach agent who focuses on Philadelphia's Queen Village neighborhood. "You have to be able to help them deal with all the emotions involved in buying a house."
Waiting for an offer to be accepted "becomes just like waiting for a baby to be born," she said. Buyers are impatient, especially in this market, in which bidding wars are common. They keep calling, asking, "Well? Well? Well?"
The emotion may decrease in intensity among trade-up and second-home buyers, but it continues to play an important role.
"The buyers we deal with are on their fourth or fifth house," said Kira McCarron, chief marketing officer and vice president at Toll Brothers, the luxury home builder. "We are an increasingly mobile society, so fewer people live in the houses they grew up in, and there is not that deep an emotional attachment.
"But when we design houses and bring them in to look at models and options available, we are trying to appeal to their emotions so that they will spend money," she said. "Who doesn't want to go shopping? Even as real estate has become more of an investment vehicle, it still is not the same as looking at a stock certificate."
RealEstate.com conducted a survey of recent first-time home buyers because "we thought that by finding out what buyers were thinking, we could help them become more successful," said the Web site's Jeff Lyons.
The survey was conducted for RealEstate.com -- which is owned by LendingTree Inc., the online lending-service exchange -- by MarketTools Inc. The company polled 2,099 recent first-time home buyers and received 2,099 responses.
The most surprising finding, Lyons said, was to the question: What was the emotional high point of your first home-buying experience?
The fact that "the closing is a higher point of the emotional experience for the majority of buyers than finding the right house or having the offer accepted was unexpected," he said.
The closing was not the high point for first-time buyer Cassie Ehrenberg, who recently bought a house in Queen Village with husband David Cohen.
"To us, the high point was when our offer was accepted," said Ehrenberg, a lawyer (as is Cohen). "But the low point was also when the offer was accepted. There's just so much money involved that it is scary."
For the survey's respondents, the emotional low point was "going through the mortgage process" (30 percent). That finding meshed with another: that the majority of respondents (71 percent) had put less than 20 percent down, with 22 percent of them financing 100 percent of the mortgage.
"That, too, is understandable, considering the price appreciation in many areas of the country and the availability of a variety of mortgage products that can be tailored to a buyer's financial circumstances," Lyons said.
Another surprising survey result concerned Internet use by prospective buyers. The question was: "Did you use the Internet in your home search?" Forty-seven percent of the respondents said, "No, it wasn't something I wanted to do online."
"That response appears to be counterintuitive and seems to contradict most research that shows the Internet is being used heavily to narrow the search for houses," Lyons said. "Then again, what consumers say they want and what they actually do often is different."
Ehrenberg's experience reflected many of the survey's findings. For example, on their first night in their new house, she and Cohen wished they had coverings on the windows.
And even though they have been landscaping since they moved in, "we did all our painting before we moved in," she said. (Repainting walls is the top post-settlement home-improvement project, followed by landscaping.)
Like many of the survey respondents, she and Cohen bought their first house because they were tired of renting. They found their real-estate agent by word of mouth. And they moved only 10 blocks away from their rental. (Fifty-nine percent of those answering the survey question "How far did you move?" said either "around the corner" or "across town.")
With the number of condo conversions and residential construction projects under way or planned in Philadelphia's Center City and adjacent neighborhoods, it seems likely the same thing is happening here: Renters are becoming first-time Philadelphia home buyers.
Yet some developers don't seem to understand the importance emotion plays in sales.
"When I suggest that they use nice, warm colors when they paint, they don't understand why," Conway said.
Realtor Mark Wade, who spent several years rehabbing properties in Philadelphia's Center City, said, "Too many [developers] think that just putting in stainless steel and granite is going to sway buyers, but everyone is doing that. The successful ones need to think outside the box, to put panels on the refrigerator and dishwasher, for example."
Jonathan Orens, a Realtor turned developer, said the characterization was accurate.
"Because I'm a hybrid, I understand that a real estate agent's professional training is what makes him or her able to deal with emotion," said Orens. "Buying a house is the third-most traumatic event, after death and divorce. But that's not what a developer is concerned with; it's numbers, bricks and sticks. Unlike real estate agents, developers view people as objects."
Newness seems to attract buyers these days, Wade said, but he qualified his observation: "Buyers come in and fall in love with the model; then they look at the unfinished unit next to it and aren't as enthusiastic, even if you tell them you can make that unit exactly like the model."
Architects deal with emotion, too.
"Sometimes, the client doesn't behave rationally, especially if they aren't familiar with the technology involved in what they want," said Philadelphia architect James Wentling. "They often want things that can't be done or they can't afford. . . .
"The biggest factor is where they are in their lives," he said. "If it is the last house they are planning to own, they aren't looking at it in the same way" as if it were their first house. "They want things a certain way."
Do real estate agents ever get emotional?
Center City real estate agent Joanne Davidow acknowledges she has -- at least once.
"My shore house brought out the most emotion in me," Davidow said. "When I walked in with my husband, he kept urging me to walk when the real estate agent was listing all the things that needed to be done -- 44 new windows, roof, insulation, just about everything."
"He kept saying, 'Let's go,' but this was my dream house," she said.
"I'd never had that experience before."