Of all the homes Jessica Short toured, only one made her smile as soon as she walked through its front door.
The owner's collection of political photos, displayed prominently in the two-story condominium's living room, did it. One photo showed someone -- Short assumes it was the condo's owner -- shaking hands with Vice President Cheney. Another showed the same person with Newt Gingrich. There was even a small replica -- Short says it might have been an ashtray -- of the House of Representatives.
But one photo truly made Short, a Navy lieutenant, feel at home in that condo in the Virginia suburb of Fairlington: a smiling person posing in front of an Air Force helicopter.
Short had just returned home from serving seven months in Iraq, and considers herself a Republican. She identified with the homeowner's beliefs, as reflected in the collection of photos, made an offer, and is scheduled to close on the condo on Nov. 1.
Of course, she didn't base her purchase decision solely on a collection of photos. But she does admit that the shots gave her a warm feeling, one that she recalled whenever she mulled over the property. "It was nice to know that the owner and I shared some of the same traits," Short said.
And if those photos had been replaced with anti-Bush bumper stickers or buttons opposing the war in Iraq? Short doubts that she would have felt so kindly toward the condo.
"I'm very happy with my purchase," Short said. "But if there would have been anti-Bush or anti-war memorabilia in there, I don't know what I would have done. If it was the perfect house, I'd probably still buy it. But it would have been a more difficult decision."
Short's story illustrates both the potential rewards and dangers of displaying personal collections -- a power wall of political photos, a room filled with toy trains or a display of religious symbols -- when trying to sell a property. Some buyers will be impressed or amused by that collection of rare beer cans in the den. Others will look at it and think, "This guy sure likes to drink."
Staying on the safe side, most real estate agents recommend that sellers strip their homes of as much personality as possible. The more neutral the better, they say.
But is there room for compromise? It may take months for a home to sell, even when the market is hot. Is it reasonable to expect homeowners to box away their prized collections of china dolls or antique doilies, to hide away their politics or taste in art in a closet?
Agents say yes, if homeowners want to sell as quickly as possible.
"I usually advise my clients that in preparation for the sale of their property it is impossible to clean and de-clutter enough. It's crucial to a sale," said Michael Brennan, a real estate agent with the Georgetown office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. "Buyers don't want to see your personal items throughout the home. They want to imagine their own in there. They want to imagine their own family pictures from their own family vacations."
A Question of Art
Andy Norton, an agent with Re/Max Distinctive Real Estate in McLean, is another who preaches the pitfalls of too much personality. Two years ago, he says, he listed a nice single-family home in McLean. The owners -- refugees who had relocated to the Washington area following a revolution in their home country -- had on display several paintings made by their artist daughter.
Understandably, the owners felt protective of their art collection. But Norton insisted that one painting had to be covered: a lifelike mural that depicted a firing squad executing a group of refugees.
"Ultimately we did cover it up, but it was not an easy thing," Norton said. "For the daughter, this painting was not just a work of art. It was a reflection of what she had gone through culturally, what she had gone through while coming from her country of birth to the United States, her adoptive country. But I had to insist, from a marketing point of view, that the mural could not be on display during showings."
Norton sold the house quickly, and, true to his wishes, the owners did keep the mural hidden during showings. This was important, Norton says, because homes, like people, get only one chance to make a good first impression.
"What you don't want in a house is something decor-wise that makes such a statement that it is different from the norm, that it becomes the only thing people remember about your house," Norton said. "You don't want people from out of town going back to the hotel and referring to the house as the firing-squad house."
In the D.C. area, the collections issue is a particularly vexing one. It's not uncommon around here for homes to feature "power walls" lined with photos chronicling the owners' encounters with Beltway politicians and other national figures. Depending on the political leanings of the potential buyer, such walls can quickly cast a negative impression, one that can be difficult to overcome even if the residence is perfectly serviceable in all other aspects.
Washington is also an international city, a place where immigrants naturally congregate. Many homes, then, contain collections of items from these varied cultures. A collection with too strong of an impact can turn off buyers looking for a blank slate upon which to paint their own personalities.
It's not easy for agents to tell owners that their beloved objects are, however temporarily, unwelcome.
"The question is not, 'Is it ever hard to tell people this?' It is always hard," Norton said. "Nothing is more personal to someone than their home. When a Realtor, a stranger, comes in and says you need to move something or remove something, whoever in that house is responsible for putting it there is going to feel a bit upset. It's difficult for them to hear, or to do."
Michael Stroud, a real estate agent with the Chevy Chase office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, recently toured buyers through a home whose owner collected African art -- including a number of carvings of women in tribal clothing that left them bare-breasted.
For Stroud's clients, it was a problem.
"The buyers were offended by the nudity of this art," Stroud said. "They couldn't see the positives of the house because of the art."
Agents often swap stories like these, Stroud said, and the topic of how much of an owner's personality a listing should retain is always a hot one in his profession. But the question is even more important as the long-hot real estate market begins to cool. In this climate, he said, presenting a clean, neutral home can mean the difference between a quick sale and a slow sale.
"It used to be I'd put a lock box on the door, list it and sell it in three days," Stroud said. "But now, a year later, it may take 15 or 20 days as opposed to two or three days. Back then, I was showing homes that had dirty clothes lying on the floor and still sold them in three days. As the market slows down and shifts slowly from a seller's market to a buyer's market, the buyer has more choices out there."
In Stroud's African art example, the buyers decided within moments that they were not interested in the house. Rationally this may not have made sense. After all, the sellers were going to take their art with them once they moved. But buying a house is largely an emotional decision, and it's hard for buyers to shake those negative feelings that certain pieces of art or collectibles may inspire.
Another time, Stroud took buyers into a residence filled with a collection of family photos. One of the photos, in particular, made Stroud stop and stare: a shot of the home's owners at a nude beach, letting it all, as they say, hang out.
"That was terrible," Stroud said. "The buyers had their little girl with us. That photo was eye level to her. If I was the listing agent and I knew that was sitting on a shelf, I would have immediately told the owners that we needed to get rid of it. This is your chance to get the most money possible for a property. Removing those items that are very personal can make a huge difference."
Gloria Crowley, an agent with the Bethesda Gateway office of Long & Foster Real Estate, recalls that she once listed the Chevy Chase home of a student of theology and his wife. The house held an extensive collection of books on theology and religion, and its walls and surfaces displayed crucifixes and other pieces of religious art.
Crowley made the tough call to ask the owner to put away many of these items.
"You never want to take the chance that you will offend someone," Crowley said. "Sometimes you want to neutralize things so that no statements are made. Buyers respond to things and they're not even truly aware that they're doing it."
Crowley's seller did as his agent asked -- even though, he says now, he didn't feel particularly comfortable about putting away his religious art. The seller, who did not want his name used in this story, said he was especially displeased about having to remove a wrought-iron piece depicting the symbols involved in the Communion ritual.
But the house sold after one showing, and the seller gives credit to Crowley for her advice.
This may be a good lesson for all homeowners. But there are still people who aren't quite ready, and may never be ready, to learn it.
Stroud, for instance, recently toured a house that an owner was considering putting on the market. The owner had his own dungeon playroom, one filled with a wide variety of whips, chains, masks and other sex toys.
"I remember opening that door and saying, 'What's in here?' " Stroud said. "Then I saw it. I said, 'You are going to take this away.' "
The owner didn't. Then again, he didn't put his house on the market, either.