By Diane Saatchi
A few years back, in the pre-internet days, I worked with a couple who told me they wanted a “modern,” “private” house.
I set up a series of modern, private houses for them to see. As we walked around each property, they observed the hedges and fences, the clean, bright, window-filled homes, and nothing seemed to click. I couldn’t understand it: I was showing them contemporary homes on private lots — exactly what they said they wanted.
When I’m driving customers to homes, I ask them to point out anything interesting they see along the way. Even if it’s not a listed property, it’s helpful for me to get an idea of what catches their eye. Driving back from yet another property that didn’t quite connect with this couple, one of them pointed to a house while we were stopped at a red light. There, he told me. I like that one. We want a house like that.
I was confused. This house was neither modern nor particularly private. It was a new, farmhouse-style home on a small village lot. Why did he point it out?
Turns out our wires were getting crossed because of language. When they said “modern,” I heard a distinct style of architecture. To the couple, modern meant a brand new house, and “private,” I learned, was a private home — you know, a single-family home. This type of miscommunication was a lot more common in the days before the internet, when a customer would rely on words alone to describe properties of interest to an agent.
Today, house-hunting is more often what I call customer-directed, meaning the customer selects the properties that set the agenda according to their findings online. The online shopping is still more common among younger buyers who are used to doing online research for all purchases, whereas some older buyers are more comfortable letting the broker take the lead.
The main advantage of customer-directed showings is that you can get a good idea of taste without any of the miscommunication described above. Having pictures of exactly what they like can be hugely helpful. You can also find out their budget and make note of the must-have amenities.
However, there are some disadvantages to customer-directed showings as well. One is that it’s easy to fall for the compelling photos and illustrative copy and overlook reality. All too often, I’ve told customers that a particular selection was not for them and no matter what I say, they insist upon seeing it. Not long ago a very excited customer called asking to see a particular property she found online. It was everything they’d been looking for; it was the first home within their budget, that in her words, both she and her husband thought was perfect. They loved the neighborhood, the landscape — they even liked the décor — and asked if they could buy it furnished. Not so fast. Knowing from our long relationship that they highly valued a quiet location, I gently told them the property was very close to a busy road and in earshot of the railroad, thus the too-good-to-be-true price. Before making an appointment to show, I suggested they park their car near the house and have a listen. While I was sorry to have burst their bubble, I was relieved they agreed the location wasn’t right for them, so we did not have to waste the owner’s and the listing agent’s time.
This isn’t to say that customers shopping for homes shouldn’t be doing their research beforehand. The internet is a valuable tool, but it isn’t a substitute for a broker’s knowledge. Internet and social media ads highlight the positives in great detail. By design, good ads should make you want to buy the property.
On the other hand, there are some properties that never look as good in ads as they are in real life. Shoppers often disregard those. I can’t tell you how many times customers thanked me for bringing them to homes they overlooked because the photos were not as good as the real thing.
The point, here, is customers can fall in love with the marketing but not the property. If they also work with an agent, they may fall in love with a property in spite of its photos, or a property that was not yet advertised, or just not on the websites they used.
I prefer to use the internet as a tool. Generally, I find its most effective for someone to tell me what they’re interested in, then for me to send them a broad collection of available properties, and for them to highlight the ones they want to see and those they do not. This back and forth exchange of images gives me a good idea how to shop for that person. Once I have that information and usually after we’ve met and looked at some homes, they can rely on me to know what they’re looking for.
Ultimately, my job is to help people buy and sell properties — to take them from listing to closing. I’ve found that customer-directed showings, while helpful to give you a sense of what people want and how much they like to look, aren’t very efficient when it comes to closing a deal. In this situation, looking seems to beget more looking, whether in Amagansett or the Hamptons overall or the Berkshires or the Catskills. The internet makes it easy to look, but it doesn't help you make a decision. I find if people are really motivated to make a decision, they’ll rely on a broker to help them do it.
And as for that couple back in the pre-internet days? That first day of looking at the wrong properties was not a waste of time. I learned what they did not want, they learned how to describe what they wanted, and we had a lively and memorable conversation about our common and imperfect language. On the second day of home shopping, we looked at houses that were right up their alley. They bought one — it needed work and it was neither modern, new, nor especially private, but it was a “private” house in a village, and they loved it.
© 2019 Diane Saatchi