So you're selling your house. You could keep the listing short and simple: "3BR, 1BA, eat-in kitchen."
Or you could do what real estate agent Maryanne Elsaesser did when she wrote this listing description for a client's home:
"With magical, embracing arms, this home can whisk you right back to your childhood. Remember racing down the street with your brand new Schwinn bike to be greeted by the smell of bacon frying for your special BLT lunch…."
"Let's face it," said Elsaesser, of Coldwell Banker in Wyckoff. "Everyone knows it's a three-bedroom, one-bath home. In my opinion, you have to trigger the other senses."
There are as many ways to describe a home as there are homes. And many experts agree with Elsaesser that it's not enough to dryly recite a home's features; it's also smart to touch a buyer's emotions and tell a story about the property. Just as photos are crucial, choosing the right words can make a difference in how fast a home sells, and for what price.
"It's important to give a little bit of the flavor and character of the home," said Lisa Sammataro, a Keller Williams agent in Ridgewood (and a former English major). "Sometimes you try to create an image of what it might be like to live there."
"Words play on the imagination in a way that a photograph cannot," said Beth Freed of Prominent Properties Sotheby's International Realty in Ridgewood, who likes to evoke images like the wedding you could someday host in the backyard of the home.
One thing seems clear: there's no need to be terse. Zillow executives Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries analyzed tons of listings on the online real estate site for their 2015 book, "Zillow Talk." They found that longer descriptions — up to 250 words — tend to boost the sale price.
Rascoff and Humphries also found that sellers do best when they highlight a home's specific advantages. So if you've got granite counters, let the world know. At the same time, bland words like "nice" are deadly, because they suggest you don't have anything very meaningful to say about the home.
And "cute" or "cozy"? Everyone knows that means "small." Rascoff and Humphries also say you should avoid "unique" because homebuyers take that to mean it's a place only a few people will love.
Property poets face some constraints, of course. You can't write a novel, because the multiple listing services limit how many words agents can use. In the case of the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service, it's 1,000 characters, or about 250 words, which happens to be the magic number cited by "Zillow Talk."
And federal fair housing law bans discriminatory language in real estate advertising; you can't say you won't rent or sell to people with handicaps, with children, or from certain racial and ethnic groups. Some agents even avoid phrases like "short walk to bus stop" because they don't want to appear to be discriminating against buyers in wheelchairs. However, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says phrases like that (or "walk-in closets" or "near jogging trails") don't violate the law, because they describe the property, not the potential buyer.
A number of North Jersey agents say they try to tell a story about each property. One strategy is to invite readers to envision themselves walking through the home or using the rooms or yard.
"Instead of 'large backyard,' I might say, 'Deep yard, great for BBQs,' to help buyers imagine their families enjoying the property," said Barbara Ostroth of Coldwell Banker in Closter
In a recent listing, Maria Rini, a Re/Max agent in Oradell, invited prospective buyers to "step onto the patio. … The grape arbor shades you while the fountain and fish pond provide a tranquil backdrop."
"We don't generally waste words on things they can clearly get from the listing, like the number of bedrooms and baths. We want to try and paint a picture," Rini said.
Freelance writer Nancy Brennan of Ridgewood, who is sometimes hired by agents to write listing descriptions, says she pretends she's having a conversation with a potential buyer. She likes to suggest they imagine enjoying a cup of tea in the family room or dining alfresco on the back patio.
To get an idea of what to feature in the listing description, Freed said she often asks sellers what they love about the house.
"I say, what are your three favorite things about the house? I imagine someone else will feel the same way," Freed said.
Lisa Uvanni, a Coldwell Banker agent in Allendale, said she tries to grab the reader's attention immediately.
"I always try to make the first 10 words the most important," she said. She is currently listing a $1.7 million Franklin Lakes house built in 1768. She started off the listing by asking: "Ever want to own a little piece of history?"
Mark Burdett, a retired graphic designer who lives in that home with his partner, William Mortimer, said the two men worked with Uvanni to come up with that approach. An earlier listing agent had focused on the property's acreage and its potential for car collectors or horse lovers.
In the current listing, he said, "I think we're telling a story about the history of the house."
Of course, it's easy to rhapsodize about tasteful, light-filled homes on large, leafy properties, or historic homes with colorful pasts. But what do you say about a place that's small, run-down or just uninspiring?
First, agents say, you can't pretend the property is something it's not.
"If you've got a 50-by-100 lot, don't call it a huge backyard. If the kitchen is 1970s and the house was built in the 1930s, that is not a 'newer' kitchen," said George Rosko of Better Homes and Gardens Coccia Realty in Lyndhurst. "My thinking is let's not waste time showing the wrong houses to the wrong buyers."
"If you're talking about a split-level in a nice family neighborhood, you're not going to use words like 'sophisticated' and 'chic,' " said Brennan, the freelance writer.
Bill Foley, a Keller Williams agent, recently found that being straightforward about a home's drawbacks helped to sell it. His wife, Silvina Foley, had listed a raised ranch in Mahwah, and Bill Foley first produced a brochure that described the home with generic phrases like "sure to delight" and "spacious kitchen." The brochure didn't acknowledge that the kitchen was old.
After the house languished on the market for a while, the Foleys suggested another approach to the seller. Bill Foley wrote a new brochure in a conversational tone, describing how the seller had lived in the "well-loved" home for decades, raising her children there.
"Some people might say the kitchen could use some updating," the brochure continued. "Here's the thing — updated homes in Mahwah have sold for a LOT more than you'd spend to buy and spruce up this home." That did the trick, and the home soon sold.
Nicole Idler of Friedberg Properties in Tenafly said an agent listing a ramshackle house can "use the location, price, land and interior space as the incentive" to appeal to either investors or buyers willing to take on repairs.
"You can talk about the neighborhood, the great school system, the location near public transit. … You can always find something good to say," said Nena Colligan, a Keller Williams agent in Ridgewood.
Valerie White, a Re/Max agent in Oakland, didn't hold back in one recent listing. She mentioned the Cape Cod's eat-in kitchen, one-car garage and four bedrooms, but also warned: "In need of major repairs. … House is being sold completely, 100 percent 'as is.'… Value mostly in land."
As it happens, there are a number of phrases that turn up over and over again in listings of yucky properties. These homes offer "opportunity." Buyers should "bring your decorating ideas."
"'Come make it your own' is a coded Phrase I often see in listings," Freed said.
And then there's the perennial "potential."
" 'Huge potential,' " Colligan said. "You could say that about a house that needs a ton of work."
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