Cracking the Real Estate Code

An analysis of the language used in real estate ads shows that certain words are powerfully correlated with the final sale price of a house. This doesn’t necessarily mean that labeling a house “well maintained” causes it to sell for less than an equivalent house. It does, however, indicate that when an agent labels a house “well maintained,” she is subtly encouraging a buyer to bid low.

So consider the terms in the box on the previous page: A “fantastic” house is surely fantastic enough to warrant a high price, right? What about a “charming” and “spacious” home in a “great neighborhood!”? No, no, no, no, and no.

In fact, the terms that correlate with a higher sales price are physical descriptions of the home itself: granite, Corian, and maple. As information goes, such terms are specific and straightforward – and therefore pretty useful. If you like granite, you might like the house; but even if you don’t, “granite” certainly doesn’t connote a fixer-upper. Nor does “gourmet” or “state-of-the-art,” both of which seem to tell a buyer that a house is, on some level, fantastic.

“Fantastic,” meanwhile, is a dangerously ambiguous adjective, as is “charming.” These words, it turns out, are real estate agent code for a house that doesn’t have many specific attributes worth describing. “Spacious” homes, meanwhile, are often decrepit or impractical. “Great neighborhood” signals to a buyer that, well, this house isn’t very nice but others nearby may be. And an exclamation point in a real estate ad is bad news for sure, a bid to paper over real shortcomings with false enthusiasm.

If you study an ad for a real estate agent’s own home, meanwhile, you see that she emphasizes descriptive terms (especially “new,” “granite,” “maple,” and “move-in condition”) and avoids empty adjectives (including “wonderful,” “immaculate,” and the telltale “!”). She patiently waits for the best buyer to come along. She might tell this buyer about a house nearby that just sold for $25,000 above the asking price, or another house that is the subject of a bidding war. She is careful to exercise every advantage of the information asymmetry she enjoys. — Levitt and DubnerCracking the Real Estate Code (Wired)