Herald Journal Columns
Feb. 27, 2006, Herald Journal

Real estate 101

The richness and subtle nuances of language have always fascinated me.

During recent weeks, I have been house shopping, and this has given me yet another opportunity to study language.

I have spent hours in front of my computer, sifting through the hundreds of real estate ads available through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

It has become clear to me that Webster will not be much help when one is trying to understand terms found in real estate ads.

Realtors have a vocabulary of their own that does not depend on traditional definitions.

No doubt there are special language classes that are part of the curriculum of real estate training programs.

As a service to other potential home buyers, I submit the following list of vocabulary terms found in real estate listings, and their real meanings.

“Quaint and cozy” means just one thing; small. You will probably need to shop at Toys R Us to outfit this place, because adult-sized furniture will not fit.

The garage, if there is one, will probably have been built during the early days of the auto industry, and if you want to park indoors, you will need to trade your car in for a Vespa.

“Motivated seller” suggests that the current owner is anxious to unload the joint before the whole place falls down around him, or before he gets stuck with some big bills for impending repairs.

Likewise, a property that is priced “below market value,” is priced that way for a reason. It is unlikely that this is due to the benevolent nature of the current owner. More likely, it is because there is some aspect of the property that is likely to deter prospective buyers.

Perhaps the house is built on a toxic waste site, or it is in the flight path of a new runway at the airport.

If you see the term “handyman special,” or “renovator’s dream,” you had better steer clear, unless you are skilled in all of the building trades and have deep pockets.

Significant work may be needed to bring this house up to current building code standards. The foundation may be crumbling, the plumbing will be dodgy, and the wiring will be a nightmare.

If a listing mentions “old world charm,” it is safe to assume that nothing has been updated since residential electricity was a new innovation, and indoor plumbing was considered a luxury.

A related expression is “plenty of potential.” This is another clue that not much has been done to the place lately. The previous owner probably had a long list of projects that he meant to complete, but never quite got around to.

“Views” or “glimpses” of a lake or other notable feature of the landscape can be tricky. If one has to lean out of an upstairs window and crane one’s neck to see the view, it probably is not much of a selling point.

If a property is a “great value” or “a bargain in a desirable neighborhood,” it is likely to be considerably smaller and have less amenities than all of the houses around it, but beware; the taxable market value may still be influenced by the location.

The term “functional,” as in functional kitchen, makes me suspicious. One would hope that a kitchen would be usable, and that things would work. This would seem to be a natural expectation, so what would compel an agent to draw attention to this fact?

“Close to parks and shopping” means uninspiring. It could be argued that all of the houses in small towns are close to parks and shopping, and if that is all that the listing realtor could think of to say about the house, it probably is not very exciting.

Some terms are so intentionally vague that they are open to a number of interpretations.

For example, does “modern” suggest something that is five years old, 10 years old, or something that came in with the industrial revolution?

“Affordable” is another term that is open to interpretation. What is affordable to one person can be out of sight to someone else.

What constitutes a “desirable neighborhood” will vary from buyer to buyer as well.

Living next to a school may appeal to a family with young children, but may be a problem for a buyer that prefers peace and quiet.

Some terms that you will probably not see in the real estate listings are “money pit” and “relationship-ender,” but these places are out there.

Some properties may be inexpensive to purchase, but may require a buyer to spend a fortune on maintenance and repairs right away, driving up the real cost of ownership.

And, a property that requires major remodeling may dampen the enthusiasm of the most starry-eyed couple, especially if they end up doing much of the work themselves. Home improvement can prove taxing to any relationship.

What is left out of the listings can be equally or more important than what is put in, and this includes photos.

The MLS has the capacity for nine or 10 photos with each listing. If there are only one or two photos, there is probably a reason for this, and it would be wise to proceed with caution.

As with any major purchase, a prudent home buyer will use care when reading advertisements, and will investigate a property thoroughly before making any offer or buying decision.

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