Creating a quirky and warm Twitter personality for your on-the-market housing unit

Here may be a new housing trend: personifying your for-sale home in a Twitter account.

Bob the House — a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath ranch in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect — has been tweeting about his journey on the market since October. You’ll find Bob to be a rather inspirational house, tweeting messages of positivity and hope on a regular basis, along with fanfare for the Chicago Cubs and humorous updates about his search for the right family. (“Six showings today! You like me, you really like me!”)

Here’s the open secret: It’s not really Bob who’s doing the tweeting. It’s his “handler,” Rich Burghgraef, an account executive with sales consulting firm Randolph Sterling, Inc. Burghgraef writes in a blog post that he created Bob, whose name comes from the street the house lives on, Robert Drive, as a way to get away from typical advertising tactics. It seems Bob was a hit, with showings of the home going from one or two a weekend to six and eight after the Twitter account debuted. It may have even been responsible (or at least contributory) to the ultimate happy ending, as Bob tweeted on March 1: “My new family moved in on Friday. Thank you all for taking an interest.”…

Burghgraef says that he used Bob to make a personal connection with buyers, not just to throw marketing messages of “buy me!” at them. Bob would tweet about the school that taught him to tweet (so there’s a good school in the neighborhood!); his friend, the stop sign (safety first!); and his stepson, the swing set (don’t you see your family here?). The home’s Twitter account gave buyers a new way to “fall in love with him even before stepping in for a showing,” Burghgraef says.

A clever way to use social media. The several accounts I read of this phenomena did not provide much evidence regarding the effectiveness of this tactic. Of course, social media attention is one of the currencies of today’s social realm so why not leverage it to help sell your home?We can’t be too far away from someone automating this process so that every new housing unit on the market could take advantage of Internet available information about the neighborhood and surrounding area to develop a winning personality.

I think Burghgraef is right in suggesting that this could be particularly effective with real estate since there is a high level of emotional investment. While we could imagine all sorts of consumer goods having their own online personalities, not all of those goods might have the same emotional connections to their owners.

Watch for more personal appeals from home sellers

Personal appeals from home sellers may be the next big thing in real estate:

Watch for this to take off in home listings: Sometimes, in a bidding war, you hear about homebuyers writing love letters about themselves — words that explain what wonderful families they have, how they’re crazy about the house, etc., in order to persuade sellers to choose them over other bidders.

Now comes a vaguely comparable feature for sellers: Coldwell Banker Real Estate recently revised its listings to allow home sellers to post personal stories, photos and videos about their homes, with the aim of making their listings stand out. Among the first to take up the offer were actors William Macy and Felicity Huffman, who explained their affection for the house they’re aiming to sell in Colorado: “Felicity and I love to hike up toward Sopris Mountain, right out the back door. … We put a secret door between the kids’ bedrooms, which has been a huge hit.” The brokerage says that all of its seller-clients can add their own content to their listing pages, although it must be approved by their agents.

Positive emotions seem to be the key to such appeals. If the opposite party is touched, the home can be sold for more or bought for less. It all may seem cheesy but selling and buying a home can be a very emotional process. As economic sociologists and others have found in recent decades, such decisions are not just about dollars and cents but often include complex emotional reactions. Buying and selling certainly counts as an emotionally fraught process from the amount of money involved to the transitions involved (changing communities, jobs, etc.) to the commonly-invoked American ideals of “making it.”

I would love to see some data on this: how much does an effective letter change the price? And, on the flip side, how might a poorly worded letter damage the party who wrote it?

Terrible real estate photos or providing helpful (and ugly) information about the home?

I’ve highlighted some cases of bad photos of a home for sale (like here) but here is a Tumblr with a collection of bad photos:

Some of these photos are clearly poorly done. Whether taken from a bad angle or including bad staging of furniture (does photoshopped furniture count?) or way too much clutter or weird clutter, this can detract from showing the home at its best. The photos also suggest plenty of people are unwilling to change their home much to appeal to potential buyers. The seller and their real estate agent should want to put the best image forward so the new buyer can imagine themselves in that space.

However, there are other photos here that don’t seem to be as egregious. The March 4, 2014 picture of a green pool. It is not inviting but wouldn’t it be better the potential buyer know that the home has a pool? While the pool should be clean, the other option is to list the home with an in-ground pool and then never show a picture. Or the February 27, 2014 picture of an unfinished hallway. Again, isn’t it better for the buyer to see the space at all rather than have it hidden? I find myself frustrated when I can’t find a picture of one of the home’s features (this seems to happen a lot with basements). Without a picture, what are they hiding? If the person isn’t going to do much to make the home look more presentable, I would still rather see that and have more information.

I’d love to see some data on how hiding some of a home’s worse spots from online photos might help boost in-home visits or eventual home sales.

Will Baby Boomers be able to sell their houses?

We may be nearing the “Great Senior Sell-Off” where Baby Boomers want to sell their homes but there may not be enough younger people to buy them:

In the coming years, baby boomers will be moving on (inching further through the python, if you will). “They will want to sell their homes, and they’re hoping there are people behind them to buy their homes,” says Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. He expects that in growing metros like Atlanta and Dallas, those buyers will be waiting. But elsewhere, in shrinking and stagnant cities across the country, the story will be quite different. Nelson calls what’s coming the “great senior sell-off.” It’ll start sometime later this decade (Nelson is defining baby boomers as those people born between 1946 and 1964). And he predicts that it could cause our next real housing crisis.

“Ok, if there’s 1.5 to 2 million homes coming on the market every year at the end of this decade from senior households selling off,” Nelson asks, “who’s behind them to buy? My guess is not enough.”…

A vast majority of today’s households with children still want such houses, Nelson says. But about a quarter of them want something else, like condos and urban townhouses. That demand “used to be almost zero percent, and if it’s now 25 percent,” Nelson says, “that’s a small share of the market but a huge shift in the market.” And this is half of the reason why many baby boomers may not find buyers for their homes. “Even if the numbers matched,” Nelson says, “the preferences don’t.”

Demographics will further complicate this picture. We’re moving toward a future in America when minorities will become the majority. But given entrenched educational achievement gaps, particularly for the fast-growing Hispanic population, Nelson fears that the U.S. is not doing a good job educating the “new majority” to make the kinds of incomes that will be required to buy the homes we’ve already built.

A number of commentators have argued we may be on the verge of this with younger generations have less interest in owning a home. I haven’t seen an argument about the demographic angle before but it is also intriguing.

The article also hints that this phenomenon might not be evenly spread across the United States. What happens to exurban locations as Baby Boomers and others desire more urban locations? What happens to communities with bigger homes that people no longer want? While these sorts of problems in the United States have been localized in places like Detroit, this could become a bigger issue.

This may be a larger problem involving more people than Baby Boomers. What if a county or society makes a rapid switch away from homeownership and toward renting? What happens to that existing housing stock?

Real estate wisdom: don’t build the nicest McMansion on the block

An oft-cited piece of real estate wisdom is that you shouldn’t buy or build the nicest home in a neighborhood. Here is an update on that tale: especially don’t do this when you are building a McMansion.

For example, consider the fate of what became a conspicuously large house for sale in an Atlanta suburb.

A few years ago, at the top of the market, the owners purchased a small fixer-upper, then renovated and significantly expanded it. Once completed, the owners tried to sell their McMansion in one of the worst real estate markets ever. After a year without success, they had to lower the asking price multiple times — and ultimately walked away with a big loss.

The fact that they bought at the top of the market and tried to sell during a decline in values certainly didn’t help. But it wasn’t the only factor by any means. On one side of the house was an apartment building. On the other sat a home that was an eyesore.

The proximity of these two properties should have been a warning to the owners: Don’t super-size your house when it’s surrounded by properties that aren’t at least equal in value. Instead, the owners had gotten caught up in the market frenzy. They didn’t think about what would happen when it came time to sell…

A better strategy, no matter what kind of market, is to buy the worst house on the best block. You can always improve the property and therefore increase its value. And because it’s on a great block, improvements you make to the home will be practically guaranteed to give you a top return on your investment.

I wonder if there aren’t two factors here that could mitigate the reduced selling price of the McMansion:

1. The owners really really wanted to be in this particular neighborhood. And if they have the money to build the bigger home and absorb the loss more easily (the article doesn’t say), perhaps this was more about the block than the particular house. Sure, they may have not made the most money they could have on their property but perhaps that wasn’t the most important thing.

2. If one does pursue the strategy of buying the worst house on the block, might one have to pay more to buy into a nicer block compared to buying a nicer house in a worse block? In other words, this advice partly depends on the context of the neighborhood. To buy into a nicer neighborhood at the start, one is likely to have to overpay, particularly in neighborhoods that are really hot or where there is a lot of pressure to tear down the existing home and build something bigger and better.

Overall, I’m intrigued by the general logic here from real estate agents: all that matters is the spread between what an owner paid (plus what they end up putting into the house) and what they get when they sell the home. In a perfect real estate world, all homeowners are told that they too can make money off their homes. Is this really possible? Is it even realistic for most owners? There are other reasons people buy homes and wealthier homeowners have more financial latitude to do what they want.

Home buyers looking for McMansion features

I’ve highlighted the trend toward granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and here is some more evidence of home buyers looking for McMansion features, this time in the Philadelphia area:

Two couples I know are trying to sell city houses they have owned for more than three decades. The houses are historic, and conventional wisdom when they bought them as shells was to restore them without compromising their architectural integrity.

They bought them when they were young, raised their families in them, and now they are ready to move on.

One couple have had their house on the market since April. One of the owners told me prospective buyers seem to want marble bathrooms and gourmet kitchens, which are more suburban McMansion phenomena than urban trends.

“They can go to the home center and get those things,” she said, blaming TV reality shows for the attitude.

Today’s numbers reflect an impasse: Few people are buying, and those who do are paying bottom dollar; most sellers aren’t willing to take less.

Buyers want the best features but want the cheaper price while home sellers have to wrestle with not spending too much money to update in a down market when housing values have dropped.

Can we solely blame TV reality shows for this phenomenon? Here are three other reasons this might be happening:

1. Tastes have gone up and people expect better features in their home. This isn’t just from reality TV: advertising plays a role (similar pitches from the 1950s to today) as do reference groups.

2. More than in the past, home owners don’t have the home repair skills or will to do these repairs. Therefore, they want the sellers to have done this work for them and then don’t want to have to deal with it for a while.

3. It is a buyer’s market and so buyers tend to ask for everything. Many home sellers don’t have much leverage.

Places that might be deserted due to a lack of homebuyers

The issue (amongst many) in the ongoing economic malaise is a lack of homebuyers. To have a hot housing market, such as happened in much of the 1990s and some of the 2000s, you need both sellers and buyers. What happens if this temporary trend of a lack of buyers turns into something less than temporary?

One suggestion is that certain areas will be deserted:

Many economists argue that the housing market may take four or five years to recover. Even if that’s proven to be true, the all-time highs of 2006 may never be reached again.

The devastation in some regions will never be repaired. Parts of Oregon, Georgia and Arizona have become progressively more deserted. Since jobless rates may never recover, there is little reason to hope that the populations in these areas will ever rebound. Some homes will be torn down in these pockets of high foreclosures in the hopes that reducing supplies will boost prices. Whether that idea will work in hard-hit areas such as Flint, Mich., and Yuma, Ariz., remains to be seen.

If this comes to pass, this would be an interesting period in American history. Yes, we do have some instances of population loss: the “ghost towns” of the Old West come to mind as people poured into a region and then seemed to leave just as suddenly. Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Buffalo and Pittsburgh have been experiencing a slow but steady population drain over the last few decades. And I have tried to find evidence of “lost suburbs” – places that would go against the typical narrative of American suburbs continuing to grow in population and sprawl further out from cities.

But this prediction suggests that certain metropolitan regions might not have any hope of recovery. While some of these are Rust Belt places that already had issues (like Flint), others are newer, particularly locations Nevada, Arizona, and California. As a matter of public policy, what should be done? Should we prop up locations with government aid? Should we write certain areas off and let them slowly lose population until the critical population mass is gone? Is contraction worthwhile (something that has been debated now for several years regarding Detroit) or is simply losing a city or region a better option?

In the long run, the only possible solution seems to be to convince people that these areas are desirable places to live. One selling point, and this seems to come up a lot on the front page of Yahoo, is that these places have affordable housing. This may be the case but that won’t be enough to attract people – these areas need jobs, economic engines that will bring stability and profits to hard-hit regions. And which companies might be willing to step up?

Interestingly, Illinois ranks #5 on this list. It looks like this analysis says the main factors are a limited population growth and a severe loss in manufacturing jobs over the recent decades. Certain areas of the Chicago region seem more immune to this than others. DuPage County is populous and wealthy, partly due to the influx of higher-end, technology-related jobs that have entered the county since the 1960s. Because of this, DuPage County has an unemployment rate always multiple points below the national average.