Why Real Estate Listings Still Contain Exaggerations

In 1954, real estate agents acting on behalf of homeowners in California began including flyers attached to the yard signs indicating that their property was for sale.

When a home lacked curb appeal, the real estate agents that wanted to catch the buyer’s attention would attach written flyers promising better views inside.

To capture attention, these agents would use words like “spacious”, “comfortable”, “original vintage”, “luxurious”, “cozy”, “beautiful”, “paradise”, “classic”, “upscale”, and “charming”. The theory was that these adjectives would catch your attention enough to see if the inside lived up to the hype on the inside.

As an advertising technique, there was a first mover advantage. The early adopters were able to catch the interest of property-buyers and receive the opportunity to make the sell. Instead of the property being quickly disregarded, it would be given a fair shot by a larger base of potential customers—and when you’re selling a house, you only have to find one buyer. It didn’t matter how many other people were alienated by the exaggerated descriptions if the sale got made and the agent got the commission.

By now, of course, these terms have become vacuous. If you are buying a $60,000 property, you know that you are being lied to when the conglomeration of off-white drywall is described as a “cozy paradise.” When you are buying a high-end property, you may know that every single property listing contains these descriptions and it is a meaningless search tool because the flyer is a testament to the agent’s linguistic creativity rather than any effort to accurately describe what is being sold.

I wish there was a movement towards honesty in real estate descriptions so that people wouldn’t waste their time, and plus, minimizing deception is the superior goal in its own right. Many of the downsides of this deception are mitigated or fully offset by the rise of websites like Zillow and Trulia that offer extensive pictures with a home for sale so that the written words need to be relied on.

Just as the first movers that began this trend profited from this deception, the first movers that attempt to stop it will likely sacrifice some profitability. If you describe things accurately—mention the small rooms and views and deterioration in the roof or siding—buyers would wonder, “If pieces are junk are regularly described as cozy, how horribly wretched must something be that the seller has to mention it as small.”

This leaves with a game where everyone is participating in a falsehood. The seller knows that none of the adjectives above actually describe the property. And the buyer knows the same thing. There are so many small customs that make no sense, but nevertheless, we inherit because someone in generations passed was trying to make a quick buck and no one ever rose to stand athwart the ridiculousness and say “Stop!”