Someone recently asked me how I find awesome homes for the buyers I help. Honestly, my answer was lame: once I get to know a buyer, I intuitively know “the one” when I see it. I think I have a knack for finding awesome homes, but there is a method. That conversation inspired me to pull back the curtain and reveal how I go about doing things in the world of real estate.
Get to know my buyers
There’s an art to building empathy (not to be confused with sympathy) and it’s not simply asking about the number of bedrooms and bathrooms required. I use an approach inspired by the design thinking empathy interviews we used to do at the Nordstrom Innovation Lab. We chat about things like goals and aspirations, hobbies and interests, or the commute to work. I ask open-ended questions and do my best to listen. The point is to learn enough about my clients to evaluate a home the same way they would.
When possible, I tour the buyers current residence to get live examples of good features of their home and sources of frustration. There’s a phrase I say, “Show, don’t tell”. It means that showing is a much more powerful way of communication than telling. After the tour, I sometimes spot inconsistencies between what was said and what is done. These are often clues that point to unspoken–maybe even unknown–needs.
Create a search checklist
The easy part is entering basic search criteria into the database. These are the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, size of the home, location, and so on. I take it a step further and draw shapes on a map to precisely look through neighborhoods. Anyone can enter search terms and isn’t all that special.
What is special is that I turn my notes and understanding of a buyer’s need into a checklist of non-searchable criteria. For example: open concept kitchen, 30 minute commute, nice yard, or a home with character. None of these are directly searchable without looking through photos, reading through the description, or cross-referencing the property against other sources of data.
Preview. Preview. Preview.
Listing photos can be misleading and incomplete. They only show off the best features of a home. Anything awkward is left as a surprise, and I hate wasting my buyers’ time. I look at the neighbors, the condition of the home, the layout, and the accuracy of the listing. I also pay attention to my sense of smell. Smells are clues about potentially hidden problems with a home. There is just no substitute for experiencing a property in person.
One listing I previewed had stunning photos. It was a freshly remodeled home with trendy finishes and a beautiful view of Lake Washington. I was so excited about this listing because it easily checked every box on my list. When I got there, I was somewhat thrown off by the abrupt drop-off at the end of the driveway. Then I had problems opening the front door. Inside, the layout was totally goofy. Bathrooms were either a step up or a step down from the hallway in front of them. The refrigerator was wedged in the corner of the kitchen, making it impossible to fully open the door. Finally the floor in the upstairs bedroom sagged as I walked across. It felt, and probably was, structurally unsafe. It was clear that the home had serious issues and the owner cut corners everywhere he could.
I preview as many listings as I can because I hate wasting my buyers’ time and it keeps me current.
Show and observe
Every showing is both an opportunity to learn more about my buyers and an opportunity for my buyers to learn about their own needs. One set of past buyers stated that they would be willing to settle for a home as small as 1,100 square feet. I noticed an emerging pattern in their reaction after showing a few listings on the smaller end of their range. It turned out that the true minimum was really 1,400 square feet. Once I discovered this fact, I updated my search and we saved a whole lot of time and disappointment.
Sending or showing listings is also a great way to test those assumptions. How important is that larger kitchen? Is the extra 10 minutes in the morning an acceptable tradeoff? Can we skip the off-street parking if the street is not busy? Back to “Show, Don’t tell,” live examples of the good and even bad properties is a much more efficient way to learn.
It’s all about the learning
Finding homes my buyers love is all about learning their needs and applying a process to searching and previewing to make the most of our time together. Learning how my clients think and feel starts with listening to what they say and observing what they do. As we look at homes together I refine my model and pretty soon I’m showing them exactly what they want to see.