The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman


"Show me the money."

-- Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell, "Jerry Maguire" (1996)

Real estate agents should never talk clients into buying a property. But every so often, they talk their folks out of buying one.

Perhaps the would-be buyers don't realize the place is in a tough neighborhood. Maybe the price is just too high for the area. Or possibly the client isn't giving enough thought to the resale value several years down the road.

Whatever the reason, it's not always about the money.

"It's not about the sale to me," says Joan Patterson of Keller Williams Realty in Rancho Cucamonga, California. "It's about integrity. I want my clients happy so I can sleep at night."

Cindy Jones of the CJ Realty Group in Woodbridge, Virginia, recently talked a couple out of buying a lot in Fairfax County outside Washington, D.C., where they wanted to build a house. "Many folks would say that's crazy," says Jones. "However, my role as a realtor isn't about what might put a few bucks in my pocket but about doing what is right."

In this case, the buyer wanted to move forward, even though there were some soil issues. "The listing agents assured us the lot was buildable, but I had some doubts," the Virginia agent says. So she researched the lot's history and eventually secured a letter from the health department stating that not only did the property not "perc," but that it also wasn't suitable for an alternative septic system.

This didn't deter her buyers, either, so Jones suggested speaking once more with the county to make sure what it said was correct. After "sleeping on it" and meeting with a county engineer in person, they finally decided the lot was too big a gamble.

"My clients thanked me for continuing to dig and for keeping them from making a very expensive mistake," the agent says. "We will keep looking to find the right property for them to build their dream home, and I'll sleep well knowing their money is still safe in their bank account."

Buyers don't always heed their agents' warnings. That's their choice, of course. But often, the results are ruinous. "Sometimes," says Patricia Baker of Leslie Wells Realty in Parrish, Florida, "the client can be his own worst enemy."

A few years back, Michael Pagliccia of Premiere Plus Realty in Naples, Florida, represented two buyers who wanted to spend big bucks -- $3.3 million in one case, $1.6 million in the other -- in a brand-new community by a well-known major builder. But Pagliccia balked.

"My advice was not to spend that kind of money in a community that was not more than 10 percent developed because of the level of uncertainty of how the development would do," he recalls. "In my eyes, waterfront will always hold its value much more so than a golf course community home. My advice was to put the money in something else, either on the water or closer to the water."

Long story short, the buyers went ahead anyway, the developer eventually went belly-up, the community remains largely unbuilt and the homes they bought are now worth $2.2 million and $1 million, respectively.

Despite his misgivings, Pagliccia decided to assist these buyers because if he didn't, there were plenty of other agents who would. But another Florida agent, Mary Diaz of RE/MAX Action First in Tampa, took a hike once when her clients, a couple with two young children, wanted to buy a house with defective Chinese drywall.

"The price was so exciting that nothing else mattered," according to Diaz.

After talking about the ramifications of buying a house with this kind of issue -- the inability to obtain insurance or financing, resale problems and the possible health questions -- Diaz demurred. "I told them I would not be part of a transaction that was so dangerous for their family," she says. "I walked away from the transaction and never saw them again."

When buyers -- or sellers, for that matter -- listen to their agents, the outcome is often favorable. Take the time Dava Behrens of Coldwell Banker Valley Brokers in Corvallis, Oregon, represented would-be buyers who fell in love with a house, even though high-tension power lines ran over a corner of the property.

Otherwise, the place was "perfect." So, although they were concerned about the possible health issues and the wide easement that allowed for expansion of the lines, the buyers started envisioning living there anyway. They had nearly convinced themselves it was something they could live with when Behrens spoke up.

"Every time you wake up with a headache, every time you are not feeling up to par, are you going to question if it's a side effect of the power lines?" the Oregon broker asked. "And if so, what is your quality of life going to be in this house?"

Behrens realizes that views differ on how power lines affect people's health. But the only opinion that is important, the agent says, is the client's.

Even though Behrens walked away from a big commission, she made a loyal customer who has since done several transactions with her and referred numerous friends and acquaintances.

On "multiple occasions," Valerie Torelli of Torelli Realty in Costa Mesa, California, has advised owners against selling and buyers against buying. And she wishes more brokerages would allow their agents to discourage buyers from purchasing the wrong house, instead of teaching them to show three houses and then ask the buyer to make an offer on one of them.

"It would help elevate our profession in the eyes of the consumer," says Torelli.

It also would lead to more happy endings, like the time a few years back when Deb Agliano of ERA Andrew Realty in Medford, Massachussetts, instinctively knew her clients were settling for a place they weren't really crazy about.

"I told them ... this wasn't the right house for them and we should keep looking," Agliano remembers. "The next week, we found their dream home."