Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


One day, a couple walked resolutely into their real estate broker’s office, declaring they knew exactly what they wanted in a home. The semi-retired pair described their dream house in detail.

But two years later, after on-and-off property tours with Ashley Richardson, their real estate agent, the couple picked a totally different place to what they'd claimed to want.

"I have no idea why this couple went through a mind-boggling change of heart," Richardson says.

Situations like this true story prompt some in the real estate field to invoke the old saw that "buyers are liars." But Richardson insists few buyers deliberately mislead their agents about what they want in a house or can afford to pay.

"People always buy on emotion. When they see a house that gives them a good feeling or reminds them of a happy childhood place, they often respond in surprising ways," says Richardson, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

Richard Courtney -- a seasoned real estate broker for an independent firm and author of the humorous book "Buyers Are Liars And Sellers Are Too!" -- says a housing search is a learning process, especially for first-time buyers who haven't given a lot of thought to their ideal lifestyle.

"The main thing is to keep giving your agent accurate feedback about the homes you're seeing," Courtney says.

Here are a few pointers for buyers:

-- Start with a "reality check" involving a solid mortgage lender.

Courtney works in the Nashville area, a music industry mecca. Through the years, he's occasionally encountered want-to-be buyers who are "delusional."

"They come to town boasting about a $1 million recording or music publishing contract. Part of living out their fantasy is to look at some very expensive houses," he says.

Though very few wannabe homebuyers are this far gone, Courtney says most need to see a mortgage lender to set a ceiling on what they can afford. That way they won't waste time looking at properties above their reach.

-- Carefully consider your priorities before you shop for a home.

Once you know how much you can afford, it's time to reflect on your true wants and needs for housing.

Early suggests you retreat to a quiet place, shut off your phone and itemize your priorities (ideally in writing) in a focused way.

"Except for the uber-rich, nearly everyone faces painful trade-offs in terms of affordability. That's because home-price inflation is outstripping incomes," he says.

Would you rather have a three-car garage or a fourth bedroom? Would you opt for a smaller house on a bigger lot or vice versa? These are questions no agent can answer for you.

-- Convey your candid reactions to a trusted agent.

"In rare cases, some buyers are so fearful of hurting their agent's feelings that they tell them what they think the agent wants to hear, not what they really believe," says Tom Early, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

But to avoid swerving off track in the home selection process, your agent needs to hear your negative reactions to properties you don't like.

"Experienced real estate pros can pick up signals about their clients' reactions through their body language. But remember that no one -- not even the best agent -- is a mind reader," Early says.

-- Grant your agent some latitude to pre-select homes to show you.

While you want the agent coordinating your home tour to be guided by your stated preferences, it's also wise to allow the agent some leeway to occasionally include a "wild card." This is a home your agent thinks you might like, even though it doesn't meet all your search criteria.

Agents who are in sync with their clients' reactions can sometimes guess when they'll react favorably to a particular property -- even one that doesn't sound right on paper.

"I'm not surprised anymore when people buy a place that bears little resemblance to what they first said they wanted. They didn't lie. They just changed their minds," Courtney says.

-- Drop an agent who doesn't listen to your wants and needs.

Realtors generally pick up quickly on "buying signals," signs that prospects are seriously interested in a property they're shown. Beyond facial expressions and other body language, couples who like a home soon start discussing furniture placement and how they'd use particular rooms.

But in rare instances, real estate agents fail to pick up on either the implicit or explicit messages conveyed by their clients. Still, Dawn Rae, a real estate broker who works solely with buyers, says an agent who fails to listen to clients should be replaced with an empathic one.

"When an agent keeps showing you the wrong kinds of property over and over, it's absolutely time to find someone new," Rae says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at