Smart Moves

With grad school behind her, a public relations specialist told her real estate agent it was time to buy her first house. Topping her list of preferences: A two-story colonial built of stone.

But just days later, the woman bought a single-story contemporary with redwood siding. She’d fallen in love with the place, which featured a lush interior courtyard and three sun-filled bedrooms.

Situations like this true story prompt some in the real estate field to invoke the adage that “buyers are liars.” But real estate pros insist few buyers deliberately mislead their agents about what they want in a house or can afford to pay.

“Homebuyers tend to be more naive than anything else,” says Richard Courtney, a veteran real estate broker and author of a light-hearted book called “Buyers Are Liars and Sellers Are Too!”

He says it’s very possible for well-meaning people to insist they want one type of home only to change course and buy something entirely different.

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

Sometimes homebuyers give their agents the wrong signals because they’ve failed to seriously consider their preferences and instead rely on conventional thinking, says Kerrie Kelly, an interior designer and spokesperson for Zillow, which tracks real estate markets all over the country.

For instance, homebuyers might automatically assume they’d prefer an all-white kitchen when they’d actually like one with lots of accents in a classic blue, currently a very popular choice.

“Homes with kitchens in a soft shade of blue are now selling for $1,800 more than those with all-white kitchens,” says Kelly, the creative director of her own design lab (

Here are a few tips for buyers:

-- Start with a preliminary visit to a mortgage lender.

Courtney, who’s sold homes for more than three decades and works in the Nashville area, a music mecca, says he’s occasionally encountered wannabe 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.

Realtors with experience are quick to identify those who claim they’re candidates for a mansion yet can’t even afford a more modest place. Chances are they’ll decline to show them property of any sort.

Though very few would-be buyers are delusional, 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.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “Home Buying for Dummies,” says some buyers dread hearing the unembellished truth from a lender.

-- Seriously consider your authentic preferences before starting your search.

Once you know how much you can afford, it’s time to reflect on your true wants and needs -- and to do so with a spouse or a partner if you’re part of a couple.

Tyson suggests you retreat to a tranquil space, shut off your phones and discuss your priorities in a focused way.

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 real estate agent can answer for you.

Of course, you may ultimately purchase something quite different than you had in mind during your initial soul-searching session. But you’re less likely to make a huge mistake if you’ve thought through your goals from the outset.

-- Reveal your authentic reactions to the homes you visit.

“Unfortunately, some buyers are so fearful of offending their agents that they suppress their true reactions to property they’re shown,” Tyson says.

But to avoid taking you further off track, your agent needs to hear your negative reactions to properties you don’t like.

“Yes, agents can surmise some of your reactions by noticing your body language. But don’t expect them to read your mind,” Tyson says.

-- Give a trusted agent some latitude to pre-screen properties for you.

Although you want your agent to be guided by your preferences, it’s also wise to allow the agent some latitude to occasionally add in a “wild card.” This is a home that 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 like a particular property, even one that doesn’t sound right on paper.

-- Don’t hang on to an agent who ignores your preferences.

Realtors generally pick up quickly on “buying signals,” indications that clients are seriously interested in a particular property. Beyond facial expressions and other body language, couples who like a home typically start talking about where they’d place their furniture or how they’d use particular rooms.

But in rare instances, real estate agents repeatedly fail to pick up on even the most overt messages conveyed by their clients. If your agent seems tone-deaf to your reactions, Tyson says it could be time for a change.

“Any agent who refuses to take seriously your legitimate homeownership goals has no one to blame but himself if you make a shift,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at

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