Helping buyers help themselves

#237 in a series of true experiences in real estate
April 1998, Hills Newspapers

Every buyer needs an uncertain amount of time to get ready to buy. How long this takes cannot be known until it happens because exactly what makes a buyer ready to buy is a mystery.
Getting ready is an internal thing. I think it must involve the buyer lining up his internal planets, seeing himself living inside the houses he sees, exploring fantasies, trying to feel OK about the costs and the commitment. Sometimes this takes months of looking at houses; occasionally it takes only days.

When a new buyer calls Tarpoff & Talbert, he talks to me. I’m the hunter of houses. Anet will take over if and when the house is found. The buyer and I talk about what he intends, where he wants to live, what he would like to spend, what he hopes to get. It’s a tremendous help if he can identify a specific need or wish about the house he will cling to, some characteristic that will help both of us recognize a good candidate when we see it. “A 2 bedroom house in Berkeley for less than $250,000″ describes a lot of houses, but “I grow baby lettuces and squashes for a living and have to have space for that. $200,000 is all I can afford” describes precious, but probably identifiable, few.

I go through my mind thinking of houses I’ve seen that will fit the bill, then the multiple listing looking for other possibilities. Every day as new listings come up, I consider each one for this buyer. I think “Too much money, too far away, too much work needed.” Or, “This one may be too small but it’s worth looking at because the lot is so large.”

I go to see the possibilities and then tell the buyer about them. “I saw a house today that I think you should see. There is no fireplace, and I know you would like to have one, but the lot is deep and wide and south facing, and the price is right for you.”

Either we go together to see this house or he goes there when it is being held open; then he reports back. The more he tells me, the better my understanding of what we are seeking. “The kitchen in this house is funky,” he might say, “which is fine. What doesn’t work is that there are no wood floors in this house.” Or, “The size and exposure of the garden is perfect at this one. I might have bought it except for the 3-story apartment building looming over it.”

If we cannot find what he wants among the houses that are on the market now, we wait for a new listing to appear. I check the multiple listing every day, the tours every week, and I go through the Sunday open house list carefully, but sometimes the right house isn’t there.

“Nothing new this week,” I tell my buyer. “Only one new listing in Dream Neighborhood and it’s $50,000 too much.” While I am not personally going inside every house that is on the market (an obvious impossibility), I continue to spend many hours every week with my buyer in the forefront of my mind. Sometimes this goes on for months.

Or in another case, in the mid portion of my brain. This is when someone has made it clear that she is not “really” a buyer, as was the case when a woman described to me some six months or so ago what she would like to buy “someday.” She said she’d been looking for years. When and if they found “it”, they’d move. Would I let her know if I saw it?

Luckily her description of what she wants is very specific. When we first talked, I went through my brain and the multiple listing, then showed her one house only. A month or so later I mailed her a flyer on another house I’d seen. After that, we didn’t even talk, but I’ve been watching.

This week I saw a house that fits all of her criteria, and I called her. “You might hate this house and it may not be your moment to buy,” I told her. “We’ll just have to see, but it does have everything you asked for.”

Even if she doesn’t buy it, I feel better for having found it, for recognizing it when I was standing inside it.

Meanwhile I am still searching for houses for two other buyers without any luck. A couple of months ago when one woman had just begun to look, two houses appeared on the same day that were possibilities. She looked at them both, liked them both, but I think it was too soon. She hadn’t looked at enough houses yet and wasn’t ready to buy.

Since then I haven’t found anything that I thought was worth showing to her. She’s willing to wait. She likes where she lives now and her rent is low. Still, I’d feel better if I could tell her about a good house every other week or so, and I would if they were there.

Sometimes a buyer will be determined to complete house buying and will enthusiastically devote himself to the task, reading ads, driving by houses, calling me about for sale signs he’s seen. This is a buyer whose requirements may become more flexible as he goes along, a person who is willing to bend and to see possibilities in inevitably-imperfect houses. I always tell buyers “When you’re really ready, the house will appear” and this is generally true.

Not all agents work with buyers in the same way I do. Because many a buyer expects to be driven around by the agent to look at houses, many agents talk to a new client and make a date for them to get together. Then the agent chooses half a dozen houses to see. These may or may not be houses that fit his needs. When they are done looking, the agent asks when they can get together again “to show you more houses.” They continue to meet every week or two whether or not the agent has located any specific property that is likely to work. This goes on until either the agent gives up in frustration (“She’s never going to buy. There’s no point in wasting my time), or until the client chooses one of the houses she’s been shown.

Unless the buyer is willing to accept almost any house, all that may be accomplished by this kind of looking is to move the buyer a little further along through her “getting ready time”. I think it is better, more efficient to let the buyer do her part while the I do mine.

It seems to me that during the time the buyer is forming her list of “immutable,” she is better off going to open houses on her own. This leaves me more time to see many more houses than I could with her in tow and to think about what else might work for her.

For these reasons, I seldom do a tour with a buyer. Instead, through questions and conversation, I define and re-define what the buyer’s objectives are. I spend my time searching, then reporting back, and when I find “precisely the right house” or the previously “impossible to find” or I think “This one’s going to sell very fast,” I immediately call my buyer and get her inside quick.

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