When the mind’s eye plays tricks

#583 in a series of true experiences in real estate
April 2009, Hills Newspapers

At the beginning of the year a friend who manages an upscale restaurant kindly invited Anet and me and my children to be his guests for brunch. Maybe it was the relaxed day, the bay view, the good food and company that caused what turned out to be my mind glitch. I’m not sure. But I do remember waxing enthusiastic about the dining room decor, all of which our friend told us was soon to be replaced.

“The carpet going, too?” I wanted to know. Yes. “If it’s going to be thrown out anyway, would the restaurant sell me a piece?” I asked.

Probably. I completely lost my mind at that point, declaring my love for the carpet, saying it would be perfect in my living room, that I would redecorate my whole house around it.

For a few days afterward I happily carried around the rug image, enjoying thoughts of whole-house transformation. New paint, recovered chairs, maybe even a different couch. Then I forgot about it.

Last weekend my friend called to say they were ready to take up the carpet. If I wanted a piece, all I had to do was say what size.

I whipped into action. I could have any size rug I wanted, have the edges bound, have my brand new look. I measured and visualized, consulted with Anet.

I got so excited that my vision grew larger. One big piece on the living room wood floors, maybe a second in my bedroom installed wall-to-wall. How about a runner for the long hallway? Would it be too much?

I called my friend Gretchen. How would it look to have the same pattern in three different places in the house?

“How big is the repeat?” she asked. I wasn’t sure but I knew it was big. “Tell me the colors again,” she said. Suddenly the picture in my mind was vague.

“Greens and rose,” I guessed, feeling silly that I wasn’t sure. “Maybe some darker garnet-like tones. Big flowers and leaves, I think — cannas and the kind of leaves that are tall and tropical-looking — 1930s look.” Hopefully, I added, “You know.”

But Anet didn’t agree. She remembered roses, full-blown pink, old-fashioned roses, maybe red ones, too, the background gray.

“You need to go look at it again,” Gretchen said. Right.

A few hours later Anet, Gretchen and I were standing just inside the restaurant entrance looking down, surprised. There were no tropical cannas or any cabbage roses and the colors were entirely wrong. No jewel-like reds but rather coral, heavy-handed pink. Worse, quite a lot of too-turquoise blue that jumped out and struck me.

“Is this what you remember?” Gretchen asked tactfully. Anet and I both said “No.”

“It’s too bad it has those swirls,” Anet said. “There is a lot of coral,” Gretchen said. “It doesn’t have the look of the 1930s like I thought,” I said.

We decided to sit and have a drink and think. None of us wanted to say we didn’t like the rug. No one did.

Anet and I were wondering why the rug in our memories didn’t resemble the real one. We sipped our drinks. “This happens sometimes with houses,” I said. “I see a house on tour, run through it and love it. Later I go back again and wonder what I was thinking. The first time it struck me as wonderful, beautiful. But when I see it again, it’s different, disappointing.”

“I sure did remember big roses,” Anet said. “I couldn’t figure out why you kept saying the look was tropical. But you always remember houses so much better than I do, I thought you were more likely to be right. Besides, you were the one who liked the rug.”

“This is why eye-witness accounts don’t work,” Gretchen, who does court work, said. “People think they know what they see. They insist they remember but often they’re wrong.”

We agreed and went home but I’ve been thinking about mind-fooling ever since. My memory was fooled in the case of the rug and it worked against me. But it can work the other way.

Take staging a house, for example. Houses that give the impression of being clean and spare and stylish produce positive reactions in just about everyone who sees them. I’m no exception.

I walk into a house that is freshly painted, windows clean, surfaces clear, and I begin to like it. Feeling good, undistracted by possessions or obvious poor condition, it is possible for me to notice and enjoy the detail of the house, the views outside, the garden, the layout.

My initial, cursory look at this house probably has not told me much about its internals. The roof may be leaking, the electricity and furnace in need of improvement, drainage severely lacking. These wait to be discovered in a more thorough inspection.

But my first glance has caused me to feel fine about the house. And that is the important part. I haven’t filed the house in my “forget it forever” box or “needs work, not sure how much” category.

Even if I don’t remember the details (or remember them inaccurately), I come away willing to describe this house to clients in a positive light. I may even rave about it.

You know what they say about first impressions. If they’re good, your mind keeps going.

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