How the #@¢%?! do I read a house listing?

Pop art graphic reading "How the bleep do I read a house listing?"

Unpolishing some extra-shiny house listing lingo

By Anita Newhouse

Now that you’re looking at real estate listings for more than indulgent daydreaming or entertainment—you follow @ZillowGoneWild on Instagram, right? Hilarious!—it’s time to really examine what’s being offered. Real estate listings have become an art form. Descriptions are written in expert code to entice as many people as possible without revealing too much and the photos are highly stylized to enhance only the most attractive qualities.

The truth is, an online real estate listing is about as reliable as a Tinder profile. It’s all makeup and angles and filters and flexed muscles. With some thoughtful finagling, an absurd shed in the middle of the woods can be presented as a cozy hideaway perfect for the independent woman who wants to reconnect with nature! Eek!

Before you get too attached to a place without seeing it IRL, it’s important to read between the lines and look deeper than what’s presented in the photos. Does a listing gloat about having two bathrooms but only show photos of one? What are they hiding in that second bathroom? Is the word “vintage” thrown around to describe literally everything from the carpet to the toilet? I have learned the hard way that that just means old.

The hunt has begun! Here are a few more terms to watch out for so you aren’t fooled by a listing’s shiny disguise: 

What it says: “Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”

What it means: Beware the “unique” and “once in a lifetime” opportunities. Granted, they aren’t always terrible. “Unique” could mean there’s a lush Japanese garden complete with a koi pond in the backyard of an unassuming townhouse. Very cool! But if that’s the case, the listing will say so. So when a description says “unique,” “rare,” or “once-in-a-lifetime” with little explanation beyond that, you’re going to want to do your due diligence to ensure you’re not buying someone’s failed Pinterest experiment. “Once-in-a-lifetime” could mean the guest room is filled with 500 feet of plastic hamster tubing for a pet rat named Tyler and Tyler comes with the house. “Unique” could mean there’s a DIY waterfall made out of stucco and concrete in the center of a Niagra Falls-themed living room. Trust no one!

What it says: “Full of potential!”

What it means: Let’s see, here… another word for “potential” is “undeveloped.” And what does undeveloped mean in the home improvement world? Money. Cash. Moolah. Gravy. Potential just means the best part of the home doesn’t yet exist and the new owner is gonna have to put in the work—and the funds—to make it happen. The same rule goes for any listing that’s being sold “as is.” In most cases, the home probably needs some repairs—which could include anything from structural damage to electrical or plumbing issues—and the seller can’t or won’t pay to fix ‘em. 

What it says: “Price reduced!” 

What it means: A reduced price isn’t always a bad sign, but it is definitely something to be aware of. Both the property’s pricing history and the number of days it has been on the market provide some important insight as to whether or not the home is what it seems or worth as much as it’s being listed for. Do a quick Google search to find out what the average days-on-market is in the area and if the listing has been for sale for much longer, or if the price has been reduced multiple times in an otherwise hot neighborhood, the listing may not be telling the whole story.

What it says: “Location! Location! Location!”

What it means: Location is important, but don’t let someone else’s enthusiasm for a walkable neighborhood or idyllic setting distract you from the actual house or condo you’re hoping to purchase if it’s not right for you and not within your tolerance level or budget to change into something that is. This is one lesson I learned the hard way. Thankfully, I was just renting and not buying. The apartment was too small, too expensive, and too loud with windows facing a busy street, but I was charmed by the fact that I could walk to one of my favorite coffee shops and a few cute restaurants in a new city. It only took me a few months to begin to feel restless in the tiny space and, thanks to that ill-considered out-of-budget lease, I was too broke to go to the coffee shops and restaurants I moved there for. Keep your eyes on the prize, my friend. Location is something big, but it’s not everything.


For more tactical tips on interpreting listings, check out Anatomy of a Home Listing.

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