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Explore Major Purchases: Real Estate

Decoding what your realtor and seller are saying

Have you ever checked out a home that your real estate agent listed as "cozy"—only to discover that it was the size of a chicken coop? Or realized that the kitchen a seller described as "efficient" could be better described as "doll-sized"?

First things first.

If so, you're not alone. In big urban centers especially, say Drew and Jonathan Scott, sellers encounter plenty of misleading and jargon-y home listings. To help crack the code, they've pointed out a few of the more mystifying phrases that realtors use...and explained what they really mean.

Interpret language creatively

To decode a real estate agent's real meaning, says Drew, it's important to read very carefully—and keep your sense of humor. He recalls, for instance, one lister who described a house as "a must see" for train enthusiasts. "As a real estate agent, I'm used to the jargon; but I was still confused by what that might mean," he says. "It turned out there was a train track right behind the house!"

A similar example was a New York listing that described a property as having "nature-inspired" landscaping. "When we went in there, it was overgrown," Drew says. "You couldn't even see the house."

Another tip-off is the phrase "handyman's special." "A handyman's special means the house is a piece of garbage," Drew says. "The property has a lot of shoddy work and a lot needs to be done. Beware!"

Question (and research) vague listings

While jargon can be misleading, so can vague listings. Often, rather than resorting to deceptive phrases or terminology, realtors simply avoid putting in information. For instance, in Toronto, Jonathan says, he finds that real estate agents often avoid citing the exact square footage of the property they're trying to sell. The reason, he thinks, is that realtors want to avoid getting sued if the buyer discovers that they improperly calculated the size of the space. This makes a lot of sense: from a buyer's perspective, the difference between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet is huge.

To counter a vague listing, it helps to read carefully. Look for the information that's important to you and make a note if you don't see it. Jonathan also suggests doing your research. "Pay someone a couple hundred bucks to do the floor plan," he says. "Get the measurements of the house." That way, he explains, you'll know the exact floor plan of the house and won't be surprised by inaccurate listings.

Check the house

Ultimately, listings are a guideline, but if you really want to know if a house is what you need, it's important to dig deep. Drew suggests looking closely at any work that's been done in a house. "Quite often, any additional work looks pretty good on the surface," he explains. "But once we see the place, we can tell: it's going to fall apart."

This, too, becomes a place where diligence pays off. To avoid getting fooled, Drew recommends checking that the homeowner pulled permits for any construction project. Since permits ensure that the work is safe and complies with the relevant building, construction, and zoning codes, getting them is a vital step for any project. Beyond that, the decision to get the permits indicates that the homeowner did his or her homework.

Drew also suggests looking in all the nooks and crannies (and rafters and under rugs) to ensure the quality of the work. "You want to avoid scenarios like the 1986 Tom Hanks movie The Money Pit where, all of a sudden, everything falls apart," he says. "You want to avoid wasting all that money."

Confirm that the listing matches the house

As you explore listings and view homes, ensure that whatever the real estate agent lists within the house comes with the house when you buy. Drew recalls an agent listing a home that allegedly included top-of-the-line appliances—a gorgeous range, fridge, and extra washer and dryer—in its basement suite. When Drew's client closed on the house, the seller had cleared all the appliances out of the suite—despite the fact that those luxuries had been a selling point.

To get around this, do what Drew did for his client: write everything you see listed within the listing into the contract. In this case, because Drew had written those appliances into the contract, the buyer could retrieve those items as part of the sale. "Cover yourself to avoid buyer let down," Drew explains.

While unfortunate listings can be funny, the truth is that a prospective home buyer shouldn't need to be a code breaker, Drew says. When everyone's open and honest, it makes it easier to avoid stress, hard feelings, and other negative after-effects. "At the end of the day, honesty helps make sure the buyer knows what they are getting into with any transaction," Drew says. "Be honest. Stay open. Honesty helps reassure the buyer."

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