Realtors Reveal The Most Misleading Words Used In Home Listings

"Old world charm" is a lie.
Read carefully before you head to an open house.
SvetaZi via Getty Images
Read carefully before you head to an open house.

“The glass is always half full.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” “I have not yet begun to fight.”

When it comes to little pep talks, we humans are an optimistic bunch. But maybe never more so than when it comes to selling a home.

Few people ever put out a listing that says something like, “This is a house with three small bedrooms, bad plumbing and an unremarkable yard.”

No, sellers and their agents accentuate the positive. Small rooms are cozy. A boring yard may be described as lush merely because the grass is green. A home with bad plumbing may be pitched as offering indoor swimming.

Not that you can blame a seller for pointing out the positives. Still, if you’re a buyer who doesn’t want to be disappointed when touring a home, you’ll want to think carefully about adjectives, and why they are placed in an ad, the next time you’re looking at listings. In fact, some words are so known to be weasel words that many real estate agents won’t use them in an ad.

“Cozy is universally known to be small, so even if a place is really cozy, we won’t use the word in our listing description,” said Samantha Rose Frith, a real estate agent at Warburg Realty in New York.

In general, she added, a home buyer should be suspicious of any phrase that seems out of place in a description. The phrase may be trying to distract you from something that’s negative.

“For instance,” Frith said, “if a broker describes an apartment as ‘pin-drop quiet,’ I become immediately suspicious. Why do we need to know it’s quiet? Is it because it faces a Sixth Avenue bus stop and has noise dampening windows? Or is it because it’s on the first floor, faces the back of a building and being quiet is its best feature?”

So if you’re looking for a new home and reading a lot of listings, watch out for some of these possibly not-what-they-seem descriptions.

Handyman special. This should mean it needs carpet, paint, patchwork, landscaping, and new fixtures,” said Cedric Stewart of Entourage Residential Group at Keller Williams in Rockville, Maryland.

In other words, when you read “handyman special,” don’t expect much. But Stewart said that maybe you shouldn’t expect anything.

“What it typically means is $20,000 or more in renovations are needed on a home the seller knows future homeowners won’t be interested in, but they aren’t willing to sell it at the price investors ― the only people that would buy it ― are willing to pay,” he said.

He added that a hint that a handyman special probably isn’t worth checking out is when the listing only shows a home’s exterior photos.

Vibrant neighborhood. This is another phrase that should give you pause, Stewart said. “This could mean anything. Heavy foot traffic, a bus stop directly in front of the house, activity from a large apartment building next door, high crime… We often recommend visiting these homes at night, just in case.”

Developing neighborhood. It may well mean that the area is still underdeveloped, and that there’s a lot of construction projects that will be coming in the short and medium term, according to Daniela Andreevska, the content marketing director at Mashvisor, a real estate data analytics company.

“Even if you don’t see construction machinery today, it might just as well be there in a couple of weeks or months,” she said.

Quiet neighborhood. Good grief, what’s wrong with that? It describes the neighborhood, right? It’s not even a curious phrase, like “pin-drop quiet.” The issue is that everyone has a different definition of quiet, said Michael Pacheco, a real estate agent based out of Nashville, Tennessee.

“Even the quietest of neighborhoods have noise issues from time to time, and noise levels are relative to experience and person,” Pacheco said. While the neighborhood may indeed be quiet, “buyers should always take caution when reading that the property is located in a ‘quiet neighborhood’ and take those words with a large grain of salt.”

Good neighborhood. Actually, nothing is wrong with this phrase, but like “quiet neighborhood,” it tells you very little, Andreevska said.

“This term is so vague,” she said. “It can mean one of the best neighborhoods in town, and it can also mean a neighborhood that’s all right.”

Backs up to a green belt. This sounds terrific. Who wouldn’t want to live next to a green belt? As you probably know, that’s not just an interesting wardrobe choice ― it’s also a term that describes an open area of land, and often it means that construction is prohibited or limited in that area so wildlife can have some space to live.

Go check out the house, for sure, but keep your expectations in check. Cassie Villela, a property manager and realtor in San Antonio, Texas, said, “I cannot count the number of times I’ve taken clients on a showing who are looking for the beauty and peace of nature behind their home, only to find out that the reason for the green belt is gigantic, ugly, buzzing power lines. It is a frustrating experience for everyone, including the sellers.”

Updated. It may be a good home. Just recognize what you may be getting. “In my experience, the word ‘updated’ in listing descriptions often misleads buyers. They often think ‘updated’ means newly renovated,” said Carol Breitman, a licensed real estate salesperson with Citi Habitats, a real estate brokerage in New York.

So what does updated often really mean?

“Instead it means that some updates have been made to the home over time, such as new appliances in the kitchen, but they could have been completed a few years ago,” Breitman said. “When showing these properties, clients are often disappointed when they see this hodgepodge of some new and some old.”

Comfy. Who wouldn’t want a comfy home? True enough, but it usually means “worn out,” said Julie Upton, an entrepreneur with a California real estate license who has written copy for real estate listings.

Partial views or peek-a-boo views. You’ll be straining your neck to see the view, according to Upton.

Generous-sized rooms. Average-sized rooms, according to Upton.

Old world charm. It just means “old,” Upton said.

Vintage. “Old and dated,” Upton said.

Lots of potential, or great bones. “Needs a complete rehab or renovation,” Upton said.

Fanciful. That’s often a synonym for “bizarre and ‘way out there,’” said Elizabeth O’Neill, an agent with Warburg Realty.

One of a kind. That could mean trouble, O’Neill said. “One of a kind should really beg the question, ‘If it was really a compelling design, wouldn’t others have followed?’” In other words, maybe there’s a reason this home is one of a kind?

Dramatic. “It’s most often meant to convey bold design elements and approach,” O’Neill said, but the word in a real estate context more often means that “this is way different than you could imagine.” She also said that she suspects most homebuyers will feel that they have enough drama in their lives and can pass on looking at a home that describes itself as dramatic.

Transports you. “Another watchword,” O’Neill said. “While the words hold so much promise, it typically means, ‘Takes you somewhere you don’t want to go,’ and, ‘You’ll definitely want to leave this place soon.’”

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