Why Some Houses Don't Sell: A Buyer's Perspective

Image of Distorted Silicon Valley Home

It was the right neighborhood near one of Silicon Valley's up-and-coming downtown areas.  I paced the angular stairwell looking carefully at the stained hardwood while my client measured out the living room.  "It's good," he said, sizing up the empty canvas beside the fireplace.  I smiled and made a left into the downstairs guest room.

Theoretically, he loved the place, from location to square-footage, to the deep auburn color of the hardwood floors.  Then, out of nowhere he exclaimed, "What in the world [ed. he didn't use that word] am I supposed to do with the loft?!"

Ah, the loft.  We had talked about it for ten minutes, bouncing ideas around, before deciding to take another look around.  I'd been mulling it over but was distracted by the plus-shaped guest room, one where the only way a queen-sized bed could fit would be diagonally.  This room would probably need to be a study.

There was another "study" though, a second plus-shaped bedroom, with inward folding corners and all.  Any bed that would fit either of these rooms would mean a very uncomfortable night for two, like my client's parents! 

For his purposes, he was right about the loft.  The master bedroom had a tall, quixotic spiral staircase next to the bathroom, winding its way up to a loft that was larger than the master bedroom itself --- larger than the other bedrooms put together too.

It would have been the perfect place for a pool table, but that would have made the master suite the corridor for any guests to get there. 

Why do buyers walk away...?

Reasons Why Buyers Walk Away

We kept on brainstorming: wall it off, knock down the wall to the staircase, use it as the master sleeping area, get a ping-pong and pool table, make it a very large office and workshop.  There was only so much Tetris we could play with the other two bedrooms before it became clear.  He really loved the place, but we had to.  Here are some possibilities as to why buyers walk away.

1/  Lack of UsefulnessHis expression said the same thing, but I vocalized it: "This place is almost a million dollars and 400 square feet [ed. 20%] isn't usable for you."   He looked at me square and said that the space that was the loft could have been --- should have been --- a large, functional guest bedroom or den. 

2/  Too Much Work.  And, while he could have renovated this home any way he wanted to, for a million dollars, do you blame him for wanting something plug-and-play?  When you're the seller, there is a fine balance between making your house "sellable" and doing so much work that you never make back your money (negative ROI).  As a buyer, if you've got a day job, family, friends, and hobbies that already take 28 hours in a day, how excited are you about taking on a home renovation project --- one that can disrupt your life?  There are buyers who get excited about putting their own touch on a home, but this excitement sometimes fades quickly once they quantify the effort involved.

3/  Lack of Resale Possibilities.  "We made the effort and spent half-an-hour trying to figure out what to do with this space?  When you go to sell this place, do you think other folks are going to do the same thing?" The answer came two months later when the listing was withdrawn for lack of interest at levels near the asking price. 

4/  Image.  In order to consider buying a house, a buyer has to see themselves living in it.  My client definitely envisioned himself in this property, but there was one in Willow Glen that fared a little differently...

5/  Smell.  Some say that the smell of freshly-baked cookies or warm pie helps a home sell faster by helping buyers associate something good with the house they're looking at.  Smells have been proven to trigger memories, but what some people enjoy may be offensive to others.  Incense, chemically-scented candles, and burnt baked goods have been known to get both good and bad reactions.  In general, the best smell for a house to have is nothing noticeable and there are smells that keep houses from selling faster.

Reasons Why Buyers Don't Come At All

The Willow Glen charmer.  We were in the area and it was near to the end of our day.  This one was for-sale-by-owner property and it technically met all of my client's criteria, but I moved it to the end of our tour just in case. 

"It's purple," I said wryly. 

"Why not?"

Curiosity got the better of us and we parked across the street to take a look.  It wasn't a shy house, with its royal coloring and white picket fence.  We stepped under the wooden archway leading to the front door and peered into the dimly lit living room.

The owner was a kind and gentle woman with two boys, and when she let us in, it felt as if we'd taken the red pill from Silicon Valley to Wonderland.  The pattern of black-and-white checkered tiles in the kitchen, from floors to ceiling, was occasionally offset by faded but proud tiles with handwritten recipes from years past.  The antique piano leaned against the wall under an ornate wooden frame which guarded the still of an ancestor from times long ago.  It was a 1920s parlor, a genealogical study, her life's story, all at once.

This was her house and there were reminders everywhere that its personality could never be truly separated from our Alice.  It was branded: what could a buyer do to make it their own?

I would hazard a guess, from our conversation at her house, that most people never got so far as to experience her graceful hospitality. 

Characteristics That Scare People Away From Viewing a House

1/  Paint Color.  This house was imperial purple.  It's definitely possible to repaint a house, but when people judge books by covers, the color of a house signals the quality, upkeep and styling of the interior as well as its appliances and fixtures.  In this case it was an accurate signal to the quality and styling, though the upkeep was good.  This also triggers thoughts of "too much work."

2/  Overpricing.  This happened to be a for-sale-by-owner home.  Owner sales are notorious for being overpriced because the owner imposes their wants and needs on the price of a house versus what the market will bear.  Agents do this too, but indirectly.  They may present, "I can get that price for you," then convince the owner to lower the price later.  This strategy can sometimes backfire for owners; here's another example.  In other cases, less ethical (and arguably less successful long-term) agents hope for someone who isn't well informed to come along, but with Internet research being the norm, those odds are becoming longer every day.

3/  Functional Obsolescence.  In the Bay Area, it's very common for homes over forty years old to have one bathroom for two, three, even four bedrooms.  Clients I've seen perusing these listings all have the same question, "What am I going to do when guests come over?"  This is a signal of functional obsolescence, where the house doesn't meet the needs, market expectations or uses envisioned for it.  Functional obsolescence often requires remodeling or revised expectations in pricing.

4/  Put Off by Adjectives.  Would it surprise you to know that, in studies, some of the most common adjectives used by real estate agents actually put people off?  There's a quote from the book Freakonomics in this article.

5/  Lack of Pictures and Bad Pictures.  Blind dates.  You hear about nerves, trepidation, and even jokes on Friends about seeing the person you're supposed to be meeting on the blind date and then leaving without them knowing.  You may go on the date, but would it cross your mind that you might be wasting your time?  Houses have bad picture days too, especially the sky might be overcast leading to less ambient light.  Would you want to go to a property that marketed itself as "dark and musty"?