What is your real estate Hot Button?

Buying a house is an emotion driven investment, one in which the heart all too often gets in the way of the sane, straightforward, rational investor each of us knows ourselves to be.

Sometimes buyers (and renters) are very aware of the hot buttons that drive their home search decisions; other times these triggers are buried so deep that they screw up purchase after purchase until the buyer finally realizes that what he thinks he wants isn't really what he does want.

For instance: an elderly woman who needed to downsize from a huge house and yard into a more easily maintained situation looked on and off for three years before suddenly grabbing a condo in a high rise at a premium price. It was a lovely condo but twice the size she required and in need of serious rehabilitation. Only months later, after driving a contractor and two of her children nuts, did she confess to why she had to have the unit.



She was an avid ceramics painter and had painted for herself, family, and friends, dozens of "Christmas Village" houses, trees, shops, churches, train stations, carolers, and so forth. The minute she walked into the condo, unsuitable for her in almost every way, she saw the huge fireplace hearth and on it the perfect place to display her Christmas village...one month a year.

Another for instance: a real estate guru, a trainer of other agents, could not figure out why she had, on a whim, purchased a studio apartment after showing it to a customer. She, her husband and three kids were comfortably housed in an urban condo several blocks away, she certainly could not occupy the space and it was a pretty lousy rental investment. She did finally manage, over four years, to purchase the apartments on either side of the studio and turn all three into a lovely apartment that she lives in to this day, but she could never understand why she had started such a crazy and expensive chain of events. That is, until five years to the day after her initial visit to the condo, when she walked into her living room and a shock rolled through her body. It was the light that streamed through the windows that morning and on the morning five years earlier which had made the apartment irresistible.

One is supposed to love one's home, but buying on a hot button impulse can be more costly in terms of time, money, and emotions than it is ultimately gratifying.

It took a long time to identify what was driving a successful dentist with a beautiful young family. He was clear from the start that they only wanted a brand new home. This was right after 9/11, the family was visibly Muslim, and the wife had twice been physically threatened, so they also craved a secure and private situation. Yet only one home elicited a positive response. The house was poorly laid out and the builder, while a good one, had sacrificed a number of commonsense features in favor of glitz and these customers were not glitzy people.

Assad fixated on the house. Eman, his wife hated it. It was on a busy street in one of the least attractive parts of town. The yard afforded no privacy, the first floor powder room was in a rather public location (sort of a dumb one too) that she found absolutely unacceptable. Assad wanted his wife to be happy, but he also wanted that house.

What followed nearly drove the builder and both real estate agents mad. Assad brought in two landscape architects to design privacy barriers for the front and back of the house. The back was easy, the front virtually impossible. Next came two interior designers to find a place to relocate the powder room and overcome the bonehead mistakes the builder had made in placing the deck and accessing the back yard. Every change that resolved issues was impractically expensive. The home was off the market for several months while the builder screamed and yelled at both agents, and Eman spent most of her time in tears. When asked why this house, Assad would say he loved it and would not hear the argument that, no, in fact he did not. I continued to show him every new home that came on line; the builder offered to custom build on another lot he owned. Nothing but this house, which would not suffice, would suffice.

Then a house that had been under agreement for months suddenly came back on the market. It had a wonderfully private backyard; a first floor lavatory located in a private and reasonable location, and was only eight houses away from the original house - eight houses that took it off of the busy street and into a private and friendly neighborhood. Assad and Eman bought it on the spot.

It was the location and only the location that had prompted Assad to behave in the way he had. His wife didn't realize it, neither agent spotted it, and Assad probably was unaware as well that both houses were in the only town he wanted to live in but that a 15 minute traffic jam stood between his office and any other available home in town. And he wanted that 30 minutes a day with his wife and family. He was willing to do nearly anything to own that time, even spend a small fortune making the wrong house right to satisfy his hot button. If any of us had recognized the real issue it would have saved several months, a lot of aggravation and substantial amounts of money.

What is your hot button? If you have chosen a few living situations in the past it may be easy to figure out. What did they have in common? It could be something pretty obvious - a view or a view of something in particular such as water or a sunset; exceptionally high ceilings; hardwood floors; a corner lot; - or it could be more subtle - the light patterns in a certain room, the distance from your parking space to the front door, a level lot, a terraced lot; outdoor living space (even if just a tiny balcony.) Your house picks may have shared several common features but did any of your homes lack one? If so, how comfortable were you living there and how long did you stay? How would you feel if you lived in a space that was missing any of those things that seem to draw you? Can you envision living in a house that is 15 feet from a neighbor's home or that has no greenery visible from the kitchen window?

If you are venturing out to buy a home or rent for the first time, keep a mental checklist of the places you see and try to identify the common threads that beckon to you. Do you find that a dubious neighborhood is OK as long as there is a safe place to run or bike nearby or enough counter space to display all of your kitchen gadgets? Does closet space mean more to you than air conditioning?

Once you identify your hot buttons you can either try to indulge them or sublimate them. If the former, then tell your agent that no house or apartment will work unless it has enough bookcases to accommodate your desire to own every book written by or about Mary Higgins Clark or a location within walking distance of a major racetrack.

However, once you know what factors are motivating your housing decisions, you may be able to make peace with them. Millions of people have probably lived out their lives with a gnawing desire for a house overlooking the ocean or yearning for a truly sybaritic bathroom or an indoor lap pool. Is it possible within your community or your budget to indulge your desire? If not, then it is time to be a grown up, to tell yourself that someday you will wake up to the crashing surf or shower in piped in Perrier, but in the meantime you must let other more rational needs and desires drive your housing search. Such mature decision making is only possible when you can identify why that little voice keeps saying that this place isn't quite right.

Oh, yeah, full disclosure. After owning 11 houses and renting three apartments, I am unable to move into a residence that does not either have or have the potential for a wood stove. This is an almost sensible fetish for a New Englander which I was for three decades, but not overly smart in coastal South Georgia.

Now excuse me, I have to haul in more firewood.