February 23, 2018
In the text of almost any real estate listing, buyers and brokers can expect an onslaught of superlatives. It’s as if every property is the best and most beautiful with top-of-the-line finishes, tranquil and lush outdoor space, and gorgeous views.

But buried in that over-dramatization is a lot of info that can clue buyers in about what to expect from a given property beyond just the number of bedrooms and bathrooms and the size of the home, which might save them time during their search or give them the upper hand during a negotiation.

While most experts agree that photos and video tours are the most important aspects of a listing, Mauricio Barba, a broker associate with ONE Sotheby’s International Realty in Miami said that the description itself is “absolutely still important” as well.

“The luxury buyer typically needs some hand holding,” he said. “They want to read a story about their potential home.”

To accomplish this, Mr. Barba said that he includes all the essential information, such as number of bedrooms and size and location, in a listing’s description, but also highlights a home’s interesting history. If a public figure or celebrity or sports star used to live there, he wants to note that. If a famous architect built the property, and it has noteworthy touches— like one Coral Gables property he’s selling that has original stained glass from the 1920s made by the Tiffany company— he wants to highlight that, too.

“I want to show the importance of the property in the description,” he said, “and make it clear why it’s worth the list price.”

And every agent has their own strategy when writing up a listing, each meant to entice a potential buyer or broker to come see the property in person.

“It’s about trying to cut through the clutter,” said Craig Knizek, the director of the estates division at Los Angeles brokerage The Agency. “The goal is to write a description or a phrase that resonates with the reader, whether that’s the broker or the potential buyer.”

What’s left out of the description is almost as important as what’s in there

There are a few in-demand features that experts agree will be in a listing if they’re considered a selling point for a home. Views is one of them.

“If I’m reading someone else’s listing and it doesn’t say ‘views’ when that’s what my client has asked for, I might not even look through all the pictures that they’ve presented,” Mr. Knizek said.

In L.A., “panoramic, unobstructed views” or “ocean views” are considered the best, while “peekaboo views” might mean a sliver of the Pacific or a glimmer of the downtown skyline.

In the French Riviera, Beauchamp Estates broker Mirka Mikleticova said that “southwest facing views” are the most in-demand, and will be certainly be mentioned in a property’s description if they’re there.

In the Manhattan apartment world, views of anything—Central Park, the Hudson River or a landmark like the Empire State Building—are likely to be the first thing listed, if they’re there at all, said  Rick Pretsfelder, a broker with Leslie J. Garfield. For townhouses, in which views aren’t expected, light is more important.

Just like views, other features, such as outdoor space, flat land, a guest house and amenities, including in-home wine cellars, gyms and movie theaters, will most likely be mentioned if they’re important parts of the home.

Some words or phrases mean more than meets the eye

Within the description, other words or phrases that seem straightforward on first read might mean much more.

For instance, while “cozy” probably means small when it comes to apartments, for a townhouse, “cozy just suggest a less grand space,” said Mr. Pretsfelder, who noted that a “cozy” townhouse might be 2,800 square feet, but “warm and comfortable—just not sprawling.”

“Charming” or “needs TLC,” on the other hand, is language that almost certainly means you “basically have to gut it,” Mr. Knizek said, noting that “build your dream home” (or “add your personal artistic touch,” according to Mr. Barba) is another way to say it’s a tear down.

A move-in ready house, on the other hand, might have “bring your toothbrush” in the listing, Mr. Knizek said.

In the New York property market, listings often include the phrase “pre-war,” which literally means that the building was constructed before World War II, Mr. Pretsfelder said. But what being built during that architectural period implies, he continued, is that the apartment is likely to be large, with high ceilings, rooms separated by hallways, attractive molding or wood details, such as parquet floors, and quality construction that makes it less likely that you’ll hear your neighbors.

“I like the scale of pre-war apartments, but there are plenty of buyers out there who would consider this a negative thing,” Mr. Pretsfelder said.

Those buyers instead might want a modern unit, with a cleaner, white box look—also phrases likely to show up in Manhattan condo listings.

But if a listing doesn’t say “pre-war” or “modern and new,” it probably means the building was constructed sometime between the 1950s and the 1980s, when architecturally, generally, “was probably a little more vanilla,” Mr. Pretsfelder said, with lower ceiling heights and fewer hallways.

In standalone homes, phrases like “formal living and dining parlors” is a cue that there’s not an open floor plan, which many buyers crave, Mr. Barba said.

Meanwhile, “hearkens back to a bygone era,” or something like that, might be shorthand to tell buyers this is an older home, Mr. Knizek said.

Comments on price cuts and deals can mean different things

Experts generally agree that more often, they’re seeing listings that include phrases like “massive price reduction” or “bring all offers.” Both, they say, can be double-edged swords. On one hand, these phrases might entice buyers to find out more. But on the other hand, “it feels a little bit desperate,” Mr. Knizek said, “and like the seller is just trying to unload the thing.”

In many cases, this sort of language says more about the sellers’ situation than about the property itself, experts say.

In some cases, the owner has found themselves in financial trouble and needs to sell fast. Or maybe they’re being relocated across the country for their job and have to close fast. In other cases, Mr. Knizek said, it’s code for a nasty divorce. “You would never write, ‘family separating—must sell this house,’ or ‘husband and wife hate each other,’” he said.

Language about how the property is a “bargain” can also mean just that—that it’s trading at a lower price per square foot, not that it needs a lot of work, experts say.

In New York, that could mean a condo built in the 1980s that’s now selling at $1,100 per square foot, Mr. Pretsfelder said—a deal in most Manhattan neighborhoods. Or in L.A., whether it’s the “lowest priced view property in the Hills” or “the lowest priced property in the flats,” it could be a perfectly fine property that will appeal to a certain type of buyer, including luxury buyers, who can, “well afford something else, but they’re not buying unless it’s a bargain,” Mr. Knizek said.

Listings may look a bit different to appeal to international buyers

In the South of France, Ms. Mikleticova said she has a lot of buyers looking for a vacation home who are only in town for a weekend or short holiday before they make their purchase decision. Because she knows these buyers are short on time, she sticks to bullet points and cuts all the jargon. “I find that you have to get straight to the point if you don’t want to lose the client,” she said.

She also forgoes sugar coating any perceivable flaws and just tells it like it is. “If a property needs a lot of work, I would just write that,” she said, noting that a lot of buyers are interested in a renovation so they can customize a home to their specific tastes. “If we deceive them and the reality is different when they get here, a lot of people would be angry,” she said.

Below the bullet points, though, she will find space to fit in some historical details that might sway a buyer, as she recently did with a villa that used to be a Russian Orthodox Chapel, and at one time, belonged to royalty from Serbia and Montenegro. “My client told me that those details really interested her,” Ms. Mikleticova said.

In Miami, the president and CEO of the Fortune International Group, Edgardo Defortuna, said listings aimed at South American buyers tend to highlight characteristics beyond the individual apartment.

“An international buyer is typically less concerned with the specific unit itself and more interested in the lifestyle that living in that project represents,” he said, adding that focusing on the amenities, such as an in-building pool, spa, concierge service or restaurant, are likely to get their attention. “They’re really concerned about how they’re going to be able to enjoy their freedom when they come here.”

Whether it’s meant to appeal to an international or local buyer, drawing that person in is obviously the gold standard for all listings, experts say. But it doesn’t hurt when the current owner is reminded why they bought the home in the first place, Mr. Knizek said.

“The perfect compliment is when they look at the photos and read the copy and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to move. This is a great house.’”