Friday, August 20, 2010

The Real Estate School of Writing

1610 W. Jackson Avenue hanging tough, despite it all.

It takes a special talent to create compelling real estate copy. The highly specialized genre requires the writer to seamlessly mix legally required disclosures about a property's flaws with ebullient and frequently exaggerated claims that quickly forge an emotional connection with potential buyers. It's kind of like writing a profile for an online dating service — not that I'd know anything about that — except you have to mention things like plumbing and delinquent property taxes. Like satire and clever limericks, it's not easy to pull off. Especially when it comes to Flint.

Take this eBay offering — "Charming 2 BR House in Flint MI, Good Area for family" — for a classic Civic Park home at 1610 W. Jackson Avenue.(Disclosure: I once hauled ass through the backyard of this house approximately 35 years ago after an unfortunate misunderstanding involving snowballs and a motorist who clearly didn't have a sense of humor.) Let's set aside the obvious big-picture discussion of whether Flint, in its present state, is indeed a "good area" for families and get right into some of the classic elements of real estate writing skillfully employed in this listing.

Bad News First: Some things are simply impossible to nuance, and it's best to just get it over with: "Unfortunately, thieves have entered the property and taken the furnace, hot water service, kitchen sink, and fittings.

Turn That Frown Upside Down: But it's always best to quickly counter this potentially negative information with something positive: "
Luckily the property has poly water pipes and they are still all there. The ducting for the furnace is still in place, and the only damage done to the property is to the door knob and door jamb of the side door, minor damage to the bathroom wall and mud trampled over the carpets. The front, side and rear doors are all new aluminum clad security doors and all have been secured. The carpets, although soiled, are still in excellent condition and will clean up well. The house is currently winterized." (Note: This may be one of the rare instances when the use of cheapo polybutylene plumbing paid off; if the owner had used copper, it would be long gone by now.)

Get Inside Their Head: Anticipate potential buyers questions and concerns and reassure them. For example, people might be wondering why the seller is willing to part with this fantastic property for under $2,000 on eBay:
"I cannot undertake repairs as I live too far away. This is the ONLY reason I’m selling it." Note the use of ALL CAPS for emphasis, which enhances the believability of the claim. It also distracts the customer from asking the obvious question: Why do you live so far away from Flint if the city is as wonderful as you claim?

Aspirational Thinking: Prompt the potential buyer to start imagining the fun projects they could undertake once they own the property. "Don’t be put off by the external color of the house.
It’s only a coat of paint from being stunning."

Get Back to Nature: Take advantage of natural attributes that have an emotional appeal and are difficult to steal while hinting at the long-term potential of the property: "
There is a large shade tree in the back yard and room for a garage."

Avoid Too Much Information: Finally, real estate writers know that while they shouldn't actively deceive, there's no law that says you have to provide every piece of pertinent information: "The home's location provides convenient access to schools, parks and churches. Civic Park elementary school is just a block from the home, and there are 7 schools all within a mile of the home...For golfers, Mott Park Municipal Golf Course is less than 2 miles away." In other words, there's no need to reveal that some of those schools, including Civic Park, are no longer open. And duffers will just have to find out for themselves that Mott Golf Course has fallen victim to budget cuts, although it's still a great spot to practice shots from very deep rough. Keep in mind the copy never claims these facilities are open, only that they exist.

With less than two days before the auction closes, the house has 36 bids. The current high bid is $1,336.


  1. I guess I'll never be a real estate tycoon, or even a minor-league landlord, but I have absolutely no interest in ownership of negative-value property in a distressed area with no apparent prospects for economic recovery within my lifetime.

    I guess there must be people who will buy houses sight unseen, since someone's bidding and the house clearly isn't worth $0, let alone $1336, once you know its situation. What is that kind of person like?

  2. I saw this listing before you posted this, and although this house is in better shape than many Flint houses on eBay, it's still not all that great. The real estate speculation that goes on here has helped destroy property values for everyone else who actually lives here and cares about the area.

  3. It ended up selling for about $1,500. I emailed the seller, who is listed as living in Australia, but haven't heard back. Hoping to get some details on how this sale came to pass. Ebay doesn't allow you to contact buyers or bidders.

    I know this is far fetched, but I always think if you somehow had a decent job in Flint, or if a group of 3-4 friends had decent jobs and a taste for adventure, you really could save some money in Flint. You could buy this house for $1500, put another $5,000 into it, and basically live for free. Get 50 people to somehow buy up a couple blocks in Civic Park and you could start to carve out a mini revival. Then you tear down the worst abandoned houses and everyone gets a suburban sized lot.

    I know...crazy talk. If you had kids you'd have to deal with the Flint Schools or the cost of private...or consider home schooling. And you'd have to assume you'd probably never be able to sell the home. And you'd have to contend with crime.And there are easier ways for people with good jobs to save money in could just rent a nice apartment and not deal with all the hassles of home ownership.

    But I know or met several families in Civic Park this summer trying to make the neighborhood work, against all the odds. You wouldn't be alone in trying something like this.

  4. If I would have been single, I would have definitely bought a house in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Since it was a struggle to get my wife on board with buying in Flint, we chose Mott Park, since it was stable. I do quite like Civic Park, though I probably would've moved to Carriage Town first.

  5. Gordie, The families that you talked to in Civic Park, what or how are they handling security? I know here in Richmond (CA) that is one of the most difficult issues. The "nice" neighborhoods are subject to the most number of burglaries and break-ins, mostly because they have stuff worth stealing.

    But yes, there are folks over here working hard to maintain civility and order in an otherwise chaotic environment.

  6. They seemed to rely on security doors and keeping an eye out for each other. One woman I talked to carried a gun on her hip and had a concealed weapon permit.

  7. You're not the only one who's had that very same far-fetched idea, Gordie - and now I know I'm not the only one either!! I've often wondered if places like flint could become hubs for those whose work does not necessarily depend on local industries (or the lack thereof) and much of which is carried out online. Translators and journalists come to mind for obvious reasons (!), but I’m sure there are others out there who would benefit from comparatively low rents and purchase prices for housing, offices, warehouses, etc., and in Flint’s case, a growing student population potentially seeking a few hours of work outside their studies. You’re right, unfortunately, about the school situation and, obviously, the crime. But the potential for transformation requires consideration of every idea, far-fetched or not.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at