Good-bye, Mr. Chips

You must be willing to die in order to live.
--Amir Vahedi (professional poker player)

...or to paraphrase Huey Lewis (I knew him when he was Hugh Cregg and a freshman engineer at Cornell): "The power of real estate is a curious thing, make a one man (or woman) weep, make another one sing". For most people, purchasing a home represents the biggest investment they'll make in their lives (yeah, yeah, we've heard this all before). When looking at properties the need for guarantees and perfection often becomes so intense that it thwarts any commitment to buy. Cognitive biases run rampant in the decision making, and usually toward the negative, but the most glaring incongruity is when the anxiety of making a mistake causes one to make a mistake, which brings us to War Story #7 (others are viewable under "War stories--a sub-blog..." at left).

A few years back I had a well known academician and his wife looking to purchase a new home. Their parameters as initially presented were simple, and we started to view some appropriate properties. The wife seemed easy to please, but with each new place the husband introduced some new criterion to be added to the mix: more charm, please; higher ceilings, please; more light, please; make that south light, please; etc., and finally, can we get a nicer view, please. Well, I believed I'd found the perfect place and told them so, and we set up an appointment. They insisted on bringing a friend who was a "real estate expert" (and control freak of the highest order). We HAD to go there in this friend's car, and he proceeded to regale me with his "expertise" intermingled with negative statements about brokers and how they were the scum of the earth, etc. I don't know what this guy was thinking problem. The property I had chosen was incredible. It was a loft with high ceilings (which they wanted), it was in Tribeca (which they wanted), it had exposed brick and wood beams (the kind of charm they had described); the fellow tenants were great (a couple of years later I remember showing Suzanne Vega's penthouse a few floors above to the remarkable composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman and director Scott Wittman along with their confidante Bette Midler--and her little Jack Russell, too); and there were three bright exposures through 10 windows and incredible views of the WTC and the Statue of Liberty (satisfying the most recent criterion submitted by the husband). When we walked in the wife's jaw dropped, the "expert's" jaw dropped, and I thought I had a winner for sure. I then turned to the husband, his face had turned red and he started to sweat profusely as he looked at what was before him. Then, without saying a word, he walked over to one of the 4 huge windows facing the Statue of Liberty, opened it, stuck his head out and looked straight down at the ground and proclaimed, "But this space has no views"--honest to God. The wife looked at me in apologetic horror, the expert rolled his eyes, and I realized what was going on, and declined to show them anything else after that.

I just don't feel comfortable selling to people whose anxieties are such a determining factor when choosing their path through life. I do understand and respect anxiety and have had more than my share, but the bottom line is the people I've seen who make the best real estate decisions do so based on analyses free of bad heuristics and with little influence from their anxieties. The couple above did eventually buy (not through me), but what they bought lacked most of the things they wanted (it was a smallish "dungeon" half underground, and one, which over the years, appreciate at about half the rate of the place I'd shown them). I think what happened here was their final decision was probably made on a day where everything was going right: great things were happening at work and at home, the weather was beautiful, a book or paper was accepted for publication, etc. i.e. minimal anxiety was present, and this ruled their decision and not the property's attributes.

--LZ (any comments can be emailed to us at, thanks).