Analyse this: the strange psychology of homebuying

What makes a buyer decide to buy a home? With the housing market in the doldrums, sellers are turning to psychology to discover how best to appeal to purchasers and to find out what they really want
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The Independent Online

Estate agents and developers in the UK who are finding it a bit tough to shift property these days - and aren't they all? - could take a look at what their colleagues are doing at the Parque da Floresta resort on the western Algarve in Portugal. Sales and marketing director Andy Burridge has taken the unusual steps of hiring a new sales manager from the Guinness group and employing a training company from Lisbon to instruct his staff in the psychology of selling.

Burridge's team has learnt there are four different behavioural styles. You are a promoter, controller, supporter or analyst, or a combination of these types. "Promoters are outgoing. I wouldn't sell anything in a secondary location to them. But analysts are more factual and want information. We would get a logical member of staff to talk to a buyer who is an analyst. A promoter being sold something by an analyst would be bored to tears. They just want to know about the jacuzzi and pool."

Burridge views the art of selling property as a science. "We receive signals from clients and need to find out the way they are thinking. This is a more blue-chip approach, but it has definitely made a difference." Does this mean the old Fifties process where the wife worries about the chintz and the husband takes on the more solid role of tapping on the walls is no longer valid? Burridge says modern-day couples are much more consultative during the selling process: "It's a joint decision." He finds Sixties baby boomers have more aspirational ideas and tend to be knowledgeable about the marketplace.

Copthorn Homes' marketing director Neil Armstrong agrees, but says there is a generation gap. "Younger couples tend to make joint decisions, not just on buying the home, but on decor and layout. Whereas the older generation tends to assume more "traditional" male and female roles - with the female having more input in the choices of carpet, tiles and kitchen design and the male showing more interest in what they refer to as 'more practical' aspects of the home."

Andrew Dewar of Curchods Estate Agents in Surrey says: "Women exercise their emotions more than men, but this is natural as most women typically spend more time in a property." Dewar says there are some "good cop/bad cop routines", but most people are fairly unstructured and react as events unfold. He thinks what demonstrates a general lack of psychology in the whole process is the number of people who buy something totally different to what they said they wanted at the outset.

George Sell, editor of What House magazine, says the marketing of homes has changed, but there is still a lot of guesswork involved. "Generally women have more influence," he believes. "They are better at looking at something and imaging the end result." City & Country Group's Tina Wolfe agrees: "We believe that in around 80 per cent of all cases, it is the female who consciously or subconsciously has the biggest say. For many women, a house has to 'feel right'."

Chris Hart from Knight Frank's Wimbledon office finds himself negotiating with the male buyer most of the time - which means dealing with the male ego. "However, often the lady is pulling the strings. Buying a house doesn't look like rocket science on paper, but in reality, there are many influential nuances and factors." He says good salespeople recognise those who are genuine buyers, as opposed to the JBNs (Just Being Nosey). "Most buyers are pretty clued up today," adds Sell. "One of the biggest trends is buyers carrying out advance research on the net. This makes them more informed and if they don't want to buy it will be hard to change their minds."

Dawn Carritt, from Jackson-Stops & Staffs' country house and estates department, admits that selling houses is never that straightforward. There are obvious do's and don'ts, however. "Never take someone over six feet tall somewhere with low beams. And note certain phobias. Some mums do not want any kind of water outside, as they are worried about the dangers for small children. Even the teeniest dribble will put them off and it is no good trying to sell them a property with a pond."

Howard Elson from Aylesford believes central London buyers are particularly sophisticated. "They know what they are looking for and recognise it as soon as they see it." Property purchase, he adds, is often seen here as part of a wider investment portfolio, rather than just buying a home. "Therefore buyers will try to tweak the deal to gain any financial advantage they can. Negotiations can be tough. London buyers can be very mercenary and will play the market for all it is worth."

Research undertaken by Norwich Union shows that psychology plays a huge part in the buying process. Britons are relying on instinct when making the biggest purchase of their life, with as many as nine in 10 people citing "gut feeling' as very important when buying a home. Home is a refuge and a place of personal space where people define themselves and their territory. Literally, it is their piece of the world. House-builder Redrow has been applying this analysis to how they go about creating homes that "people can safely fall in love with for many years."

Elaine Stratford, sales director for Banner Homes, thinks the Americans are miles ahead when it comes to lifestyle marketing. "They think nothing of grouping purchasers together for a pizza night, where they are 'taught' to move forward in their new home purchase. We find it hard enough to get purchasers to make a weekend appointment, let alone serving them soda and pizza. I don't think we are quite there yet."

Rupert Bradstock of buying agents Property Vision finds that over the last decade the environment and nature has become increasingly important. "Mature trees and natural features like wild meadows, planting trees and owning rare breeds are now a big positive on the house hunter's list." Environ Sunley at Kings Hill Park in West Malling, Kent, has noted this trend. The environmentally friendly houses are sold with more consultation and don't lend themselves to the "move in for £99' approach.

Nathalie Hirst of buying agents Prime Purchase Property Acquisition says she is rarely surprised by a client's take on a property at the end of a viewing. "People find it hard to disguise their body language. They are concentrating on looking at the property, but you can see exactly what they are thinking once you know what to look for."

And even after they buy, psychology still comes in handy. Hirst often sees "buyer's remorse"; immediately after exchange, the buyer panics. "I give them a huge amount of verbal Prozac to overcome this common knee-jerk reaction; it very seldom lasts for more than a week."

Parque da Floresta 01223 322553; Copthorn Homes 01277 260000; Curchods Estate Agents 01483 479100; City & Country Group 01279 817882; What House 020-7939 9888; Knight Frank, Wimbledon 020-8946 0026; Jackson-Stops & Staff, Mayfair 020-7664 6646; Aylesford 020-7351 2383; Banner Homes 01628 536200; Property Vision 01488 669900; Environ Sunley 01732 871872; Prime Purchase Property Acquisition 020-7881 2388.