Brokers try to adjust to influx of new cultures

Asian feng shui devotees wouldn't buy a Colonial with a see-through foyer

April 13, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

How we sell real estate is determined by cultural influences.

For more than 50 years, the market assumed that the typical new-home buyers would be the Cleavers: people of European ancestry; a mother, a father and two children who saw themselves pretty much as Madison Avenue saw them.

And, accordingly, builders and real estate agents came up with ways to deal with these "traditional" buyers that served them well for decades.

The culture of the marketplace has changed, however, with the entry of millions of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, as well as an increase in black buyers during the past dozen years.

Builder and broker organizations have recognized for years that changes were taking place, and have turned to a growing number of "multicultural experts" - people who have either grown up in certain cultures or have had years of experience dealing with them.

The bottom line, the experts say: If you aren't sure about something, ask.

Feng shui, the 3,000-year-old Asian belief in creating spiritual balance by altering the environment, which became widely accepted among non-Asians during the late 1990s, is one example of a cultural influence not previously given much consideration in the real estate marketplace.

Pius Leung, a Houston real estate broker and consultant who was born in Hong Kong, said Chinese "believe our lives are magically linked to our environment. Certain places are better and luckier than others, so if we change our environment, we can change our lives."

Vastu shastra is a Hindu version of feng shui that people from India say is even older. In Sanskrit, "vastu" means nature, a surrounding or environment. The word denotes anything existing, such as a house or a building. "Shastra" means systems.

By aligning the work and living places with the energy of the cosmos, vastu shastra ensures a harmonious balance between man, nature and buildings, thereby bringing happiness, health, wealth and prosperity.

But not all Chinese believe in feng shui, and not all Indians believe in vastu shastra.

"You have to ask," said Michael Lee, a Realtor and consultant and the author of a book on dealing with multicultural buyers.

"Our country has traditions that are only around 200 years old," said Lee, whose parents came from China. "Newcomers often have a culture that is thousands of years old. It's tough to leave these kinds of traditions at the gate."

Architect Chip Pierson notes that second- or third-generation Asians and others do not necessarily believe, "but their parents or grandparents might, and they don't want to do anything to offend or create obstacles to visits by their elders."

"If their parents are footing the bill, then they believe," said Pierson, who works for the Dahlin Group in San Ramon, Calif., which has an office in Beijing.

The more diverse market has made, or should be making, builders and agents more sensitive to buyers' concerns about prejudice and fairness.

"It behooves us to go out of our way to let buyers know that we are being absolutely fair in our dealings with them," Lee said.

For example, cultures with a history of being treated unfairly by the government or its representatives may be made uneasy by everything related to a real estate transaction.

"When you hand the paperwork to them at the settlement table and they are seeing it for the first time, they are incredibly cautious," Lee said. "Let them see it beforehand, take them to dinner and go over it with them. Things will go much more smoothly."

Assumptions about housing styles and amenities also are being tossed out.

Barbara Anderson, who owns Preferred Designs in Kennett Square, Pa., has designed nine model houses targeted at "multicultural buyers." These included people from India, Koreans, Hispanics and what she described as an "affluent African-American market."

"For example," she said, "Indian buyers are among those who want dramatic entrances, including wood doors with strong-looking brass hardware."

To accommodate buyers' concerns about direction and location, she said, "we installed a prefab compass on the floor of the foyer of the model home, to make it easy for us."

One way to minimize confusion is to ask clients whether they believe in feng shui or vastu shastra and what they feel should be avoided, said Virginia Le of Vienna, Va., who often serves as a consultant on multicultural issues for the National Association of Realtors.

These might include, for example, a home with the number four in the address or one with a southern exposure.

The measure of a successful real estate agent or salesperson is to accommodate changes in strategies to obtain listings and move them quickly, Le said. In a changing market, the hard sell no longer works. A careful, knowledgeable, helpful and measured approach does.

For instance, among Asian buyers who are serious about feng shui, a front-hall Colonial with a see-through foyer is to be avoided.

"Straight lines are bad luck," said Lee, the Realtor who wrote a book on dealing with multicultural buyers.

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