The unreality of real estate language

Posted by on May 01, 2012

Despite its popularity and contagiousness, linguistic inflation is strongly resisted in some contexts. You’re unlikely to read ‘totally epic’ in a philosophy book, ‘unbelievably amazing’ in an academic essay, or ‘Best. Results. Ever.’ in a scientific paper. But in other, less formal contexts, inflation thrives; one such place is real estate language.

In this world, medium is ‘large’, average is ‘first rate’, and unusual is ‘extraordinary’. Any site that isn’t a ruined shack sinking into a swamp may be described as ‘superb’. A well-maintained building is ‘stunning’ and ‘fabulous’, a better-than-average view ‘must be seen to be believed’, and everywhere but the most dilapidated neighbourhoods are in a ‘most sought after location’. (Hyphens, unlike typos, are often scarce in these ads.)

If the kitchen has working appliances, it’s a ‘modern’ and ‘top class’ residence, and if there are windows it’s ‘filled with natural light’. Anywhere within 20 minutes of a shop offers ‘a world of convenience on your doorstep’, and probably lies ‘in the heart’ of somewhere – anywhere will do. Recently I came across the claim that a house was ‘in every sense of the word a dream home’. Let’s hope for their sakes that the new owners never wake up.

Though some houses are certainly beautiful and impressive, and might offer the odd surprise, I’ve never been astonished by one. But this is just another word for property advertisers. We’re not talking hover-homes in treetops here, or Batcaves brimming with futuristic gadgets, yet going by the language used in real estate blurbs, you might think astonishment is a typical reaction. I once saw an ad for an odd-looking house with a fussy lawn described as ‘an astonishing property’ with ‘a magnificent array of landscaped gardens which are meticulously maintained’.

Such breathless exaggeration, transparently pretentious, is of course just a sales pitch, designed to appeal to our desires for comfort, security, status, and so on – and to make us more willing to pay a lot of money. If the property is expensive, it’s likely to be ‘exclusive’; if not, it’s ‘affordable’ or an ‘ideal investment’. Even run-down houses can be made appealing, since they offer ‘immense potential’.

One of my favourite property ad lines is the following: ‘One can hardly believe that a property on this road would come to the market with such a realistic price tag.’ By realistic the agent means ‘comparatively modest’ – in this case, almost unbelievably so. But realism rarely gets a secure foothold in the language of real estate. Because property advertising is a dream home for hyperbole.

Comments (11)
  • Great and pertinent post, Stan. Beware the estate agent who describes a flat as ‘compact and bijou’ – it’s obviously a broom-cupboard.

    Posted by Beth Penfold on 1st May, 2012
  • Stan: following on from Beth, a description popular with UK (real) estate agents is ‘deceptively spacious’ – which (i think) means ‘it may look tiny but you’d be surpised how big it is’. Back in the 1960s there was a London agent named Roy Brooks who deliberately bucked the trend with his ultra-honest, often very funny descriptions which appeared in the Sunday papers. I remember my dad reading them out. A famous one was: ‘back bedroom suitable only for a dwarf’. It seems the company still exists: http://www.roybrooks.co.uk/the-book

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 1st May, 2012
  • Beth: “compact and bijou” is admirably euphemistic! They could add: “All appliances within arm’s reach”, or “Enjoy the amazing convenience of using the bathroom from the kitchen.”

    Michael: Thanks for introducing me to Roy Brooks. The website mentions a few golden oldies, but otherwise seems to have adopted the usual OTT lingo, with an occasionally puzzling twist: “Devastatingly beautiful”; “Incredibly edible”; “near to all local Shops” (obviously); “outrageously good links into London”; “scrummy views”; “Shops, Bars, Eateries are literally on your doorstep”. That last one sounds a bit crowded.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd May, 2012
  • Stan:
    (real) estate agents are used car salesmen with a different inventory. It’s a clear case of caveat emptor.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 2nd May, 2012
  • Unreality? NO, this is the poetry of the age! If you don’t believe the hype, then follow the link below. Even if you’re not convinced, you may at least be amused.
    http://www.narratoraustralia.com/2012/04/portrait-of-artist-as-real-estate-agent.html

    Posted by Peter Tonkin on 3rd May, 2012
  • Marc: True. And sometimes it’s more a case of empty cave.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd May, 2012
  • Peter: Very funny! Unreal estate, indeed.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd May, 2012
  • [...] The unreality of real estate language was prompted by the amusing hyperbole of property ads, where ordinary lawns are “magnificent”, every room is “filled with natural light”, and dreams lie forever on your doorstep. It is a world where medium is ‘large’, average is ‘first rate’, and unusual is ‘extraordinary’. Any site that isn’t a ruined shack sinking into a swamp may be described as ‘superb’. A well-maintained building is ‘stunning’ and ‘fabulous’, a better-than-average view ‘must be seen to be believed’, and everywhere but the most dilapidated neighbourhoods are in a ‘most sought after location’. (Hyphens, unlike typos, are often scarce in these ads.) [...]

    Posted by Real estate lingo, and the sorriest apologies « Sentence first on 28th May, 2012
  • @Michael Rundell,

    Some colleagues of mine were stumped by the use of ‘deceptively big/spacious/light’ in Real Estate jargon here in Australia. So they did what any curious and time-poor person would do and set it as a semantics assignment for an undergraduate semantics subject (http://www.superlinguo.com/post/8102577419/deceptively-deceptive).

    There appears to be a genuine semantic ambiguity with how this word is used, which Real Estate agents happily use. (See also Eric Baković’s post on Language Log http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3468)

    Posted by Lauren Gawne on 28th May, 2012
  • We Americans, of course, can use the bathroom from the kitchen no matter how large the kitchen is — provided we don’t mind changing our clothes afterwards.

    The American journalist and writer A. J. Liebling, writing about the second Florida land boom in 1915, said that the public had become so skeptical about Florida land advertising that they discounted it 90% — so he had to inflate it 900%. One new town, for example, was said to have “great yachts docking at the harbor daily”, which turned out to mean that there was a trench dug behind where the buildings would be erected that led to the sea.

    Posted by John Cowan on 29th May, 2012
  • Lauren: Thanks very much for the links – very interesting discussions.

    John: That’s a wonderful bit of exaggeration. I’d love to see Roy Brooks (comment 2, above) describe the same place, and to compare the two.

    Posted by Stan on 29th May, 2012
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