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Writing a Successful Real Estate Ad: What Your Agent Won't Tell You

Dear Ali;

I am trying to sell my house myself (as a FSBO, For Sale By Owner), and I am little stuck in trying to write classified ad copy. Do you have any insider tips?

A: Writing great ads is a lifelong craft, so for every one thing I mention I'm going to forget five more. But let me get you started, and I can always make this No. 1 in a series.

  1. Write with your customer in mind. Let's say that you're a lover of history, and you bought the one historic house left in a neighborhood full of McMansions. Who is your customer? Probably someone with a similar love of old houses, right? So keep that in mind when you write your ad copy. You might want to describe what your house has that the McMansions don't have, things like "original maple hand-bordered floors" or "Victorian tile fireplace surround" -- whatever that is. But picture your buyer as you write, and think about what they would like.
  2. Describe the property, not the customer. Now that you've pictured your customer, you have to be careful not to run afoul of Fair Housing laws -- phrases like "family-friendly" and "exclusive gated community" might discourage some potential shoppers, so it's better to stick to absolute descriptions of your real estate like "four bedrooms" and "quiet." Never, never mention a target buyer's race, color, or religion -- that's against the law!
  3. Be specific about brand names and materials. Remember when Freakonomics came out with the top five real estate words, and two of them were "granite" and "Corian"?* Those words describe specific materials, and that says something valuable to the customer. Of course, you have to know what your shoppers want: if the preference at your price point is for a "Viking" range, you might not want to highlight your "Welbilt" stove. But in general, you can't go wrong with words like "oak flooring," "soapstone countertops," or "Miele dishwasher" -- if you have those things.
  4. Look at the competition's ads. Sounds simple, but you'd be amazed how many FSBOs never do this. Look for repeated phrases that might be evidence of what customers are interested in. If your competition keeps mentioning their "carports" and "private driveways," be sure to highlight yours. But also look to see what differentiates your house. If the competition is a sea of typical Colonials and you have a ranch, you might want to emphasize your "open floorplan" or how your home is "built for entertaining." You want to show what you've got that the competition doesn't.
  5. Be careful with code words. There are lots of real estate euphemisms -- think "cozy" as a widely-used substitute for "small" -- but customers sometimes over-correct for them as they go in and out of fashion. For example, to me "charming" means "full of older historical detail" -- but I know that to many customers it means "needs renovation," so I'm very, very careful about using it. On my "banned" list now is "motivated seller" -- a phrase that I think customers are so tired of seeing that they just bypass it. If you're truly motivated, show it in your pricing, not your phrasing!
  6. Get ready to rewrite. Realtors like to pretend that what we do is magic instead of hard work, but diligence is a real key to our business. Rewriting classifieds is one of the big agent secrets; if an ad doesn't pull the way I want it to, I start over. If you're advertising in your community's local newspaper, you might want to try and tweak your ads each week and see what works best.

*FYI, the other three were "state-of-the-art," "maple," and "gourmet."

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