You're an Agent of Storytelling

When journalists need to paint the picture of a town, there’s no better source of information than real estate practitioners.

July 20, 2015

The clubhouse was lush: stone and marble, stainless and silk. Clearly no expense was spared, and every detail and finish quietly whispered “luxury.”

It was also mostly empty, a high-end amenity for a golf community in Lake County, Fla., that was conceived before the housing bubble burst in 2008. At the height of the market, the lots — originally sold for $200,000 apiece — had flipped and flipped until they were going for the low seven figures. Now it was 2011, and as we stood at the spa, looking out over a rolling hillside dotted with merely a handful of completed homes, you could have picked up one of those lots for about ten grand. Yet they still weren’t selling, because no one wanted to invest in the kind of house needed to meet the restrictions of the homeowners association.

It was an amazing story and one I knew only because I was standing with a real estate professional.

As a journalist, I write place-based stories. Sometimes they’re in in my backyard, but often they’re in cities and towns throughout the U.S. — places I don’t know well. Practitioners are one of my go-to resources when getting to know a community.

Often in the course of my reporting, I’ll wind up spending several days embedded in a community. For instance, when visiting Palo Alto, Calif., to report on Livability’s Best Places to Live feature, I rented a guest house in a residential neighborhood to get a better sense of what it was like to actually live there.

In other cases, I’ve dined at the homes of residents in places as varied as Harlem; a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles; a farm in Montana; or a high-income area in Maryland. Talking to residents is one way to understand the lives of a community in a very personal way.

But to get a high-level understanding of the dynamics of a city, nothing beats spending an hour or two driving around in the passenger seat of a real estate agent’s Lexus. (Why do they always drive a Lexus?) By asking the right questions, I can get a narrative of the housing market, local architectural flavors, the community’s history, and the lives of residents from someone who, at some point, interacted with buyers or sellers at a very critical point in their lives.

In Florida, I was able to see first-hand the difference between the pre-bubble failures and the post-bubble phoenixes. Other communities, planned more modestly in better times, were sprouting up and thriving. My tour guide, a practitioner, was often able to get me past the gated entrances that would have been a barrier to my journalistic explorations.

In Palo Alto, I learned that in relatively modest two-story homes lived CEOs of some of the largest tech companies in the world. Understanding how the hidden wealth blended into the rest of the community formed the basis for much of the remainder of my reporting there, and had it not been for a mother-daughter real estate team who had the experience of brokering many of those sales, I might have missed what turned out to be the key aspects of my story.

Similarly, in Las Vegas, I got to hear about the insanity of the 2010 foreclosure crisis and how the rush of investor cash into the market was crowding out middle-class families who just wanted to buy a conventional house with a conventional mortgage. Their offers were usually trumped by 15 all-cash offers at or above asking price, making what should have been a pretty wide-open market tighter for families like the ones I was profiling for my stories.

Wherever my reporting takes me, in cities large and small, no one knows the communities like the real estate professionals who represent them, and I’m thankful they’re generous with their time and knowledge.

Matt Carmichael is the director of editorial strategy for Ipsos North America and the former editor of Livability.com. His book Buyographics focuses on the key demographic trends impacting marketing and consumer behavior.

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