I had a light-bulb moment when watching the excellent Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” Dr. Cuddy is an American social psychologist known for her research on stereotyping and discrimination, emotions, power, and how these things are influenced by nonverbal behavior. If you have 20 minutes, the video is eye-opening in all kinds of ways — but for me, I was struck by the parallels between the ways Dr. Cuddy’s experiments show how strongly (though subconsciously) humans are influenced by body language, and the ways I have observed how strongly (though subconsciously) people are influenced by the “body language” of houses.
I came into real estate from a background in science, and I enjoy applying classical research methods to determine what really makes people fall in love with a house, or conversely, what makes them take an immediate and intuitive dislike. The problem is, because no two homes in this area are identical (thank goodness), there is no way to include a “control” group — you cannot sell two identical houses at the same time, and observe the effect of only one variable, such as staging or landscaping or replacing the roof. So instead, I have relied on long-term, serial observations, year by year, home by home. After 25 years working with both Buyers and Sellers, it has become crystal clear to me that a house, just like a person, projects a strong non-verbal message that creates an opinion of value in the mind of potential Buyers. I’m not talking about quantifiable home improvements, such as a new foundation, that a Buyer can add to a tally sheet and compare to other homes that have sold. I’m talking about subtle details that translate to major changes of perception, or as Dr. Cuddy describes it, “tiny tweaks that lead to big changes.”
In one of her experiments, Dr. Cuddy showed that in a job interview scenario, when job candidates adopted a “power pose” position for a few minutes before the interview — not even in the the presence of the interviewer, but before entering the room — there was a residual effect in the way the candidates presented themselves overall, such that the “power pose” group of candidates was perceived as being very hirable, while a corresponding group who had adopted a power-less posture for a few minutes before their interviews were perceived by the interviewer as undesirable. These perceptions were independent of the candidates’ qualifications, education, or experience, and were instead defined as the person’s “presence.” The increase in “presence” was due to measurable chemical changes within the candidates’ bodies — including increases in testosterone (for both men and women), and decreases in the stress hormone cortisol — induced by the simple change of posture.
When I am advising a client on the best way to prepare a home for market, it’s not always easy to articulate the reasons behind the tiny postural tweaks I am recommending. Sometimes my recommendations follow well-known design principals, but that is just coincidental — they come from my gut, from many years of paying close attention to the non-verbal messages houses say to people, and the way people respond instantly and intuitively, not just cognitively, to a home’s presence based on these subtle messages.
Here is one recent example. A woman in the Berkeley HIlls, who has owned her home for 40+ years, called me to say that due to injury she had moved on short notice to be near her son in Washington. She had put her son in charge of “fixing up” the house prior to sale, and I met the son for a first look at the house while it was still full of the owner’s possessions. We went through the house room by room, discussing various repairs and cosmetic improvements, and the son busily made notes without comment until we made our way back to the front entry. In the foyer, just across from the front door and adjacent to the stairway to the upper level, hung a very large mirror reaching all the way to the floor. I suggested to the son that he remove it, and he immediately made a strong case for keeping it — it was in good condition, it made the space feel bigger, it collected and reflected light, and (I hear this a lot) it had “always been there.” I gently tugged on the frame, found that the mirror was hanging from just two hooks, and proposed that the son and I remove it temporarily just so he could see how the space looked without it. He skeptically agreed, and we carefully hefted the mirror and carried it outside to lean against a tree in the front yard.
As we re-entered the house, the son stopped in his tracks at the front door. He looked at the spot where the mirror had been, then back at me, then back at the foyer. His face held an expression of complete shock. “I can’t believe it,” he said after a moment of silence. “I just realized, that for all these years, that mirror has been pushing me away.” I asked him to tell me more, and he said, “I never like standing in this spot, even as a child, and now I know why. That mirror always made me feel like I didn’t want to come inside, or go up the stairs. Now, I want to come in — the house wants me to come in.”
Before this, the son had not struck me as a particularly metaphysical guy. But as he started talking about the change in his perception of the space, I was truly agog at what an emotional chord had been struck with him, from the simple removal of a mirror. His eyes were sparkling, his whole body was smiling, and I think if he’d had a way to hug the house, he would have. He hugged me instead.
I have always believed that houses have their own personality, and that your home chooses its new owner as much as a Buyer chooses your home. When I connect with a home, and I advise you on how to best prepare it for sale, I am searching for ways to encourage and free the house to speak for itself, to remove the constraints that may have gone unnoticed by its owners for years or decades. Homes, like people, love to be cared for, to be understood, and to be desirable. They just need our help to adjust their body language and let their full presence shine. When a home projects the right posture, people fall in love with it. They can’t help it. It’s chemistry.