Real Estate "Pig In a Poke"

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Over five hundred years ago in Europe, there was a con game that was more practiced than any other con game in the history of the world. It was simply the thing to try on the new rube in town. Someone would claim to be selling a suckling pig in a sack ("poche", from which we get "pocket" as the diminutive, as well as "pouch"). You have to understand the situation back then to appreciate what was going on. Suckling pig was tender, delicious meat, the sort that the average person of the time might only eat a few times in their life. Perhaps never, if they were poorer than average. It was highly sought after, and commanded quite a price, in terms of the average person's wages.

In reality, of course, what was in the pouch wasn't a pig at all, but rather a cat. Most modern Americans don't realize this, but "roof rabbit" was eaten back then, because the alternative was often starvation. Before potatoes were brought back from the New World, Europe did not find it easy to feed its population. Nonetheless, I'm given to understand cat meat is nasty disgusting stuff, a food of last resort, because cats are almost 100% carnivores. However, the victim of this scam didn't usually get to eat the cat, either, because they were expecting a pig, which was not nearly so nimble. As a result of this, when they opened the sack, the cat would escape. This con gave us three phrases that are very popular today: "Let the cat out of the bag," and "left holding the sack," as well as "Buy a pig in a poke."

So what if prospective buyers have a hard time viewing a property?

This isn't 500 years ago. People that have the financial resources to buy real estate in the United States today aren't likely to be that trusting. If they were, some alleged Nigerian millionaire would have relieved them of those resources. In fact, in advice given since at least 1530, people have been advised ""When ye proffer the pigge open the poke."


Why? Because if you don't, people are going to presume it's a cat (at best), and they're only going to offer what cat meat would be worth to them, which may not be anything. But if you show them that there really is a delicious suckling pig in the sack, they may be willing to pay the premium prices that suckling pig - or beautiful turnkey property - commands.

I don't know how many times I've gone over this with clients. People aren't looking for reasons to buy your property, they're looking for reasons not to buy your property, and, "They don't want to let me look at it," is more than sufficient reason to lose interest.

Does that have anything in common with the educated pig buyer? You bet it does. They wanted to see the pig, otherwise it was only worth the cat price (i.e. nothing unless they were starving, and then not much).

The entire process of real estate has evolved with inspections, appraisals, etcetera is precisely because the information possessed by the parties at the time of the contract is asymmetrical. That's fancy talk for the seller knows more than the buyer. The entire viewing and inspection idea has evolved from this basic fact, and the need to remedy most of the imbalance of information.

But if prospective buyers have a hard time being allowed to see the property, they are not going to make good offers. The idea is that there's probably a reason that seller won't let them look at the property, and they're most often right in that presumption.

Every time I start looking through MLS for property that might suit my buyer clients, I run across several of the stupidest ideas in real estate. I can handle one and usually two hour notices, but when someone asks for four, they're not likely to get it. I've got someone who wants to go look at property now, or wants me to go look at property now and get back to them on it, and I'm usually trying to shoehorn a few extras in while I'm in the neighborhood. If I can see your property, I might think it's worth my clients attention. If I can't, I definitely won't.

But four hour notices aren't anywhere near the worst: 24 hour notices are at least as common. In a way, I understand. Tenants can legally require 24 hour notice, but it's to my listing clients advantage to come up with some reason to cut that as far as possible. What are the tenants paying, $2000 per month or so? Offer to rent a storage locker for them and rebate some rent money, and your average tenant is going to agree so fast your head will spin. This kills the "I'm worried about them stealing my stuff!" angle as well. Always be ready and willing to show, and since every day the property doesn't sell not only adds carrying costs but means a (statistically) lower sales price, the money you spend generating cooperative tenants is a fantastic short term investment, better than anything short of a jackpot lottery win, and a lot more dependable.

That's not the worst, though. That dishonor goes to "property shown with accepted offer." Here we go with the cat thing again. The question that goes through my mind when one of my buyers asks about one of those is, "How bad could it be?" Why that question? Because the worst case scenario is precisely what the property is worth until the seller opens the "poke" and shows us the "pigge" instead of the cat or worse. Contingencies aren't going to cut it. Contingencies are for when you know a little bit and want to know more. In this instance, the buyer doesn't know anything, because they haven't seen it. The fact is that in the absence of any observational evidence, I figure there's a reason why the seller doesn't want us to know, and negotiate accordingly. Mind you, if you're willing to take a blind risk this can generate a fantastic bargain at the right time, with a seller who's ready to listen to reason about the effects of this upon value. But most aren't.

I can't blame the seller who doesn't understand this. The fact that they're clueless on this point is evidence of agent failure. This is one more way that agents "buy" listings and hurt their clients. Failing to make the client understand that showing restrictions lower perceptions of value as well as sales price is a major agent failure. Because the agent does not make certain the client understands the way that buyers approach properties, that agent is failing in their fiduciary duty, and their client will end up paying more money in carrying costs as well as getting a lower sales price because of it.

A while ago, I wrote an article on Top Ten Reasons Your Home Isn't Selling. It's no coincidence that talking about real estate in this context explicitly hits the three biggest reasons why real estate doesn't sell. Not only is it a direct instance of problem number three ("Showing Restrictions"), but by restricting showings the property becomes less valuable ("Price") and highlights a major shortcoming of the listing agent. And since these folks have won gold, silver and bronze medals in the "shooting yourself in the foot" event, may I suggest that after some appropriate time has passed, this may become a very lucrative desperation mine?

Caveat Emptor

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on June 23, 2008 7:00 AM.

What Happens To Equity During and After Foreclosure? was the previous entry in this blog.

Top Ten Reasons You Bought The Wrong House is the next entry in this blog.

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