Every house tells a story

History as selling point: More real-estate agents are playing up a home's past

They had heard of the soft sell, but when David Brooks and his wife, Maureen Killian, went house-hunting on Cape Cod 18 months ago, they encountered a nonchalance on the part of professional home sellers that astonished them.

One agent, in shorts and sandals, lazily unfurled a property description that still makes Mr. Brooks laugh. "It's a cape on the Cape," Brooks remembers the agent saying. "Three bedrooms, like everything else around here."

The New Jersey couple shuffled through that house and several others, sizing up each one as a prospective summer getaway to which they could eventually retire. Tedium began to set in.

Then they met Diana Flink. Ms. Flink was the listing agent on a four-bedroom house in Harwich, Mass. Born in England and with a background in professional theater, Flink displayed a rather different approach to sales.

"I started peppering her with questions," recalls Brooks. "And she put her hand up and just said: 'All in due time. Let me present it to you as it ought to be presented.' " Flink waltzed them around, pointing out the various room shapes, weaving in stories about the home's builder and first occupant. Her stylish presentation was laced with color. Flink showed them the "hidy hole," for example, where the builder's daughter once hid her diary from a nosy brother.

"I didn't think I wanted a lot of backstory," Brooks says. "But it was pretty effective. In my mind a house speaks for itself, but she just put it in its absolute best light." The couple bought the house.

Storytelling - long a factor in many forms of selling - appears to be gaining as a tactic for getting an edge in the crowded field of residential real estate sales. Story-based home selling is most common toward the upper end of the price spectrum, a very active segment. (Coldwell Banker recently reported luxury-home sales up 23 percent in 2003 over the previous year, to $23.3 billion.) And it takes predictable regional twists: In southern California, for example, anecdotal links to celebrities are prized. But signs of real estate agents and private sellers trying some form of the practice appear at most levels and in every major region of the United States - with some in the business now making formal presentations of a home's story an integral part of the sell.

Forget "home staging," where firms swoop in, redecorate, and put some potpourri on the stove to boil. Forget "undecorating" to give prospective buyers a blank slate. And forget boilerplate bed-and-bath counts. As another home-selling season revs up for its run toward a late-summer peak, the sales may be in the tales. And even a midsize suburban tract house can have the makings of a good yarn.

"It's always possible," says Stan Barron, a real estate broker in Austin, Texas, who spends seven to 10 days researching a house before compiling an illustrated report to present to prospective buyers.

"That's the nice thing about marketing houses, as opposed to toothpaste," says Mr. Barron, a self-proclaimed fan of the David Ogilvy school of advertising, where stories add mystique. "There's almost always some little angle you can come up with. I'm looking for that story appeal from Day 1."

Some brokers eye angles with narrow appeal. Alisann Smookler, a broker with Keller Williams Southwest Realty in Scottsdale, Ariz., is now listing a traditional adobe house in nearby Fountain Hills. [Editor's note: The original version failed to state the full name of the realty.]

"This home is owned by a nationally known psychic," Ms. Smookler says, "so I took the bold move of marketing it as such, knowing this may deter some people from even walking into it."

In the weeks since she altered her ad copy to include some background about the home's "character and personality," she says, showings have increased 50 percent over the previous ad, which simply listed amenities.

More often, however, the sell is about a home's place in local or national history. At The Pinehills, a development in Plymouth, Mass., planners work with local historians in using tales of its early native and Colonial inhabitants to lure buyers.

Other examples are urban. Edna Gravenhorst is cofounder of 3 Nosey Broads, a St. Louis company that conducts research for builders who want to avoid harming historic homes and real estate agencies that hope to sell them. With rising frequency, Ms. Gravenhorst has been called in to compile histories and present them to prospective buyers. "Once you have this wonderful history book about the house, it's a great tool for the agents to use during an open house," she says.

Sellers don't always know what they have, or how to capitalize on it. Barron cites a home outside Austin that he recently sold. Scattered around its 25 acres were Civil War-era log cabins that the owners had discovered and restored.

Barron probed the owners about the cabins as he helped them prepare for the sale. They said, offhandedly, that a book had been written by the daughter of an early owner of the land. They had the only copy.

"It was a really touching story that told, in her own words - and I think people wrote more effectively in those days - this fascinating story about what it was like in the late 1800s living on the property," he says. "And I realized reading it that she was describing the same setting we saw today."

That story, he says, became the theme of a full-page ad he later wrote. "I was selling the nostalgia of that property."

"That's what you've got to sell, the nostalgia," says Blanche Evans, associate editor of Realty Times, an online real estate news service. "Otherwise it's just another old house. Any time you can tell a good story, that's going to 'romance' a property better than just the facts."

Home-seekers often appreciate being given a chance to make an emotional connection with a property, sellers say.

Also, today's buyers want to be educated, Ms. Evans notes. "The older housing inventory gets, the more important storytelling is going to be. We're suggesting that agents collect as much information as they can about the past of the home. I think the more information an agent can deliver, the more reassuring that is to the buyer."

Furnishing historical context can be a deal sealer. Last year, retirees James and Julia Dougherty headed up to Maine from Larchmont, N.Y., in search of a new home. Finding something storied was not a goal.

Like Brooks and Ms. Killian, they trudged through a series of houses that weren't quite right. Back home, using the Internet, Mr. Dougherty came across a 1775 house in Bowdoin that had belonged to the same family - the McKeens - since the early 1800s.

A broker took them to the place, a little Colonial nestled among Federals, and they met listing agent Tina Ellsworth. To Ms. Ellsworth, the property was more than a house.

"She was in direct contact with the three remaining members of the McKeen family," Ms. Dougherty recalls. "She was totally into the history."

The couple loved the long windows with their original glass. And though Dougherty sees a lot of work ahead before the house is livable, she's certain this house is the one - and that Ellsworth's sales approach was key. "It was the history," she says, "that got us."

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