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When I was apartment hunting in my early 20s, there was one word I frequently saw in ads that made me avoid the listing completely. That word was “clean.”

Sounds strange that “clean” would be a turnoff, right? After all, who wouldn’t want to rent a squeaky clean apartment? Well, that was exactly the point. I decided if “clean” – which should be a default quality – was the apartment’s best descriptor, it probably had a host of other issues.

Turns out I was right. In fact, listings come with their own set of clues to a property’s best – and worst – characteristics. Here are some tips to help you decipher the back story of certain favored phrases as you search for your dream home. Consider this your official decoder before you waste one second visiting a home that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  

If It Says: “Cozy,” “Intimate” or “Quaint”

Sounds oh-so-English-cottage, doesn’t it? But in reality, these likely mean the place is small or even tiny. That’s too bad, really, says agent Rebecca Brooksher of Warburg Realty in New York City. She considers it a great word that’s gotten a bad rap. “If I have a studio listing that has a very functional layout with great light that feels warm and inviting, I’d like to say it’s ‘cozy.’ But in general you can assume it means ‘small without any redeeming qualities.’”

If It Says: “Different” or “Unique”

Huh?! A house like no other is bound to be a conversation piece, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this word often means that the house is so different that no one on earth except the original owners would want it, says REALTOR® Chantay Bridges with Los Angeles-based Real Estate Professionals World Enterprise Marketing. “Calling it unique is the same as saying, ‘I have no idea why they structured this home the way they did,’” she says. Among the unique designs she has seen are a washer and dryer in the kitchen and the door to a home’s sole bathroom located inside someone’s bedroom.

If It Says: “Affordable” or “a Bargain”

When the sign or flier emphasizes this, ask yourself why, says Bridges. “Affordable” could mean that it has so many issues that the seller is willing to let you have the house for next to nothing if you’re willing to ignore them or invest a pretty penny in fixing it up. “The amount you pay in the long run after you make the necessary repairs is the real price; if it outweighs what the property is worth, then it’s not a bargain at all,” she points out. Furthermore, we can see the price, adds Brooksher. “If you lead with telling me it’s affordable, I know you had nothing else to say, and it probably isn’t, once I factor in the money I have to shell out to make it livable.”

Also consider that what’s missing in an ad is just as important as what’s written, notes Lauren Cangiano of New York City-based Halstead, particularly when it comes to price. So on the flip side, “If the price isn’t listed, it’s almost certainly expensive and potentially unrealistically priced.”

If It Says: “Rustic” or “Refurbished”

The house is not quite historic; it’s just old, Bridges assumes. “Everything about it, from the windows to the appliances, are bound to be outdated,” she says. “This gem is almost exactly as it was when it was first purchased. They’re trying to make it sound like it has character, but don’t be surprised if it just means that nothing has ever been updated.”

Here again, you also should be wary if the condition isn’t listed at all in a listing. “In that case, you can bet it needs work,” Cangiano says.

If It Says: “Updated” or “New”

Turns out both these words are in the eye of the beholder, says Lizzy Conroy, REALTOR® and senior vice president at Keller Williams Realty in McLean, Virginia. “‘Updates’ may be 10+ years old, which means you may need to update again,” Conroy says. She also finds the term “new” to be used loosely. “Don’t assume a fixture or anything else in the home is truly new unless there is a verifiable date next to it.”

If It Says: “Has Potential,” “Perfect Investment Property” or “As-Is”

You’ve just been informed that this fixer-upper is going to need a boatload of TLC. And that is likely to torpedo whatever “investment” potential it has, Bridges warns. Also watch for ads that specifically invite you to bring all reasonable offers. “It probably needs to be torn down and started all over again and likely has so many things wrong with it that a regular buyer, as opposed to a flipper, may not be interested.”

If It Says: “Back on the Market”

Oh, wow, aren’t you lucky! This perfect specimen is back! You may want to curb your enthusiasm, Conroy suggests. “Ask the agent why the house is back on the market. It could be that the buyer’s financing fell through or they had another personal reason. But it also could mean that the buyer backed out because of a title issue or something that was revealed on the home inspection that will then be your problem.”

And finally, we bring you a short list of “real” definitions, courtesy of Robert Elson, another agent at Warburg Realty: 

  • Charming: Usually means it needs work
  • Good light: Usually means it has no view
  • Convenient: Usually means it’s noisy
  • Quiet: Usually means it’s facing a courtyard
  • Needs TLC: Usually means it’s a wreck

But it’s not all bad, he says. Look for these positive words and phrases (but always verify that the listing agent’s definition matches yours):

  • Spacious
  • Sunny or sun-filled
  • Open or city view
  • Prime
  • Gracious
  • Expansive

We’d love to hear any creative or confounding real estate lingo you’ve come across. Let us know in the comments.

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