Friday, January 26, 2001

How much would you pay for a neo-traditional SF home with 4 BR, GTRM, OFF, WBF and HMOD? Not sure? Don’t feel bad, because real estate lingo throws many buyers for a loop.

The shorthand language used in home listings can be challenging for even seasoned home buyers. How many consumers would translate the above example to mean a single-family home on a small lot with a garage in the alley out back, four bedrooms, great room, office, wood-burning fireplace and handicap modifications?

Even if you have a translation key to help you with all the abbreviations, what about the terminology unique to buying and selling homes? Words like escrow, contingency clause and points are all central to the business of real estate, but they aren’t everyday lingo.

“It’s a learning process like any other business,” says Ken Frank, president of the Washington, D.C., Association of Realtors. “As an agent, you deal with it day to day, so it comes pretty quickly. But most of the problems we encounter are a lack of effective communication.”

Making it more complicated are terms that are distinct to particular regions of the country. Buyers relocating from another area can be thrown off by unfamiliar language. Settlement the process of transferring title from seller to buyer is called closing or escrow in different parts of the country. Rural and urban areas also use terminology unique to each setting.

“My favorite is OSP, for off-street parking,” Mr. Frank says. “That’s one you don’t see much outside of the District.” Parking is a very important selling feature, especially in high-density neighborhoods.

Savvy sellers of homes without garages will sometimes offer a year or two of paid garage parking as an incentive to buyers.

“Another interesting one is HDWD,” says Mr. Frank. “Hardwood floors are an attractive feature in any home, but in Georgetown the floors are often pine which isn’t a hardwood.” Further complicating the issue are the laminated floors found in many new homes that are indistinguishable from real hardwood. Sellers who advertise hardwood floors that are actually a synthetic imitation could find themselves in hot water with a disgruntled buyer.

Being accurate is important in real estate transactions, because hundreds of thousands of dollars are being paid for property a buyer may have only seen a few times. Sometimes, it’s even hard to know how big a home is, because calculating square footage is a different exercise in different areas.

“Listing agents in Virginia tend to put room measurements in their home listings, but agents in the District and Maryland don’t,” Mr. Frank says. “Total square footage also varies, because the definition of ‘finished space’ is somewhat subjective.”

Generally, “finished” means improved portions of a home, such as a finished basement. But in some parts of the country, basements are never included, no matter their condition. And bedrooms in a basement cannot be counted as true bedrooms in most jurisdictions unless the window is large enough to escape through in a fire.

“In some areas of the country they even include a finished garage in the square footage, but we don’t here,” Mr. Frank says. “Even the tax assessors are sometimes stymied by these variances, and that can affect the perceived value of a property.”

Fortunately, the technology now used by Washington-area Realtors is making things a little simpler. Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS) maintains a database of active home listings for our area. The firm’s software is rendering many of the puzzling abbreviations obsolete.

“We used to have to know all kinds of obscure codes to use the database, and every county had its own system and different codes,” says Charles Smith, an instructor at MRIS. “But now we have a Windows-based system, and we use full names for things. Those terms that are still abbreviated can be readily defined for the agents in our data dictionary.”

Abbreviations are still used on most listings, and they are very common in newspaper advertise-ments, where space is money.

If you are buying or selling a home this year, be sure to hold onto the Listing Abbreviations and Real Estate glossary guides that accompany this article. They may come in handy when you encounter some unfamiliar lingo.

“And don’t forget that there’s no such thing as a hot-water heater,” Mr. Frank says. “It’s just a water heater. Why would you need to heat hot water?”

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