- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

Americans celebrate diversity. We're a melting pot where people from around the world join in depositing their ethnicity and culture into the recipe called the American experiment.

During the past 200 years, however, America has developed its own culture. While we are a nation of nations, we have crafted a certain "American way" of doing business.

In real estate, it goes something like this: The seller places his house on the market and waits for a contract. A buyer hires an agent who then writes a contract (usually maintained by a local Realtor association) and offers it to the listing agent who presents it to the seller. After counteroffers and haggling, all parties sign the contract and arrange a settlement date.

In the American scenario, everything is set. Nothing should change from the time of the ratified contract (usually after all inspections and appraisals have been done) until everyone gathers on settlement day and signs papers.

In many cultures, it's not over until it's over, meaning that negotiation continues until the property changes hands. If you are working with a buyer from some cultures, you could find yourself about to sign the escrow papers and, suddenly, they want to drop the price $10,000.

Breach of contract? Possibly. Unfair business practice? Maybe. A clashing of cultures in the business world? Definitely.

A buyer guilty of "breach of contract" could lose his earnest deposit money. Now, in some states, that's not really a lot of money; in others, it could be thousands of dollars. Alternately, a seller who tries to back out can be sued for "specific performance" and will be forced to sell the home to the buyer, anyway. Read the fine print on your sample contract to see if mediation, arbitration or even small-claims court would be required when buyers and sellers reach an impasse.

Culture clash in real estate transactions is likely to become more common. The 2000 Census counted the largest influx of immigrants to the United States in more than 70 years. The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born is at its highest level since the 1930s.

A study by the Fannie Mae Foundation found that:

•America's foreign-born population doubled from about 10 million to 20 million between 1970 and 1990 and was expected to reach 31 million by 2000.

•Newcomers generally become homeowners several years after arriving in the United States, at the point when they form households. Immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific Islands will generate the most households in the next 15 years.

The way foreign-born buyers shop, negotiate and communicate in the real estate transaction is much different from native-born buyers. What native-born Americans consider appropriate behavior in negotiation proceedings may look peculiar or even insulting to a foreign-born buyer.

For instance, if you like the price on a contract, you may give the buyer an "OK" sign (joining the index finger and the thumb together), but to a Japanese buyer, this gesture indicates you want more money. A Tunisian buyer may scurry out the door, since, in that culture, that gesture is a death threat.

While American men may try to butter up a female buyer or seller with flowers to "sweeten" the deal, a Chinese woman might feel embarrassed or even mortified, since you just asked her to marry you.

If you have a 2 p.m. appointment with Arabic sellers, don't think they're standing you up when they show up at 3:30 p.m. That culture allows two hours leeway when it comes to appointments.

Even Europeans have their ways of communicating. Be careful about folding your arms over your belly while talking with people from Finland or you may be considered an arrogant person. Germans would expect you to address them by their title every time you greet them, not by their first names in the casual American custom.

While immigrants and foreign-born buyers become a larger part of the American real estate experience, we homebodies need to prepare for it. Don't get angry, just get educated.

The Fannie Mae Foundation offers a free home-buying guide, published in English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, Portuguese, Polish or Haitian-Creole. The guide covers such topics as the home-buying process, how to finance a home and how the mortgage process works. To receive a copy in Spanish call 800/782-2729. For any of the other languages listed call 800/688-4663. It's also online (www.homebuyingguide.org).

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 12 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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