Technology gives us virtual tours, street-view maps and a sense of a place before we leave home. But it can’t replicate the most significant driver of real estate decisions–that intangible, instinctive and emotional reaction to a space. You know–the one that makes you want to stay or go the minute you walk through a door.
Real estate is theoretically all about location. But decisions about locations are clouded by the subjective perceptions of the people who make them. Those are variables neither photos nor videos can capture–feelings that propel one prospective buyer or tenant forward while pulling another equally qualified one away.
Ultimately, real estate is driven as much by perception as data.
I’ve been in countless commercial properties, and wandered through even more residential spaces. Blame it on timing: I’ve looked at far more than any person ever should because of market oddities. I bought my first house when mortgage interest rates averaged 18%, the most recent one during the anxious era of double-digit annual appreciation that triggered unrealistic multiple bids on everything that came on the market. Both times, finding a place to live seemed almost impossible.
But in the end, the decisions made themselves. One house each time said ‘buy me’ in a way I couldn’t ignore. Something just felt right–and none of the practicalities of the deal, from the need for potential improvements or the proximity to the train, could change that. We chose the places we live or work because they create connections, often so subtly they’re outside our awareness.
That’s why technology will never completely replace real estate brokers and agents. Technology thrives on information, but people depend on instincts and intuition-and it takes another person to understand the distinction. Vanderbilt University researchers say it’s because our imagination shapes what we see. They found that mental imagery–what we see with the “mind’s eye”–directly impacts our visual perception.
“We found that imagery leads to a short-term memory trace that can bias future perception,” explains Joel Pearson, research associate in the Vanderbilt Department of Psychology. and lead author of the study. It comes down to this: a powerful perceptual experience can change the way a person sees things later. Just think of what can happen if you discover an unwanted pest in your kitchen, such as a mouse. Suddenly you see mice in every dust ball and dark corner–or think you do.
“You might think you need to imagine something 10 times or 100 times before it has an impact,” explains Frank Tong, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said. However, “Our results show that even a single instance of imagery can tilt how you see the world one way or another, dramatically, if the conditions are right.”
And that may help explain why we gravitate toward one property over another: at some very basic level, it strikes a chord in our memories and imagination. That’s something technology remains years away from understanding.