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Covering Real Estate: Avoiding traps, mistakes

May 16, 2012

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Real estate is a volatile and cyclical business and everyone has some horse in the race. Photo: Paul Swansen

By Jonathan Lansner

In the day-to-day grind that is modern journalism – hour-to-hour for more than a few – we get caught up on various reporting or production habits that get us through a day, week or month.

However, these rituals – from what sources we use to how we frame our work – can at times nudge our work in the wrong direction. It’s easy to fall into various traps on the real estate beat – with its many facets and forces – if you’re not always mindful of your current and potential audiences.

One harsh reality is that it’s a good bet that editors in your newsroom will see the slew of national real-estate reports and wonder “How does our market fare?”

Don’t fight this hassle too hard, rather, be prepared by (1) knowing the schedule of these major reports so you can plan; (2) knowing which reports contain local or regional data that can highlighted; (3) what local sources have similar data that can amplify – or question – these “widely watched” economic releases.

Don’t always insist on writing these “national” stories. Instead, offer an info box or insert of the local context. In many cases, national trends have little to do with what’s going on in your community.

Now this could get you in “trouble,” but remember you have an audience to serve, too. If you master basic coverage skills, you’ll have time for the far-better stuff.


Assuming your goal is to reach a broad-based crowd of followers, here’s a check list to keep you on track: 10 things a real-estate reporter can’t forget.

1. Your audience: Real estate is a very competitive industry with a lots of colorful and strong personalities that creates frequent internal friction. Resist the urge to cover too much of we might call “inside baseball” of these tussles. That may be great fodder for your sources, but some “industry” news is not interesting to the broader audience.

2. Renters count: Certainly much of real estate’s drama has been in the for-sale housing market, with prices soaring and collapsing. So consequently, apartment rents that don’t move as much seem less sexy, coverage wise. Don’t forget that 40% roughly of America lives in rentals – and numerous experts suggest that the apartment dweller crowd will grow in the coming years.

3. It’s a local business: Know your market. Have great local sources. That is more than being able to put national trends in context. It’s likely that market conditions – residential or commercial, ownership or rental – are not the same all around your community. What niches or neighborhoods are hot. Which ones are not?

4. Use English: Real estate is not brain surgery or rocket science. Still, the industry does have its share of complex and confusing lingo. Always try to keep your coverage simple. You don’t really have to say things like “loan facility” or “mezzanine financing” when you simply mean a commercial mortgage. If you must use lingo — please explain it to your readers.

Photo by Flickr user kaymoshusband

5. It’s a volatile and cyclical business: History likes to repeat itself. And real estate is a prime example. So whatever trends you’re covering, remember that nothing’s permanent. Push sources to provide historical context – especially when you’re writing about short-term trends. If nothing else, watch year-over-year and year-to-date trends as well as monthly data.

6. Real estate is aspirational: Homes or office towers and the like are not just assets to be bought and sold. It’s all not about some price index. People develop emotional ties to real estate, whether they own it or not. Keep eye-catching and thought-provoking properties in mind. The drama of real estate is why, for example, reality TV discovered housing is a hot topic.

7. There is no perfect indicator: There is no Dow Jones Industrial Average to be the wise indicator of all that is real estate. (And even Wall Street’s Dow Jones stock index has its faults.) No single measure exactly covers real estate market activity. Sure, the plethora of indexes can be confusing – but that’s your job: Explain the trends. Showing “conflicting signals” is not a crime.

8. Hate hyperbole: Real estate is an industry filled with strong-willed salespeople with a bad habit of overzealous use of superlatives – whether it be describing a property or a market trend. (Plus, they frame every tidbit as a reason to buy.) Be vigilant. Watch for insanely colorful portraits of properties. Try to keep boosterism to a minimum. No trend is a once-in-a-lifetime or sea-change moment.

9. Construction matters: Even after a horrific loss of jobs that drove building-industry employment nationwide to a 20-year low, roughly 1-in-25 Americans works in construction. While it’s often dirty, less-than glamorous work – trends in construction employment can be early signals of economic turns. Plenty of dynamic personalities dot construction trades, lumber yards and the like. And don’t forget the remodelers, too.

10. Conventional wisdom can be wrong: Just because something hasn’t happened before — or in three quarters in century — doesn’t mean it can’t happen. This recent real estate downturn broke many real estate “truths” — from wild swings in buying and lending patterns as household formation took a sudden turnabout. Bottom line: challenge industry norms and expect the unexpected.

Jonathan Lansner is The Orange County Register‘s business columnist and real estate blogger. Since 1986, he has covered the Orange County economy — and its real estate scene — as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Register. The “Lansner on Real Estate” blog was launched in March 2006.


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