Builders and real estate agents get lessons in diversity
Manoj Mathai’s hunt for his first house could be a lesson to Silicon Valley real estate professionals.
The front door must face east, because good fortune comes from a rising sun. The master bedroom should be in the southeast corner of the home, because many Indians believe that’s where wealth resides. The kitchen needs to be spacious and well-ventilated to accommodate many family gatherings featuring homemade masala, a pungent blend of spices.
“In the back of our minds, we Indians are looking for certain things,” Mathai said as he viewed homes in San Jose’s Evergreen neighborhood. “We can talk about it, but some agents will still show us homes with entrances that face the wrong way, not realizing how important things like this are to us.”
To avoid such deal-breaking mistakes, home builders and real estate agents across the Bay Area are increasingly making it a priority to understand the cultural differences that define the valley.
Some builders have incorporated the principles of feng shui in home design for years, to appeal to Asian clients. But a broader range of real estate professionals are reaching out to more ethnic groups and training employees to build strong relationships with these customers.
Last week, the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors began issuing certificates to members who attend cultural diversity training courses approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We are in one of the most culturally diverse areas in the country,” said Steve G. Delva, president of the South Bay Division of home builder Standard Pacific Homes. “As an industry, we need to take an interest in different cultures, languages, and different attitudes and perceptions.”
The daylong event at the Campbell Community Center focused on customs and beliefs native to the Philippines, China and India.
The workers learned about the importance of home design, cultural taboos and mannerisms unique to the cultures.
Lunch at the seminar was a mix of ensaimadas, vegetable chow mein and palak paneer — Asian delicacies that might offer a savvy agent fodder for conversation.
Lori Rice, an escrow coordinator for Standard Pacific, said she learned the “10-second rule” at the training:
When Americans discuss business, they tend to keep talking when there is a lull of more than three seconds. “Some cultures believe that silence and pondering are good things. They wait 10 seconds before responding to a question,” she said. “I thought they just didn’t understand what I was saying.”
Experts acknowledge that culture alone does not dictate buying habits, nor do members of any particular group behave in a monolithic fashion. But appreciating the role a home buyer’s culture plays in decision making, they say, is about more than appearing politically correct — it’s showing business savvy.
She founded the Pleasanton company nine years ago to offer cultural training to high-tech firms.
About two years ago the real estate industry came knocking.
Now I have people who sell or build homes coming to me asking `Why do Asians want to put coins or amulets into the concrete foundation?’ or `Why do Filipinos keep inviting me to housewarming barbecues?’ ” said Stetson-Rodriguez, who has made several presentations to Standard Pacific and Greenbriar Homes in the past year.
New homes, she said, can be beautifully built with modern appliances and stunning carpentry. But with a street address that includes the number 4, many Chinese immigrants will be discouraged from buying because they believe the number, which in Chinese sounds like the word for “death,” is unlucky. The number 8, in comparison, signifies wealth, leading some agents to post homes for sale with the price ending in a series of 8s.
Miscommunication can cause problems, too. An agent might believe a sales pitch is going well because a customer is nodding and smiling. But that could simply be a gesture of acknowledgment — not agreement — for some Asian clients, other experts say.
For many Latinos, a small house with four or five bedrooms is preferable to one that is larger but with fewer bedrooms, said Robert Aldana, president of the local chapter of the Hispanic Association of Real Estate Professionals. “They like a lot of room because they tend to have extended families.”
The Santa Clara County Association of Realtors last month launched several campaigns aimed at culturally educating its membership, which includes approximately 6,000 agents, appraisers and lenders. By the end of this month, it will have Chinese- and Spanish-language Web sites. Tagalog and Vietnamese will follow.
“In 2002, we had 1,400 new agents join us, and more than 80 percent of them were pan-Pacific or Asian,” said Mike Donohoe, president of the county association. “It’s a sign of how the industry is changing. It struck me that we better do something about it.”
When it came to choosing an agent, communication and respect were key, but race was not, said Mathai, who earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in his hometown of Bangalore and is now a manager at an information-technology company in Cupertino.
Mathai chose Theresa Dwyer, a native of the Philippines who has sold homes in the Bay Area for 14 years. Mathai likes that Dwyer caters to his specific needs.
“I won’t show an Asian customer a home that is on a T-intersection,” Dwyer said recently as she drove Mathai to look at homes. “Asians believe that any home that sits on a street where another street dead-ends is unlucky. It means that people who drive toward the home who have bad energy will pass that energy right to the home.”
Mathai says he ultimately will choose a home based on the neighborhood’s schools and whether it meets his cultural needs.
“When it comes to buying a home, we do our homework. We study the neighborhood, interview neighbors, and then we discuss our options with family and friends,” Mathai said. “People think Indians are very particular, but it has a lot to do with our culture.”
Dr. Minu Mathur demonstrates Indo-American handshake during a multicultural training seminar.
The Culture of Home Sales: CULTURAL IMPACT
Examples of how cultural backgrounds may influence how someone conducts business:
• Some cultures view a home purchase as a lifelong deal. Some Indian natives do not follow the notion that price negotiation ends with a contract and may request upgrades or construction changes even after escrow closes.
• Many cultures do not appreciate hand shakes or direct eye contact. Some Asians prefer a nuanced range of bows. Some Indians and Asians believe looking someone directly in the eye is a sign of aggression. It’s best to allow customers to make initial gestures and follow suit .
• Bringing up business right away may seem rude. Some cultures, including Indian and Latino, want to build relationship with professionals before talking price, location or number of bedrooms. Real estate agents and lenders learn that good relationships lead to good word-of-mouth advertising in many ethnic communities.
• Negotiating Across Borders
TRADITIONS AND TABOOS:
• Some Asian customers believe the number of steps on a stairway can bring good luck or misfortune. The first step signifies silver, the second means gold and the third is death. A stairway that ends with a “golden” step is the best.
• Some East Indians dislike homes with sunken living rooms because they are on the same level as the buried, not the living.
• Some Korean clients shy away from homes with exposed wooden beams along the ceiling that form straight lines. The beams are believed to repel positive energy.
• Some ethnic groups may invite construction workers, appraisers or real estate agents to birthday parties and barbecues. They are being polite.