A funny thing happened on the way out of the bubble — Americans became obsessed with real estate. It was an inevitable phenomenon that had been snowballing for years; the advent of home-improvement television and the Web-empowered access to all sorts of random real estate data created a whole flavor of person who considered themselves a real estate fan, sort of like fantasy football aficionados or scrapbookers.

And then the market had, uh, issues. The housing market became the No. 1 news topic, and as declining home values made it tougher for sellers to sell their homes, it also created opportunities for previously priced-out buyers to buy, and diminished the net worth of homeowners who weren’t even contemplating a real estate transaction …

A funny thing happened on the way out of the bubble — Americans became obsessed with real estate. It was an inevitable phenomenon that had been snowballing for years; the advent of home-improvement television and the Web-empowered access to all sorts of random real estate data created a whole flavor of person who considered themselves a real estate fan, sort of like fantasy football aficionados or scrapbookers.

And then the market had, uh, issues. The housing market became the No. 1 news topic, and as declining home values made it tougher for sellers to sell their homes, it also created opportunities for previously priced-out buyers to buy, and diminished the net worth of homeowners who weren’t even contemplating a real estate transaction — much of the country joined ranks with the real estate fans and became big consumers of real estate information. Some, though — especially wannabe buyers and sellers — became real estate "stalkers."

To be clear, there is a difference between a real estate e-consumer — someone who uses the Web as a primary source of information, education and listings to be a smarter, wiser real estate consumer — and a real estate stalker. In fact, I’m a huge advocate for client education and empowerment through knowledge — information, education, and even inspiration that provides accurate answers and solutions to real questions and problems that consumers actually have.

But there’s knowledge, and then there’s data. Data is just information — the numbers and statistics that can be spat out endlessly and spun beyond all recognition into lurid headlines that lure the eyes of rabid readers. OK, I guess my bias is showing a little bit; not all data is bad, but much of it is just not very relevant to the average consumer’s decision-making.

The difference between a real estate e-consumer and a real estate stalker is, at essence, whether they comb the Web (and the papers and the TV) for knowledge or for data.

Knowledge improves decision-making. Data is benign at best, but at worst can actually cause panic, procrastination or paralysis, which harms decision-making.

Knowledge is solution-oriented, even if it helps a consumer make the smart decision to save more, budget better, or prepare more fully before they buy. Data is just numbers, and is often misused to capture the audience’s eyes.

In real estate, knowledge tends to be local while data often screams about national trends that are not very meaningful to an individual consumer’s decision-making.

Real estate e-consumers generally have questions, research them on the Web, and consult with a local real estate professional to see how they should be applying the knowledge they’ve harvested to their personal situation. Then they go to sleep and live their lives. …CONTINUED

Real estate e-consumers look at the average-list-price-to-sale-price ratios, the average number of days on the market of homes in the neighborhood they are trying to buy in, and then talk to their Realtors about whether they need to house hunt in a lower price range so they can compete with the multiple offers that are the norm in their area and price range — even though multiple offers might not be the national norm.

Real estate e-consumers looking to sell their homes find area open houses and show up — then they get real about comparing the condition of their home to the other homes that prospective buyers for their home will also be seeing. By getting real, I mean that they don’t expect a buyer would pay $50,000 more for their house because it has better paint colors or a stainless-steel fridge.

Real estate stalkers will sit in front of the computer for hours or days on end, working up a digital migraine on par as they stalk the data for a particular listing, the market or even the overall economy, worrying over it like a bad tooth and often misconstruing it to confirm their self-serving beliefs about their own situation.

A real estate stalker who lives in Valdosta, Ga., finds a San Francisco Bay Area real estate blog that suggests home staging gets better than a dollar-for-dollar return, and uses that to resist his Realtor’s suggestion that he pack up the 500-piece Precious Moments figurine collection (as cute as they may be — to some people) before showing his home. (Note to sellers: displaying your overly personal or fetishistic collections is not home staging.)

A real estate stalker tweaks her Zillow search 14 times until she finds a "comp" for her home that justifies the bizarrely exorbitant list price she’s aiming for, even though the comp is on the other side of the freeway, in a better school district and 1,000 square feet bigger.

A real estate stalker looking to buy ignores his Realtor’s 10-point, holistic analysis of the comps and, instead, seizes upon price per square foot (the most sensitive and unreliable metric of all) and uses that to lowball every seller whose home he wants — even after having 10 offers rejected.

If you recognize yourself in these descriptions, and you think you might suffer from real estate "stalkerism" (aka real estate-specific obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD), there is help available for you. Get a local Realtor, ideally by referral. Then listen to him or her — let the Realtor help educate and advise you on how to approach and strategize in your particular situation, and in your particular market. And, as I’ve said before and will say again, if you don’t trust your Realtor’s advice enough to follow it, go get a different Realtor.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

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