Editor’s note: This is the third part of a four-part series on sensory homebuying. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.

Intuitively, it would seem that views — whether of the mountains, the ocean, the bay or even the neighbor’s rusty, leaf-crammed gutters — are the most influential sensations originating outside of a given home on a prospective buyer’s impressions of the property.

I submit that this intuition is dead wrong.

Sound, in my experience, is the single sensory factor that poses the most substantive deal-making or -breaking power within the mind of a homebuyer of those sensory elements that are largely external to the property itself. Consider this: With views, one must actually stand near or at a window, on a deck or otherwise locate oneself particularly and then intentionally stop your other tasks and look at the outdoors.

Many homebuyers know that they will rarely partake of views in their daily routine of living in a home, or simply have more pressing reasons to choose to live in a place where great "vus" ("views" in truncated multiple listing service lingo) are simply nonexistent or disproportionately expensive vis-à-vis the enjoyment they would create.

Sound, however, is much more intrusive. A homebuyer-cum-homeowner needn’t go anywhere, assume any specific posture or in any other way invite external sounds into their experience of being present in a home, either during the house-hunting visit or — much more importantly — during the years of future residence the visit is designed to help them envision.

With sound, simple vibrations of thin air emanate from their source and end only after infiltrating and being interpreted by the nautilus of a homebuyer’s inner ear as anything from the neighbor’s barking dog to the banging at the auto-body shop behind the home. Other than earplugs, dual-paned windows and those Mozart compilation CDs played on a loop by half the listing agents I know, nothing comes between the sound source and the buyer’s ears.

As with the other senses we’ve discussed — sight and smell — the sound stimulus received by a house hunter during a "viewing" can turn that prospective homebuyer very strongly in either direction, for or against the home. A lot depends on the individual buyer’s personal sensitivity levels to different levels and qualities of noise. For some, a freeway sound wall is a perfectly sufficient noise mitigator, even if it’s literally next to the home.

For others, living next to a sound wall would be the first step on a path that ends at the local psychiatric hospital — the noise would drive them berserk. (Note — there is a 2007 Tim Robbins film titled "Noise" in which the city sounds of New York City send Robbins all the way off the deep end. Good viewing.) And still others parse out tolerable sounds by their type.

I recently had a client who couldn’t stand the intermittent zoom of fast-moving cars on a nearby thoroughfare, but found the more constant whoosh of proximate freeway traffic to be white-noise-esque, almost oceanic.

The interpretation of specific sounds is very much a matter of personal preference. Obviously, many house hunters crave quiet. These folks want to live in an area where there is little or no ambient noise level from external sources like street traffic, schoolyards, commercial areas or flight paths. …CONTINUED

Yet others want a more urban soundtrack to their lifestyle. There are actually buyers who like to hear the voices of pedestrians walking up and down their street, who don’t mind at all living with the train tracks virtually in their own backyards, who enjoy the sound of the ferry’s foghorn — even at all hours of night. They like city living and like to know that the auditory exchange of sounds between the worlds inside and outside the home goes both ways.

In the words I so often invoke when explaining to my family why I don’t return to my borderline-rural hometown, when I hear the noise created by others outside my home, it reassures me — I know that there’s always someone close enough to hear me scream, if I should need to do so for any reason.

That isolated cottage in the middle of the five-acre almond orchard might seem like a serene sanctuary to some, but seems more like a horror film setup to me. That’s all I’m saying.

Noise from schoolyards can cause a buyer to imagine the joy of playful neighborhood kidlets or the terror of their corner lot’s pricey landscaping being trampled on a daily basis. Construction sounds can be a day-sleeping homebuyer’s "daymare," or a welcome portent of an up-and-coming neighborhood.

And here’s The Big One for condo/townhouse/co-op buyers that almost always goes only one way: Walking or plumbing (read: toilet flushing) noise from an upstairs or adjoining unit can spark apartment-living post-traumatic-stress flashbacks. Virtually no one wants to pay a mortgage and property taxes and still have to hear the guy next door sneeze.

Occasionally, a buyer’s take on the sounds in and around a home is irrational. You wouldn’t believe the number of buyers who want to live within walking distance of a subway station but are horrified when they hear the sounds of the train. As a real estate broker, I see a large part of my job as helping first-time homebuyers work out where their fears are irrational or myth-based, and helping them overcome these mental obstacles with facts and reason.

No matter how irrational a buyer’s objections to a property’s interior or exterior sounds might be, it is always super-important and never, in my opinion, something that that buyer should be reasoned or talked out of.

Buyers: If you simply hate the sound level of a place or the types of sounds you hear therein, but you go forward with the purchase anyway, you will end up hating life and resenting the person who "helped" change your mind every single time you hear the despised noise during your tenure in the home.

Dual-paned windows help, but the thought of your options in your own home being limited to either keeping your windows closed or being bombarded by undesired sound is a claustrophobia-inducing prospect for most noise-sensitive house hunters.

On the other hand, there are some sounds that seem to be universally endearing to homebuyers. In the last month, I’ve probably heard no fewer than five separate buyers express that they loved that they could hear birdsong at an otherwise urban location. Of course, they’ve never lived with a rooster next door, as I once did — in downtown Oakland, Calif. Now that’s counterintuitive.

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.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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