Get all the data before diving into property

Basic data is something we should expect that agents can provide, in its entirety, to us

“Over the last half century, everything from the way that wars are conducted and the way sports teams are run has become hugely affected by number crunching.” Photograph: iStock

“Over the last half century, everything from the way that wars are conducted and the way sports teams are run has become hugely affected by number crunching.” Photograph: iStock

 

Recently, on a trip to Australia, I wandered around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and marvelled not only at the detail, design and marketing flair of the large hoarding signs outside houses for sale, but also how on those hoardings the plot size is described with the utmost precision: 948sq m, 725sq m, 837sq m.

It occurred to me that of all the suburban properties I have purchased back home, I couldn’t actually tell you the precise plot size of any of them. The floor area of the building itself was certainly recorded on the property details when I bought them together with precise room sizes, but the exact dimensions of the plot? Hardly ever. It’s a detail that often appears forgotten.

The reason why the Aussies are so particular about suburban plot sizes is because they expect many of the houses to be torn down and redeveloped, so the floor area of the building is often less important than the plot itself, something which might not apply so urgently to buildings more likely to stay put.

Yet if you think about it, there is something a little odd about estate agents only telling you that the property has a “spacious plot” or “wonderfully large garden” or, if really being precise, that it comes with “nearly a quarter of an acre of land”. Actually getting out and measuring the plot accurately can sometimes be too much bother for many city-based agents.

I found myself recently in the rather comical situation of attempting to work out the size of a plot by having to use a ruler on a scale map. Yet I’ve noticed that most countries around the world generally offer as standard the dimensions of both building and plot. We however seem to be less scientific and more “instinctive” in our attitudes towards the properties we purchase.

Mathematical precision

Yet these attitudes seem to be gradually changing. I can recall a time back during my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s when Aussies were regularly teased about their fondness for quoting precise temperatures when taking about the weather. While we tended to talk vaguely about a day being “pretty hot” or “getting into the 70s” (back in the pre-Celsius days) or else being “a bit on the chilly side”, the Australians would quote with mathematical precision that the temperature was “34” or “17”, leaving us to scratch our heads at what the meaning of these strangely precise numbers actually was. These days, however, not only have we embraced the Celsius system but also acquired the habit of speaking far more precisely about temperature: the same is steadily becoming true of property.

Nowadays property statistics provide much scientific information about the likely running costs of a property and its energy efficiency, and information about price movements both of the property itself and the surrounding area is readily available.

Our feeling towards property is of course governed by something more than mere statistics. It might be that all the numbers – floor area, plot size, running costs, distance from station and the all-important cost itself – add up and yet a property still leaves us strangely cold.

Property is a curious mixture of irreducible feelings and associations combined with hard-bitten number crunching. A “feel” for a property is always going to be the over-riding consideration of whether we want to buy it or not, yet numerate analysis can increasingly influence our judgments.

Over the last half century, everything from the way that wars are conducted and the way sports teams are run has become hugely affected by number crunching. Once, in our assessment of the value of, for example, a football player, we would overwhelmingly rely on a general impression of having watched them play. Now, opinions are more likely to be based on a plethora of statistics about goals scored, assists, tackles made, passing accuracy and miles run.

‘Get the data’

The American Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara, having scientifically analysed the effectiveness of everything from car production to bombing raids, is supposed to have intoned to his staff the mantra: “Get the data.”

“Getting the data” should be an essential first step in making all property assessments and something we should expect that agents can provide, in its entirety, to us. A healthy wariness about statistics, though, is also a caveat worth embracing. Numbers lend seriousness and accountability to the dark art of property buying and selling, and can sway a punter making a huge decision by appealing to a sense of certainty that numbers represent – in the world of fake news and distrusted experts, numbers are reassuring.

Numbers can be manipulated as easily as smooth words of description appealing to the senses. They shouldn’t be the only, or even the most important, factor in deciding whether we want to buy or not, but they should at least be the basic information we compute before making a final decision.

Damian Flanagan is a property investor, writer and critic

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