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Jul. 17, 2008

A REASON TO PUT ON A HAPPY FACE accentuates positive


Who says real estate went bust?

Mostly the media, argues the operator of a new Realtor-oriented Web site.

Look beyond the foreclosures, the declining prices and the high inventories that grab newspaper headlines, and you'll find scads of indicators pointing to vitality in real estate.

That's the philosophy at, where "happy graphs" chart markets that post drops in the number of days homes stay on the market, and where statistical tables reveal "only positive changes over the previous month." The idea: to show that consumers and Realtors needn't view the entire national real estate market as a downer. Nuggets of positive news exist virtually everywhere, even in Las Vegas, said the site's founder, Leon d'Ancona. But you'd never know it from reading your daily newspaper.

"The media latches onto sensationalism wherever possible," said d'Ancona, who's also president of Toronto-based real estate information firm IMS Inc. "People want to read about morbidity or whatever, but, for the sake of the real estate industry, we can look at some good things."

D'Ancona's Web site drew praise from at least one local Realtor.

In an online forum, Prudential Americana Group sales broker David Boyer lauded d'Ancona's premise that the media overlook market subtleties that paint a decent picture of the real estate market.

"Leon is absolutely correct! Like politics, all real estate is local," wrote Boyer, whose brokerage enjoyed its own spot of happy news last week when it emerged from bankruptcy. "I wish the purveyors of doom and gloom understood that simple fact!"

Pretty strong words there. So this purveyor of doom and gloom called Boyer to ask for elaboration on "good" news and the media's role in delivering it.

(Actually, we called to defend ourselves, but we crafted a legitimate news-gathering reason to reach out.)

Boyer's analysis didn't improve over the phone. You know it'll be bad when the first sentence out of someone's mouth is, "Please don't take offense."

The slow market is "not the media's fault," Boyer said. "You're just the easiest target, right ahead of Realtors. It's the media's fault only in that we have dumbed down the way we report and write the news."


That dumbing-down yields a constant, dismal parade of narrow-minded, one-track stories that flog the same theme of marketwide woe without the perspective of past and future economic events, Boyer said.

Single-angle thinking exists in surging markets, as well: When boom times hit Las Vegas real estate in 2004, Boyer said, the media talked and wrote as if the upswing would never end, thus encouraging a legion of consumers to borrow against their home equity or take out interest-only loans to buy expensive houses.

Today, the opposite happens. Consumers read endless reports on slumping sales, falling prices and tighter lending guidelines, and the news paralyzes them. Sales dwindle and prices fall further, Boyer said. Buyers assume they can't obtain loans, even as lenders working through federal programs still grant mortgages with no money down.

Media experts say marks the latest episode in a long history of blaming the media when the economy sours.

When times get tough, some businesspeople urge a focus on the bright side because they want consumers to feel good about purchasing, said Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training and research center in Florida.

"It's not just Realtors who level this criticism, and it's an unjust criticism in many cases because we often do just report what's going on," Finberg said.

If newspapers seem filled with unfortunate events, that's because journalists tend to look at the unusual or at challenges, and news exists amid unique difficulties.

"Reading about challenges is not what makes people happy, but sometimes it's what makes news," Finberg said. "It's new, and it's different, and it's what's going on now."

Yet, reporters do need to guard against swinging too far in one direction, Finberg acknowledged. Some of the coverage around the housing boom was as "overly exuberant" as some of the coverage surrounding the housing bust, he said. Reporters should strive to examine an issue in its proper context.

That kind of reporting will still generate news items that some people dislike.

Such "negative" news has its place, Finberg said. Think of it as cod liver oil: It tastes bad, but it's good for you. Unfavorable news hurts, but consumers need to know when the economy flags, because downturns can affect them. Besides, Finberg added, reporters don't distinguish between "good" and "bad" news; rather, it's their job to write fairly and honestly about what's happening.

But portraying the market in broad strokes isn't fair or honest, say d'Ancona and Boyer. It would be more accurate to home in on specific neighborhoods, districts and market segments that buck downward trends.

"You don't go into a restaurant and say, 'All the food is good' or 'All the food is bad,' " d'Ancona said. "There's good everywhere if you look at it. I don't see anybody saying, 'Hey, we know it's bad out there, but at least there's some good stuff out there.'"

It's an uplifting message with a lot of followers. D'Ancona's Web site had more than 200,000 page views in the week and a half after its May 1 launch.

"You don't want to be a Pollyanna," Boyer said. "It's a tough real estate market, and good people are losing their homes, losing their equity and just getting ground up by the system. No industry is guilt-free. Yes, we have a long way to go before we get out of the hole, but I think happy news is what we need more of."

But Web sites like make it tougher for the general citizen to separate truth from propaganda, Finberg warned, and the growing number of sites that funnel current events through a single blogger's opinions or emotions could require consumers to work harder at staying informed.

D'Ancona countered that delivering mostly good news informs people in important ways, for the betterment of the economy. If only the media would report on positive trends, the housing recovery would take off in earnest, as consumers gain confidence and decide to buy homes.

So, forthwith, here's some happy news.

Las Vegas has posted a five-month string of declines in the average number of days homes spend on the local market. Home sales in the market increased for the sixth straight month in June.

The number of homes listed on the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors' Multiple Listing Service fell 1.1 percent year over year in June, to 23,388 units. The supply of resales on the local market dropped from about 18 months in early 2008 to 13.7 months in late June. Resales here rank at their most-affordable levels since 2002, with a median price of $225,000.

In short, said Boyer, he's never seen a better time to buy in Las Vegas in his 30-plus years of experience.

There. Happy now, guys?

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