Feng shui principles favor curved paths leading to the front door.
Courtesy Visbeen Architects Feng shui principles favor curved paths leading to the front door.

In California, home builders have learned the hard way not to assume that buyers born in other countries know that the home price doesn’t include furniture. In the wake of lawsuits filed by disappointed buyers, diversity consultant and real estate professional Michael Soon Lee says builders now put signs on model homes that read, “Furniture not included in the price.”

It’s one example of many that Lee offers in his “Secrets to Selling to the Multicultural Buyer” seminars, which show how easily misunderstandings can occur when selling to foreign-born home buyers. To help the process with multicultural buyers go smoothly, Lee suggests following these tips.

1. Assume they know nothing. Builders should not expect that a customer knows the details of home buying or financing. Homeownership in many countries is rare, so be prepared to educate. Foreign-born customers typically have strong finances and want to own a home because they view it as a sign of success in America. “You have got to adjust your processes a bit to meet their needs,” Lee says. In the long run, the effort is worth it because the segment of foreign-born home buyers is growing at a fast pace, he adds.

2. Be courteous and respectful. When a family arrives it can be difficult to know who in group is making the buying decision. The best way to find out is to ask a question and then see who answers. Also, don’t automatically offer a handshake—in some cultures it is not appropriate. Greet customers with a pleasant “hello” and then wait to see how they respond. If they bow, bow back; if they offer a hand, shake it.

3. Be aware of different buying signs. Asian buyers will walk through a home and typically make no comments or show any signs of their like or dislike. Then they may start speaking to each other in their native language. While many agents assume the potential buyers are talking about the agent, Lee says it’s really a sign they are interested in the home and want some privacy.

4. Be ready to negotiate. Aside from cars, Americans don’t negotiate for products, but in many other cultures, negotiating is expected. As such, Lee recommends being prepared to negotiate everything—foreign-born clients may even negotiate at the closing table, not realizing that contracts are set in stone after signing. He also suggests holding out one option, which can be something you typically give anyway for the closing.

5. Be sensitive about finances. Don’t assume that foreign-born buyers want a sales person who shares their heritage. In fact, they often think an agent from within their community will gossip about their finances and know their negotiating tactics.

Lee says that many Asian and Hispanic buyers worry about revealing that they have a large down payment because many of them distrust banks and keep their cash in their homes, which has resulted in instances of home invasions. Instead of asking about the down payment, show them the monthly payments that will result from various amounts put down. In most instances, they’ll choose the one that matches the amount they’ve saved.

6. Learn their culture and traditions. Don’t be afraid to ask a customer about his heritage. “Can you tell me where your ancestors are from?” is how Lee suggests phrasing the question. Don’t assume all Asian or Hispanic cultures are the same.

He also suggests asking: “Do you have any beliefs that might impact the purchase of a home?” Some customers believe in feng shui principles and won’t buy a home that violates them. For example, many Asian buyers won’t buy a home with a walkway leading from the street to the front door because it’s bad luck to have direct access into the home. Curved walkways are preferable, Lee says. The number four also is a negative for many Asians because it’s homophonous to the word “death.” Likewise, some foreign-born buyers want to consecrate their home by putting objects into the foundation, so they might appreciate knowing when the slab will be poured.

In the end, the most important thing to remember when dealing with prospective buyers is to treat all customers as individuals, regardless of their origin.