Realtors as Cultural Brokers

Joanna Zhao (left) and Phyllis Khaing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, July 27, 2010

Real-estate agents are not always regarded as cultural brokers, but a panel at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Asian Pacific Americans program on July 27 showed how much they can influence an immigrant’s view of this country.
Joanna Zhao, a Chinese American who came to this country fifteen years ago, and today owns her own realty firm, and Phyllis Khaing, a Burmese American who arrived twenty-two years ago and is also a successful broker, spoke on the topic, “Making a New Place Home: Enclaves in the Suburbs.”

Like other home buyers, immigrants from Asia typically ask to look at homes near good school systems. However, cultural priorities are often evident, sometimes in subtle ways. For instance, Joanna observed that her APA clients tend to like amenities within easy walking distance for their older relatives, such as parks and shopping centers. Phyllis noted that her Burmese American clients want houses that face east, with a kitchen at the back of the house (not visible from the front door), extra bedrooms for visiting family, and no sunken living rooms (which some consider bad feng shui). Any suggestion of bad luck, such as a recent death in the house, can be a deal-breaker.

Joanna reported that her Chinese American clients tend to prefer addresses with street numbers that include an 8, and avoid those with the number 4 (which is a reminder of death). Settlements are typically done on the 8th, 18th, or 28th of the month, and Thursdays (the fourth day of the week) are avoided.

Taking off one’s shoes when entering an APA home is not only a traditional courtesy, but can be a requirement of doing business. Some sellers are adamant that prospective buyers must take off shoes, as the family altar is sometimes in a front room. Others have moved away from this tradition, but still appreciate a broker who will ask if they wish to follow it.

In closing, the panelists were asked what special problems, if any, face APA home sellers. Soy-sauce stains in the kitchen and curry smells in the drapery were cited as common issues. Joanna sometimes tactfully suggests a paint job to cover up wear—and also to dispel cooking scents that are pleasant to some buyers, but perhaps not to others. Phyllis inspects the curtains, and if the smell of good spicy home cooking is evident, she suggests replacing them before holding an open house.

Phil Tajitsu Nash
Curator, Asian Pacific Americans program

  • real estate egypt

    I see that there are several important reasons for why the it’s hard to sell houses for APAs

  • Emi Ireland

    Joanna Zhao’s comment, that her Chinese American clients want family homes that meet the residential needs of older relatives, is something we might all do well to consider.

  • Arizona Golf Course Homes

    Very interesting how different cultures look for different amenities in a certain community or town. Particularly in the paragraph above that Chinese Americans want an 8 in the address but not a 4.

  • real estate brisbane queensland

    That was weird, now I know why it’s hard to sell houses for APAs. However, I do enjoy watching or knowing cultures from other nationality to know their reasons.

  • Orange County Property Appraisers

    It’s so true that not only in real estate but ALL business that we all need to be more informed and educated on our world’s cultures. Being respectful to your clients cultural desires and needs is very important to having a successful relationship for both of you.

  • Cindy Jones

    This is a completely new perspective on being a professional Realtor. It only helps us if we are more in tune with other cultures and sensitive to their needs and wants.

  • Houghton lake Homes For Sale

    I think that all realtor should have training in cultural diversity regardless if they are the minority seller or are selling to people of a different culture than they are use to

  • Huntsville AL Real Estate

    I am in a very diverse city in the state of AL, and this post brought new perspective to my attention. I pride myself on working with a variety of clients, but this showed me a few more things to pay attention to. Thanks for your post!

  • Belize Real Estate

    Catering to the various cultural differences of your clients will only lead to repeat business because their comfort level with you will be invaluable.

  • Ric Bueno “Cornerstone Properties”

    Thanks for this article! Well their own value in defining the cultural identity of neighborhoods, particularly in light of their own social and economic backgrounds.

  • Commercial Real Estate Loan Rates

    Great article, outlining the differences that various cultures have on neighborhoods.