Cognitive Biases in Apartment Hunting

Cognitive biases in the apartment hunt process

I’m looking for an apartment and while it has been fun, it’s frustrating how irrational it makes me feel. Some of the irrationality has come from tactics used by the realtors; some of it has come purely from my brain.

Here are some of the tactics I’ve noticed realtors using.

  • Reciprocity effect: At each complex I’ve visited, someone’s offered me water or coffee. This is a nice thing to do, but it’s also a well-researched phenomenon that people are more likely to comply with requests (say, renting an expensive apartment) after someone has given them something of value, even if the gift is small.
  • Scarcity effect: Again, at each apartment I’ve visited, I’ve been told that the apartments are going extremely quickly and that there are several people coming to see a place in the next 24 hours. I imagine this has sometimes been true but has also been exaggerated; the Cincinnati housing market isn’t that tight. Still, it’s always made me feel pressured to apply and has definitely made me a less careful consumer.
  • Contrast effect: Whenever I’ve toured more than 1 apartment in a complex, the person giving me the tour has showed me the apartments in order of increasing quality. This makes the nice apartments seem even more appealing.
  • Decoy effect: Real estate has often been cited as an example of this phenomenon in action, but I’ve definitely noticed that when I prefer unit A in one building over unit B in that building, it raises unit A in relation to unit C in a different building, because of the availability of the easy comparison.
  • I’m not sure what this would be called, but I found one sales tactic particularly effective. [EDIT: A helpful reader pointed out that this is called affective forecasting] I visited a complex, and we toured the rooms, which were just fine. At the end of the tour, we went up to the rooftop, which was beautiful. Chandeliers, a pool, a kitchen, and a magnificent view of the city. Of course, as I could feel the dopamine crashing through my brain imagining the glamorous evenings I would spend on this rooftop, the woman giving me the tour asked, “Okay, so are you ready to fill out an application?” It was all I could do to tell her I needed some more time to think about it.

Probably the biggest difficulty I’ve had in making a choice is over-estimating the extent to which certain features will affect my life. For example, I love the idea of having a lobby pool table, and hanging out and playing pool and meeting new people. But I am almost positive I’m overestimating the extent to which this would actually impact my experience. Based on my life and the input of others, it seems like this sort of feature doesn’t actually impact happiness very much. Likewise with fancy lobbies, elevators etc.

This is a difficulty in most aspects of our lives: trying to determine in advance how happy something will make us when we don’t have great data on it.

There are other irrational thoughts and feelings I’ve had during the search. I visited friends in New York City right before beginning to look and this definitely led to my anchoring price points based on the prices they pay in the city. It has been a justification to look at places that are fancier than I would otherwise: “sure, it’s expensive for Cincinnati, but this is what you’d pay for a shoebox in New York.”

I am trying to dissociate my identity from where I live. I think this is the biggest contributor to the biases I feel during the process. But it is difficult with a big purchase like this that carries so many social signals.


my apartment

I ended up picking an apartment on the cheaper side of my range, but in a fun, cool neighborhood. It didn’t have any amenities, but was quiet and cool. I loved that apartment. The things that impacted my happiness were:

  • Ability to walk around a nice neighborhood, see people out and about, stop into interesting restaurants and stores
  • Architecture, both of my neighborhood and building. This was more important than I’d thought, I really got joy out of seeing the beautiful buildings on my street.
  • Status of the neighborhood – try as I might, I couldn’t make this not impact me, and I think it impacted my happiness positively to be proud of where I lived
  • It was well-insulated and seemed to always be the perfect temperature; I certainly didn’t consider this but it made a big difference in my quality of life

I would love to hear about the irrationalities you’ve felt in the apartment hunt or what factors in your living situation have truly impacted your happiness. Feel free to reach out on twitter or email me [joe at this website] with any thoughts.

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