The Psychology of Real Estate: Why North Is Better Than South

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So you’re searching online for a new place to live. You stumble across an affordable house in a nearby city that you’ve never visited. The house is in a neighborhood called North Town. A few minutes later, you find a similar house in the city’s South Town. Which one do you pick to visit first?

According to a new study, even if potential buyers have no other information about a city — in fact, especially if they have no other information — most will automatically prefer its northern neighborhoods. Why?

The new paper, which was published recently in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, begins by noting previous research finding that if you show people a word like “hero” in the top half of a screen, they will identify its positive meaning more quickly than if the word appears in the lower portion of the screen.

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That makes sense: we feel “up” when we are happy and “down” when we are sad. (The moral associations of these words is ancient, even primal — heaven is always above hell. Another prehistoric example: Billy Joel wants an uptown girl.) But how would that up-down preference translate into real-world decisions about where to buy a house?

The new study was written by a team of psychologists led by Brian Meier of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. They began their research by showing in a simple pencil-and-paper test of 99 individuals that respondents are more likely to rate the word “north” as more positive than the word “south.” Then the authors asked another group of participants to pick a preferred living location on a map that was blank except for north, south, east and west borders. The most common choice was in the northern half.

With a third group, the authors presented a map in which “north” had been flipped to the bottom of the map and “south” to the top. In that case, the respondents didn’t have a real preference either way: the preference for north disappeared. The implication of the paper is that it’s not “north” that we want, but to be “up” or “high.”

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The Meier paper offers some practical advice for real-estate agents: if you’re trying to unload properties south of downtown, you should try to find a marketable neighborhood name that emphasizes that the area is “north” of something. It doesn’t matter if it’s accurate. (Just ask the good people of “North University Park,” which is just south of downtown Los Angeles.) Or you can always go with “heights” — Houston, San Francisco, Brooklyn and many more have “heights” neighborhoods, most of them available only to the wealthy. As Meier’s paper notes, an agent might be able to convince you that if you move to one of these neighborhoods, you will be “movin’ on up.”


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