Property copywriting – from telling the nightmare to selling the dream

Peter Wise

Wise Thinking Ltd

Property copywriting – from telling the nightmare to selling the dream

In the 1960s, there was an estate agent in London called Roy Brooks. In an age of dull, repetitive and misleading property ads his approach was rather different. He told the truth, wittily and memorably.

What others would call a bijou flat, Brooks was unafraid to label a broom cupboard. But that was one of his tamer descriptions.

“Will anyone take pity on a nasty old house?’ went one first line, with rooms ‘all in pretty foul order’. Its proximity to London Zoo meant that, “On still nights the friendly howl of the hyaena floats over the Mappin Terraces“.

However, he wasn’t just a self-indulgent oddity, he was highly successful. This was despite the fact that his ads weren’t gleaming magazine spreads or the detailed online showcases of today. They were just a few lines in newspapers, somewhere in the middle of dozens of other classifieds. The only images were the ones he conjured up in your mind’s eye.

But Brooks’s ads didn’t just shine out from the terraced rows of other listings. They broadened the audience as well, with plenty of people not interested in buying or selling a property turning to the relevant page in search of Brooks’s latest brutal witticisms. And when it happened that these readers were in the market, then a good chunk would happily head for his estate agency.

As Brooks himself noted: “Truth in advertising … we find it pays to disclose the worst. We are still selling houses faster than we can get them.”

There were even two books produced consisting solely of his property ads – Brothel in Pimlico and Mud, Straw and Insults: Confessions of an Honest Estate Agent.

So, what can he teach today’s property copywriters?


Lesson one – stand out from the crowd

Sadly, provocative advertising is now rarer than a family home in Central London for under a million quid. Even ads that are truly entertaining come infrequently on to the market. And proposing to take up the rude reins of Roy Brooks would not make you a must-buy for most clients.

But there are nevertheless lessons to learn from his example. For instance, buyers want reassurance that a property will be what they’re looking for. Which is why Brooks was always careful to include an enticing proposition with his forthright ads.

That nasty old house in pretty foul order mentioned above came with a canny hook: “GBP7,250 (I expect we’ll see it resold, done up, in a year or so for abt. GBP14,000)”. In other words, you could nearly double your money. Best not to imagine what it would be worth now, of course.

So that’s the first take-out – have a proper USP and showcase it.


Selling points and sticking points

Of course, the prospect of making money out of a property is only one potential tempter. And your job is usually to focus on the dream, not the downsides.

Whether it’s a straightforward listing, a glossy brochure or a walkaround video, do what Roy Brooks did and grab them with the first line. Something that says what’s special about the place without resorting to cliches (or insults).

Think too about the potential buyers. What are they like? How long might they want to live there for? Is it a starter home or the next stepping stone to somewhere else? A juicy investment or a place to retire to? Will they be bringing up children there or just waiting for the grandkids to visit?

As with all marketing, major on what buyers want to hear, not just what you’d like to say. It’s your story – but it’s their dream.

If you’re stuck for selling points, then think about the local surroundings. In some cases, what’s outside the four walls has more going for it than what lurks inside them. Where can they relax, go shopping, entertain or simply enjoy the great outdoors?

Remember the practicalities as well. Where they can park their car – or, increasingly these days, their bike. How far is it (truthfully) to the station and the shops? If you’re selling to families, what are the nearby schools like, and how long will it take to drag a dawdling kid to them?

Above all, make sure what you’re selling matches expectations. Consider, for instance, the picture illustrating this article, which was a snap I took of a Brooks-style un-des res some years ago. Would you trust your teeth to a dentist with a sign and a surgery like that?


Make sure the specs are rose-tinted

If you’re asked to write a property brochure for a big developer, chances are that a large chunk of it will be taken up by the specifications. Not just the basics like number and sizes of rooms, but the floorplans, finishes, fixtures and fittings.

That was another thing that Roy Brooks excelled at. Within the tight confines of his classified ads, you’d know at a glance the most important facts, from precise location to numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms (in foul order or not).

By contrast, the brochure you’re tasked with writing will have page after page of these specs, alongside the glossiest of photos. Sometimes you’ll get asked to write these spreads, other times not.

My advice is to always take a proper look at them, even if they’re not part of your official remit. It’s surprising how often there are basic errors in the spelling, punctuation or grammar. Tactfully pointed out to the client and remedied, they’ll help to ensure the brochure is a success – and that you’re more likely to be asked to write the next one. Even better, you may be able to spot a useful feature or fact which wasn’t in the brief, but which you can use in the main copy.


Not all property clients have properties

A lot of copywriting projects are simply property showcases as outlined above. But you might be surprised just how many potential clients you can target in this broad sector.

As well as the big developers, estate agents of all kinds need good writing, especially those canny enough to market themselves a bit differently. Examples I’ve written for include one that specialised in waterfront properties, another in student digs, and a third targeted at the LGBT+ market. I’ve also written for holiday home and timeshare specialists, architects, interior designers, local councils, home stagers, retail designers, furniture outfitters, serviced office providers and numerous construction companies.

Then there’s the technical side. Proptech has become almost as much a given as fintech (and the two sometimes overlap as well, for example with online rental payment systems). Technology is now at the heart of the way properties are designed, built, marketed, managed and secured. So it’s worth familiarising yourself with the basics – and working out where the next tech focus will be.

As for media, Roy Brooks would be astounded. In his day, the most he might aspire to was a brochure or upmarket magazine. But given the newspapers eventually used to let him run his classified ads for free, so entertaining were they, why bother with anything else?

Nowadays, though, property copywriting can mean articles, blog posts and social media, alongside print media and glossy giveaways. Longer pieces too, like white papers. Plus web copy of all kinds, of course. A lot of the time, a property project will involve a video or two. One moment you could be interviewing an architect, the next penning launch tweets.

You need a lot of strings to your bow to be able to really offer property copywriting, in other words. Even if the arrows you shoot are not as cleverly barbed as those of Roy Brooks.


For more on property copywriting or if you’re looking for an experienced copywriter, please visit my property copywriting page


Thanks to Debby Hudson on Unsplash for the cover image

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