Putting Their Fur Babies First

March 2, 2020

- By Bridget McCrea

More homebuyers are putting their beloved pets first in the home selection process. Here are six ways REALTORS® can help them get what they want while also keeping their furry and feathered friends happy.

As the golden retriever cautiously worked her way over to the edge of the deck and saw the stairway she’d have to walk down to get out to the backyard, it was immediately clear that Kara wasn’t going to make the descent willingly. The property was perfect in all other ways, having met all of the new homeowner’s expectations. What that new homeowner didn’t anticipate was that her fur baby would almost make her regret her buying decision.

“My buyer was downsizing to a single-level home, so I found her the perfect house in a good walking neighborhood for her dog,” says Allison Atwood, a REALTOR® and Certified Estate Manager at Kinlin Grover Real Estate in Yarmouth Port. The home had a fenced-in backyard, but a walkout basement setup required anyone going outside to use the staircase—dogs included. “We didn’t think that would be a big deal,” she continues, “but that stairway spooked her.”

With a frustrated homeowner on her hands, Atwood sprang into action. Knowing a thing or two about canine habits based on her experience—both as a pet owner and through the volunteer work she does with her certified therapy dog—she invited some of Kara’s buddies over to play and to (hopefully) show her how to walk down the stairs. Before long the whole group was using the stairway without a problem. “The owner was really devasted because she thought she’d found the perfect home,” says Atwood. “Luckily, the dog made the adjustment and learned that the stairs were friendly, and not scary.”

A Penchant for Pets

Atwood’s experience is just one of many examples of how pet owners are making their furry and feathered friends a part of the home-buying conversation. The trend is playing out with all generations of homeowners but is especially prevalent (and reported on) among millennials. Now aged 24 to 39, this group has a penchant for pets and isn’t afraid to put their animals first when shopping for homes.

According to TD Ameritrade, seven out of 10 millennials own a pet, with 56% of them owning dogs and 36% owning cats. Collectively, these individuals spend $67 billion on their dogs and $33.5 billion on their cats every year. According to realtor.com’s latest count, 89% of millennial homebuyers own pets and 79% of them say they’d pass on an otherwise perfect home if that property didn’t meet those pets’ needs.

Bill Gassett of RE/MAX Executive Realty in Hopkinton says he’s seeing a “keen sense of awareness” among pet owners who want homes that will accommodate their animals. “They keep this in mind when looking for properties; there’s no doubt about that,” says Gassett, who pays attention to homeowners’ association rules, breed restrictions, and other requirements that might impact pet owners’ ability to buy in certain neighborhoods or buildings. “Do you have any pets?” is one of the first things I ask about when I start working with a new client.”

A National Trend

Homebuyers in Massachusetts aren’t the only ones putting their pets first. According to Courtney Keene, director of operations at homeowner-contractor marketplace MyRoofingPal, millennials as a whole appear to be driving the trend. “They’re waiting later and later to have kids, so their pets (and especially their dogs) are a part of their families,” says Keene, “and you wouldn’t buy a home without considering your kids’ needs.”

She says this under-40 demographic is also more vocal about its needs, so they’re approaching REALTORS®, looking for their input and expertise on which homes would be best for their pets.

“What I’ve found is that millennials with pets—and especially with large dogs—will tend to make them a priority,” says Keene. “When shopping for a home or condo, pet owners are looking at all the usual things, but they also specifically seeking out dog-friendly properties and areas.”

Yard space is another obvious must-have for dog owners, says Keene. “Listings with fenced in front and back yards are far more marketable to dog owners, since it means the dog has to be taken on fewer walks and can exercise freely on the property,” she points out. “Another huge thing (for me especially, having large dogs who will just destroy everything if given half a chance) is a home that’s low maintenance.”

For example, Keene says tile or hardwood floors that are easy to clean, baseboards that stand up to claws, and doors that can’t be chewed through are all selling points for homeowners that are marketing to pet owners. “One final thing that’s often overlooked is the need for single-story homes for people who have senior pets,” says Keene. “Stairs are incredibly hard on the joints, and homeowners taking care of senior pets want to know their home is going to be as comfortable as possible.”

Finding the Purr-fect Property

From their vantage points as trusted advisors during the home-buying process, REALTORS® are in a great position to help their clients find properties that not only meet their requirements but are also pet-friendly and accommodating. Here are six strategies that all agents can use when working with pet owners:

1) Learn how to talk the “pet-friendly” language. “Pet friendly is about more than just having some yard space,” Keene points out. Look at homes that you or other REALTORS® have sold to people who have large dogs and consider why those properties sold. Ask your clients with pets what they specifically need in a home, she adds, and don’t be afraid to bring up the topic even if they don’t. “They’ll appreciate the consideration,” says Keene, “and you’ll be more likely to make a sale because you’ll be meeting their specific needs.”

2) Love all, serve all. It’s not just dogs that are getting all of the attention in the real estate world right now. People also have cats, birds, iguanas, horses, and myriad other pets that have to be factored into their buying decisions. Atwood—who often features her “fluffy Cape Cod Corgi” Phoebe in her marketing materials and social media—helps buyers understand the environment in her area (i.e., in Cape Cod there are some coyotes that could be a threat to outside cats) and the creature comforts that they should be looking for in their new homes. An indoor cat, for example, might enjoy a screened-in porch that allows the enjoyment of the outdoors without actually being outside. For homes lacking this feature, Atwood talks to buyers about adding a small, screened-in “outdoor condo” to accommodate their cats. “Sometimes all it takes is a minor adjustment to make everyone happy,” she says.

3) Work from the outdoors, in. If the home has a fenced-in yard with room to roam in it, it’s probably a good candidate for a dog owner. If it doesn’t, check whether there are restrictions for clearing more land and creating that type of space. “Research wetlands or conservation requirements as they can prohibit a homeowner from expanding a home’s yard space,” Gassett advises. Other important considerations include the neighborhood itself, how easy it will be to walk a pet (e.g., are there sidewalks? Is it well-lit at night?), and whether amenities like dog parks are within close proximity.

4)  Ask the right questions (and listen to the answers). Listen and compassionately understand the needs of a buyer with a canine friend, as the pet is a part of the family, says Atwood. The health and comfort of a pet can range from a factor in deciding on a new home, to the guiding reason for a decision. We find the field of “service dogs” has grown and the requirements for this buyer may be specifically different in terms of property type. There are buyers with “emotional support dogs” and in both cases, as with the service dog if this buyer is looking at a condominium purchase it is paramount the condo association understands this category thoroughly as the association cannot refuse their entrance.

5) Know the rules and regulations. Being based in Toronto, Ara Mamourian runs into some interesting challenges when matching homebuyers with properties, many of which are high-rise condos. He and his dog “Cody the Closer” put extra time into finding the most pet-friendly properties in the city, checking out the newest dog parks, and learning the rules and regulations that could impact buyers and their fur babies. “There are some places that restrict the number of pets that someone can have or the weight of those pets,” says Mamourian, a broker with Property.ca Realty, Inc., who uses Cody on his marketing materials and considers him a part of this family. “When potential clients see Cody and see that my pets are important to me, they know that I’ll always look out for their best interests as pet owners.”

6) Work “pet-friendly” features into your sales pitches. The fact that more buyers are putting their furry friends first when selecting homes opens the doors for sellers that want to market to this group of buyers. While on a recent tour of homes for sale, Karen Rezendes of Kinlin Grover Real Estate in Sandwich, says she noticed that the abode had a separate laundry room that led right out into a fenced yard. Eyeing up the utility sink, Rezendes thought to herself, “this home would be great for someone who had a small, crate-trained dog.” She shared this thought with the listing REALTOR®, who loved it and worked it into her marketing spiel. Rezendes says highlighting this and other pet-friendly features can be great selling tools for homeowners. “Look at the whole family—pets included,” she says, “and how the house can accommodate them.”

Final Words of Wisdom

Nationally, 67% of U.S. households (or about 85 million families) own a pet, up from 56% in 1988. As the ranks of pet owners continue to grow, the opportunity to serve the homebuyers and sellers among them is expanding exponentially. To agents that want to do a better job of working with these clients, Gassett says a good first step is to simply listen to what they want and need—both for themselves and for their beloved pets.

“Sometimes buyers will keep things in the back of their minds that they’re looking for, but they don’t express them,” says Gassett. “It’s up to us to glean that information and use it in the buyer’s best interest. This also helps avoid time wasted showing properties that just don’t make sense.”

Keene tells agents to think creatively when showing properties that aren’t “purr-fect” matches, and particularly when the buyer is downsizing or moving to an urban setting. “We’re seeing a trend of people needing to get by with less space. It’s just the nature of our cities and suburbs right now, and you’re not always going to be able to offer the big, fenced-in yard,” she explains. “However, what you can offer is a home on a safe, well-lit street with sidewalks on both sides of the road and a house that—while smaller—is easier for a busy pet owner to clean and maintain.”