The anchoring and adjustment heuristic in real estate transactions.

The anchoring and adjustment heuristic in real estate transactions.

Jack and Sally were looking forward to buying their first house. Like many of us they browsed real estate websites and searched through the real estate agent shop windows looking for that ideal first home. As Jack and Sally browsed the potential properties they kept in mind their budget. Jack made note of a few potential properties with the correct number of bedrooms, bathrooms, reception rooms and garden size whilst noting the seller’s asking price. Eventually after visiting a few properties for viewings they decided to put an offer in for one of the properties. Jack noticed the asking price saying that it was above their budget and for a moment began to lose hope. After discussing with Sally as to how much to offer for the house Sally reminded Jack that although the house was on offer for £500,000 they could in fact put in an offer below the asking price. Jack and Sally went on to offer £450,000 and after some consideration the seller agreed to the price. Jack and Sally won the property that they wanted to buy and in the process demonstrated one of the most prevalent cognitive biases in human decision-making, namely the anchoring effect.


The anchoring effect (also called the anchoring and adjustment bias or anchoring and adjustment heuristic) is one of the cognitive biases that occurs most often when making a judgement about the quality, value or worth of an item. The effect works because when you are given a number (e.g., 1200 meters) that relates to a property of an item (the quality etc) with a question about that property you are likely to, whether knowingly or not, anchor your judgement by using the number as a reference point (i.e. the anchor). Imagine a boat tethered to a lowered anchor, the boat cannot move far from the anchor and remains within range of the length of the tether. We typically do not deviate a lot from the anchor. The anchoring effect has been observed to influence factors such as charitable giving, price valuations, fairness judgements, loyalty judgements, judgements of guilt, and prosocial motives among many other factors (Soule & Madrigal, 2015). The anchoring effect is just one of many cognitive biases that influences our judgements in a systematic and predictable fashion. It is simply easier to accept the anchor (e.g., the house seller’s asking price) and adjust closely to the anchor (e.g., £50,000 less rather than £150,000) than to make an entirely new judgement about something (e.g., the value of the house).

In the case of Jack and Sally there is a clear anchoring effect (albeit to no negative effect to the seller). Jack and Sally see the initial asking price (the anchor) and consider making offers that are close to this, they are anchored by the seller’s asking price. Of course, in the case of buying a house deviating from the asking price by too much (toward a lower price) will result in a rejected offer.

It is important to understand the anchoring effect because prices are by nature simple numeric information that can act as the anchor or reference point. Since the majority of the most agonising judgements that we must make in life revolve around pricing (e.g., buying that first house, holiday home, car or a big holiday) understanding the role of cognitive biases in decision-making is important. To avoid falling into the trap of the cognitive biases we should make ourselves aware of these biases. We are not the rational decision makers that we think we are.


One large study investigating the anchoring effect in residential home sales recorded data from 14,000 separate transactions (Bucchioneri & Minson, 2013). The researchers noted that the literature on housing economics, negotiations and auctions converge on the notion that home prices are an objective function of the property’s neighbourhood and characteristics (e.g., number of rooms, size of the house and characteristics). However, as we have seen above the judgement and decision-making literature on the anchoring effect suggest that there is a positive relationship between the listing price (asking price) and the sale price. The analysis of the 14,000 transactions found that higher asking prices are associated with higher sales prices independent of the property’s features, which is consistent with the anchoring effect. For the average property in the study overpricing by 10 to 20% lead to an increase in sales price because buyers were anchored by this higher sales price. So, whether a property has 5 large bedrooms in a desirable area of the countryside or 2 small bedrooms in a noisy part of a city asking for higher price for the 2-bedroom property (compared to the 5-bedroom property) could result in a higher sales price than the 5-bedroom property despite the larger property being initially more desirable than the smaller.

In the domain of property rentals the same study by Bucchianeri and Minson found that by adopting the same strategy of overpricing the asking rental price by 10 to 20% there was an increase in rental value of $117 to $163.

The data from transactions on house sales and rental pricing suggest that although we tend to believe that it is the characteristics of a property that determines the value of the property this is not the case. Pricing strategies are the major determiner of the value of the property. So, whether you are buying you first starter home, buying your dream family home, renting your house or looking to rent a house being aware of the anchoring effect will save you or make you more money. If you are selling your house to take full advantage of anchoring set your asking price 10-20% higher than the valuation, after all, if your property does not sell you can simply reduce the price at a later point. If like Jack and Sally you are buying your first home, to take advantage of the anchoring effect you can start by being aware that the asking price is not absolute, you can put in a lower offer if this is reject simply increase the offer by a small amount.

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