Ancient Belief Alters Modern Real Estate

LOS ANGELES -- Nerissa Rosete fell in love with a pricey South Orange County home, especially its impressive view of California's Saddleback Mountains. She entered escrow, putting $20,000 down.

But she walked away from the deal, losing half her down payment, after a consultant noted the way the backyard steeply dropped off to meet Interstate 5. It was, he warned her, bad "feng shui": The receding yard would prompt energy to rush out of the home.

Once again, the 3,000-year-old Chinese practice of feng shui, which teaches manipulation of one's physical surroundings to bring about balance and success, had shaken up a real estate deal.

Nearly every real estate office in Southern California seems to have a tale about how buyers or sellers, including a large proportion of non-Chinese, have made surprising compromises in pursuit of good feng shui.

One sign is the rapidly growing field of feng shui consulting. Other signals include transactions such as Rosete's that are falling through when a consultant vetoes a home. Some deals are taking longer to close because of buyer demands for a feng shui inspection. Some feng shui consultants are issuing certificates that sellers can use to prove a home's worthiness.

A number of resentful real estate agents find this all too much. "A bunch of baloney," sneers one in Beverly Hills. Like others, he asks for anonymity, aware that his next buyer could insist on a feng shui-correct house. "I would definitely lose business if I were not trying to accommodate people and their concerns."

The agents know that feng shui's rising popularity is propelled not only by an expanding pool of Asian home buyers, but also by a growing acceptance of the practice among many age groups and ethnicities.

Feng shui has penetrated the public consciousness so much that it's nothing for Nordstrom department store to use the term in a television ad. And a column that runs every other week in this newspaper's real estate section has given advice about the practice for more than a year.

Feng shui (pronounced "fung shway") translates as "wind and water." It teaches that remodeling, rearranging furniture or adding objects to an environment will reawaken positive energy, or "chi." Practitioners claim free-flowing chi helps people achieve prosperity, good health and happiness in life.

Feng shui consultants charge from $150 to a few thousand dollars an hour, usually spending at least several hours at a site. They enjoy a level of devotion from some buyers and sellers usually reserved for celebrated hairdressers or designers.

Even after Nerissa Rosete lost money pulling out of that home deal in Orange County's exclusive Nellie Gail Ranch, she relied on her consultant in choosing a second house with a sale price of about $900,000.

Her consultant warned her that the property, which was across the street from the first house, wasn't perfect either. The living room and the foyer would need to be extended to move the front door away from the stairwell. Energy loss was again the problem: Without the changes, it would escape down the stairs and out the doorway. The home's U shape also drew criticism: It meant the place was lacking a heart. Feng shui deems rectangular homes the ideal shape.

Rosete, a medical-lab owner married to a veterinarian, approved the changes - even though they eventually cost her an extra $1.3 million.

"I didn't realize the remodel would cost that much," said Rosete, who said she became familiar with feng shui while growing up in the Philippines. "But it's worth it."

Some Western feng shui users are unnerved by the practice's intrusion into their private lives, saying they didn't feel comfortable in their own home after they moved things around on a practitioner's advice.

"I had my house feng shuied, but I moved everything back because I like my stuff where it is," said Sheida Hodge, an intercultural consultant who has written a book on feng shui for real estate agents.