Watchdog columnist aimed to cut through the hype for homebuyers

  • Washington Post Real Estate Editor V. Dion Haynes presents Kenneth R. Harney with a special lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in 2017. Harney had been unable to receive the award at the association's annual conference because of his illness.

    Washington Post Real Estate Editor V. Dion Haynes presents Kenneth R. Harney with a special lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in 2017. Harney had been unable to receive the award at the association's annual conference because of his illness. Washington Post photo by Kathy Orton

 
 
Posted5/31/2019 6:00 AM

I've lost track of how often I've seen nationally syndicated columnist Kenneth R. Harney savoring the applause in so many ballrooms -- in Atlanta, Houston, Miami and more -- when his name was called. There he was, beaming as he made his way from his table toward the stage to add to his vast collection of awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

During my six years with the organization, Ken would win three, four, sometimes five awards per year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When someone in the audience would crack, "Hey, Harney, save some of the awards for us!" he'd offer a gee-whiz shoulder shrug as if he was embarrassed by all the attention. Though winning was routine for Ken, you never got the impression it ever got old for him. Ken didn't take himself too seriously, but he did take his mission to educate people on all aspects of the home very seriously.

Kenneth R. Harney -- the consumer watchdog whose The Nation's Housing column was a must-read in The Post for four decades -- died Thursday, May 23, of acute myeloid leukemia. He was 75.

"Ken Harney was truly an amazing human being, engaging leader/mentor, and an award-winning columnist," Mary Doyle-Kimball, executive director of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, said in an email.

"He identified important problems and solutions for his readers," she added. "He researched his subjects deeply and knew Washington policy and real estate issues like no other."

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Buying a home is the most expensive and most complicated business transaction most people will ever face. While there's a plethora of homebuying information online, Ken believed much of it is fluff and misleading. Ken's column -- which was syndicated in 90 newspapers including the Daily Herald -- cut through the hype and gave homebuyers the tools to go into the deal with their eyes wide open.

In a 1999 column, Ken helped dispel myths about buyer preferences:

"In a finding that appears to run counter to a highly promoted planning and design trend among developers, the study says that 'neo-traditional' or 'new urbanist' concepts, found in such heavily publicized new communities as Celebration and Seaside in Florida, appeal to only a tiny fraction of current buyers.

"Just 10% of the consumers polled liked all the key design elements of neo-traditional or new urbanist community planning, which emphasizes narrow streets centered on a town square, traditional and regional house styles with prominent front porches and garages hidden in back, and higher-density development with houses close to the street and smaller front yards instead of large, private yards."

In February, Ken expressed skepticism about a study suggesting that baby boomers were to blame for millennials' inability to find an affordable home in the market:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Another factor the Freddie Mac study doesn't mention: Homes owned for many years often are not what millennials are shopping for anyway -- they're too big and may have too many bedrooms. Plus, they might have interiors that require extensive updating. They're frequently priced for move-up buyers, not first-timers. Yet the study includes an example in which fictional older owners, Al and Rose, aren't selling, thereby forcing younger buyers, Alex and Rita, 'to wait longer -- and pay more.' "

Ken had gone through some painful procedures during his ordeal, but readers would never know it. He never missed a beat. His column came out faithfully every week. Writing the column and watching out for his readers kept him going through those difficult days. Here's a snippet of his last column, published about a week before he died:

"The long knives are out again for one of American real estate's oldest and most controversial traditions: requiring home sellers to pay the agents who represent the buyers of their properties.

"A landmark suit filed in March alleged that the 1.3-million-member National Association of Realtors has conspired with local multiple listing services (MLSs) and with major realty brokerage companies to force sellers who list their homes on an MLS to pay a contractually specified percentage of the commissions to the broker/agent who brings in the ultimate buyer. Now two new class-action lawsuits have been filed with allegations along the same lines."

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