Location, location, feng shui

Thie article, written by Diane Sussman, appeared in the Palo Alto Weekly, Friday August 4, 1995

Before Juliana Lee could close the deal on a Palo Alto home with a Chinese couple, she had to apply to the city to have the house number-444-changed.

"Four means death", said the Cornish and Carey real estate agent. "In Oriental countries, buildings don't have a fourth floor. It just goes from three to five."

Similarly, Lee knew she would have trouble selling a stunning house with a "Gone with the Wind"-style spiral staircase facing the front door and a charming small house on a flag lot behind a larger house. "The house set behind is like a mistress, waiting, "she said. "That is bad luck on a marriage." Stairs leading to the front door mean "all the money in the house will go out the door. Every time you open the door, money goes out."

In cases like these, clients may seek the advice of a master of the Chinese craft of feng shui. Using intuition, astrology, design principles, a compass and the occasional crystal or mirror, feng shui masters suggest ways to harmonize the relationship between people, buildings and the environment.

A feng shui master can make or break a deal in a moment. "You really worry," said Lee. who has seen the situation go both ways.

Having a house "feng shui-ed," to borrow the neologism of a local contractor, is becoming a far more common event in real estate transactions.

The trend is being fueled by the high number of buyers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China. In these countries, feng shui (pronounced FUNG SHWAY) can influence decisions on everything from placement of a bed to the number of silk flowers.

"Oriental people are having a big influence on the market," said Lee, who grew up in Taiwan and practiced law before moving to the United States 15 years ago. "They are major purchasers of houses. Even builders are starting to accommodate them," building homes with enclosed kitchens (a Chinese preference) and staircases facing away from doors.

Feng shui, which means "wind and water" in Chinese, contends that a life force flows through all things- streets, buildings, power lines, glass, people. Harmonious placement of these physical structures can increase the health, wealth, luck and marital happiness of the inhabitants.

In China, buildings with good feng shui summon lines of buyers. Buildings with bad feng shui languish like the proverbial Norman Bates property.

In the Bay Area, feng shui readings cost around $1,000, said Lee, and most practitioners come from a school in Berkeley. Each master has a different way of assessing a structure's feng shui. Some use a directional compass called a luopan; some use crystals; some use mirrors; some simply meditate. Much of the emphasis is placed on enhancing the amount of sunlight and flow of air through a building.

Many of the recommendations seem more commonsensical than mystical. For example, one basic feng shui tenet advises against occupying a house that faces a garbage receptacle. Garbage receptacles draw energy away from the home. But as Lee points out, "Who wants to live facing a dumpster? Or a street?"

Many consider the whole business a lot of superstitious tommyrot. "Does it bring good luck to put a five-sided mirror on the door?" asks Lee. "I don't know. Does hanging a mezuzah on the door bring good luck to Jewish people?"

Yet even Lee has her moments of belief. "I try not to admit it, but Mr. Feng Shui told me that red was a good luck color for me. So I bought a red sports car. I prefer white, but I got the red one."

Call Juliana... Start packing!