Anyone who knows me (personally or professionally) will tell you that I have an opinion about most everything. Be that as it may, I try to limit opinions that I put down in writing to the topics I actually know something about. One such topic is the business I make my living in – the real estate industry; in particular the Mad River Valley Real Estate industry.
I recently read what I found to be a fairly revealing story by Michael Corbett of Trulia on selling your home in Time Online, I was struck by the simplicity of the message, and found the subject matter to be topical. Entitled “8 ways to screw up your home sale” the message is pretty clear. These are the mistakes that many home sellers make. And despite the fact that they make these mistakes, those that follow seem to make the same mistake. And when their house doesn’t sell, they find another Realtor, and make the same mistakes again.
According to Corbett, the mistakes are: Selling FSBO, Over-pricing your home, taking lousy photos, refusing to make obvious repairs, keeping all your junk and clutter, ignoring the backyard, hiding issues from prospective buyers, and letting your ego interfere in negotiations.
First of all, I agree. But I’ll elaborate because this is really important, and it’s one of the reasons the real estate industry is treading water, as it is.
Owning real estate is personal. Selling real estate is business. Separate the two and hire someone you trust. Unless you work in the real estate business for a living, you fall into the 1st category. Its personal. You are not objective. The cute knick-knacks on the mantle that you love will drive a buyer crazy, and that buyer will form an unfair opinion of your home based on your (poor) taste. Your Realtor should tell you to put them in a box and help you find a new home with a GIANT mantle for your growing collection. The FSBO seller is more than likely to add more knick-knacks so that a prospective buyer knows just how cute the house can be. Don’t fall into that trap. Unless you under valued your home, which is rarely the case with FSBO’s, your house will be on the market forever. By the time you decide to hire a Realtor, nearly everyone in the market has already passed over your home for another one. Your only move at this point is to keep lowering the price. It’s called shooting yourself in the foot and homeowners continue to do so, despite the abundance of data that shows FSBO’s generally sell for about 20% less than the median home sold with the assistance of a real estate broker, and in a fraction of the time.
Giving professional advice on the value of your home is actually one of the most important services your Realtor provides you with. You may read that and think “well, duh” but it’s not as simple as that. Unfortunately, the Realtor you hire has a vested interest in obtaining the listing. They also have a vested interest in keeping you happy. The best way to keep people happy is to tell them what they want to hear. Do you see where I am going? They ask you what you want for the house and then they list it for what you tell them you want. You might as well sell it FSBO. Button your lip, listen to the Realtor, ask to see comps and wait for them to provide you with their opinion of value. If it varies significantly from your expectations, ask questions. And always interview a second Realtor. This is not the time to be in a rush. Getting a second opinion may give you an entirely new perspective. It may also support your initial instinct to hire the first Realtor you spoke with. Regardless, this is a data-driven industry. Unless you are selling a very unique home, there is likely objective data to support a certain asking price, and almost every Realtor has access to that data. If they are worth their salt, their opinions should be close.
There is a Realtor that I used to know who believed that the key to “sparking interest” in a property was to post photos of the exterior of the home only – thus prompting people to call and make an appointment to see inside. I always thought it betrayed an individual laziness and the message to me was lost. I always felt you should put a property in its best light.
When it comes to photos, this is your first impression and the adage that you only have one chance to make a first impression is very true in this case. This is where the majority of prospective buyers make their first “cut” – before they even see it. If you have a cluttered house, it looks even more cluttered in a photograph. If your furniture is too big, or if you have too much furniture, the rooms look tiny in the photographs. Kitchen counters covered in baskets, bowls and appliances look terrible and detract from your $5,000 soapstone countertop. Good photos may be the single most over-looked aspect of selling a house. Because the majority of people introduced to your home will make their first acquaintance through a 2×2 inch thumbnail on a website, you are best served to get the most mileage out of that thumbnail. Pay attention to how your Realtor photographs your home. Allow them to move things if it will help make the room look better. If it’s raining on the day your Realtor shows up to take the listing, there is no point in taking pictures. They should look at the forecast and return when the time is right. And if you are listing your property during a “shoulder season”, provide your Realtor with some good exterior shots that show the natural beauty of the property, taken during a different season. And finally, you owe it to yourself to make sure you look at the property online once it has been posted. If you don’t like the way your property has been portrayed, pick up the phone and remember that they work for you.
This seems pretty obvious. Yes, it will cost you more to pay for these repairs as a reduction in price or as a concession at closing than it will to fix them up front. And pay for them you will, as most real estate attorneys advise against having the Seller make repairs prior to closing, as there is no legal recourse for a poorly or inadequately done job. You can end up in court to determine if the job was done adequately, or you can withdraw your offer, which can also land you in court. So money back at closing is the most likely scenario, and most buyers will shoot high.
But more importantly, a house in poor repair makes a terrible first impression and creates more questions for prospective buyers. When I walk into a house that has lots of “deferred maintenance” issues it makes you wonder what else is wrong with the place. I showed a terrific house last week that was “almost ready” for the market. It was listed for sale, but there was still trim missing around the floorboards and unpainted walls. Where the trim was missing, there was evidence of moisture. Where the walls were unpainted were stains and dirt. It raised many questions about the condition of the property that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The prospective buyers walked away unsatisfied.
Whether it be smelly old carpeting, damaged drywall in the rec room, or warped floors from a long-since repaired leak in the kitchen, making the repairs before you market the property is essential. It may cost you a bit up front but it is better than being “that house with the smelly carpet”. In the truest sense, you can be a house that sells or a house that sells other houses. When your house in deferred condition hits the market, its the property that Realtors will tend to show side by side with properties that have better value. And the house with better perceived value will always sell first.
Clutter and Junk
Realtors are generally used to seeing value in a property no matter the condition. They should walk through and be able to tell you pretty quickly what needs to be taken care of and what does not. When I walk into a house that is full of junk the first thing I ask is what their plans are for their “stuff”. If they tell me that they have no place to put it and that it will be moving with them, the meeting ends pretty quickly.
As impervious as a Realtor may be to it, Buyers have no tolerance for junk. They can’t see around it, through it, or over it. It makes the house look small and crowded, and makes the homeowner look disorganized. It causes the buyer to wonder what kind of homeowner they must be, and transfer their first impression onto everything else about the house – things they can see, and especially the things that they cannot. Frequently the market sets the tone of tolerance for certain aspects of value in a home, but the one constant – in a buyers market or a sellers market – is that cluttered houses are very difficult to sell because home buyers cannot see their dreams though all that stuff. They only see the stuff.
So make this move your big move. Purge the clutter. Get rid of the broken desk chair, the old shutters, the broken lawn mower and the stack of traffic cones your college-age son stole as a frat prank. Have a garage sale. Roll up a dumpster. It time for a fresh start, and the only thing holding you back is the clutter.
Ignoring the Back Yard – There is a reason why most homes sell during the summer. People want to see what the yard and neighborhood are like. This is actually as, if not more important than the indoor space. Especially if the house is small. frequently the outdoor space is what pushes someone in one direction or the other. So when your realtor tells you to “unclutter your house” don’t shove it into the back yard, behind the garage, behind the shed or onto the patio. the piles of crap in your yard don’t look any better there than they did in your house. If you don’t need it, get rid of it. If you do need it, put it in storage. If you’re not sure – you don’t need it.
Hiding issues from a prospective buyer
So, forget that hiding defects about your property is unethical. Forget that failure to disclose material facts about your home is fraudulent. And forget what it may say about you as a persona. The bigger the issue you hide, the more likely it is to be discovered, and selling your home does not release you from liability. More than likely, the bigger the issue you hide, the more likely it is that you will be found liable by a court later on.
Case in point. A few years ago I went to a house to provide a market analysis for a prospective Seller. We went up into the room over the garage where the ceiling had collapsed and water had destroyed the interior room and it’s contents. Mold was evident and a shoddy prior repair job was visible through the wreckage. When the homeowner had purchased the house, the room over the garage had been advertised as “recently finished”. What had actually occurred was that the previous owner had covered up a years-old leaking roof that had destroyed the structural integrity of the ceiling, which he had scabbed back together with 2 x 4’s and covered in fresh drywall and paint. When the leak reappeared and the roof eventually collapsed several years after they purchased the property, the court found the previous owner liable for treble damages – three times the cost of repair. This is a story that I hear over and over again selling real estate in the Mad River Valley. The Attorney General’s office has little tolerance for consumer fraud, and if you think that people won’t take legal action when the biggest investment they will ever make was materially misrepresented, you are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Take the time, spend the money, and remember, when you fill out that Sellers Property Information Report, you are asked to disclose everything you know about the property. And the more things you misrepresent on that report, the more likely you are to see them again, from a witness stand.
Let it be said that we have all fallen victim to this at some point in our lives. It’s the reason I have so much trouble asking for directions when I’m lost; I know where I’m going, for Pete’s sake! It’s a natural human instinct to rely on your base of knowledge, and the more you know about a subject, the more you feel compelled to act upon that compulsion.
But as the song goes, “you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”. If you have taken and educated approach to establishing a listing price for your house (or the same scientific approach to establishing your offer as a buyer), and have followed that process by actually listing your property for the correct price (or presenting a reasonable offer based on that process), you should have the ability to hold out for the right price. But there are many complexities to every real estate transaction, and the price does not exist in a vacuum.
A Seller could be more motivated than a buyer, and in such a case, the buyer can exert pressure on the Seller over small items that are inconsequential in the bigger picture. The same could be true if the Buyer is more motivated than the Seller. An offer could come in that’s a little low but the terms may be ideal for both parties (ie, cash offer, quick closing to a Seller who has already made an offer on another house). The important thing about negotiating is that you must weigh all of the factors and be completely objective. Step back, look at the entire negotiation and establish what your most important end-goal is. Negotiate the things that are most critical, drop the little things and make sure you are not allowing your deal to fly south over the smallest item on the list.The moment you allow ego (and this is almost always about the price) to get in the way of your true objective (to sell your house), you have begun the process of losing the negotiation.
This story should fall under the category of “duh, I could have told you that”. After all, when I first read it, I thought the very same thing. But then I stepped back and applied the subject matter of this article to the past half-dozen or so real estate transactions I have either brokered or decided not to take on, and had an astonishing revelation: Sellers in particular still fall into these traps no matter how hard you try to steer them in the right direction. 9% of Sellers still think they can do better than a professional and “go it alone” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I have given listing presentations in the past year to Sellers who absolutely refused to list for the price that I felt best represented it’s current market value and in many cases those properties are still on the market. I look through the MLS and I see good properties that look terrible because of bad photographs, clutter, or junk in the yard. I have had clients whose real estate transactions were nearly destroyed by the simplest of ego’s. It happens, it’s natural to want to believe in ourselves, and this is generally a good thing. However, if your goal is to sell your house, it’s time to stop following the pattern of those who have failed before you and take a fresh approach. You might just learn that selling your house is not all that difficult if you can simply avoid the 8 things you are most likely to do wrong before you even start.