Competitive pricing can set your place apart from the pack
If you're trying to sell a home in the current overstocked real-estate market, you already know that the days of white-hot bidding wars and quick-flipped condos are long gone. The National Association of Realtors says that 2008 home sales will be the lowest since 2002. And early numbers are bearing that out. Nationwide, home sales are down 24 percent from last year, while home prices have dropped 8.2 percent. If that weren't worrisome enough, the U.S. housing inventory remains bloated and the subprime mortgage crisis has made it tougher for buyers to secure loans.
To make a deal in this market, experts say, sellers need to set the right price and hone their negotiating skills. "Pricing is the single most important thing to get right," says Laura B. Kopple, a real-estate broker in Venice, Fla. "There are too many similar properties out there, so you need aggressive pricing, including incentives. If a home is priced where it should be and it's appealing, it's only a matter of time before it sells."
How can you make your home stand out from all the others on the market? Real-estate specialists offer the following tips:
Pick the right broker. Look for local agents who are listing, marketing, and selling in your community even if the market is slow. Ask several of them to make a "listing presentation" to discuss your home's value, justify their numbers, and how they would market your property.
Peter G. Miller, a syndicated real-estate columnist and creator of OurBroker.com, suggests that you visit open houses held by the brokers you're considering to see how they handle a listing. Did the broker greet people? Was the home shown to its best advantage? (This includes details like removing pets. Miller recalls one open house where the owner's roaming dog with "more teeth than a zipper" kept potential buyers from inspecting the backyard.)
Once you decide on a broker, you have three types of listing options. In an open listing, you reserve the right to sell the home yourself and not pay a commission, but you also allow one or more brokers to offer the property. With an exclusive-agency listing, you have one broker but reserve the right to sell the property yourself. An exclusive-right-to-sell listing gives only one broker the right to represent you during the listing term and guarantees the broker a commission. Most Multiple Listing Services will post exclusive-agency and exclusive-right-to-sell listings.
Understand the real marketplace. To negotiate effectively, you need to know up-to-the-minute sale prices -- not just what your neighbor's house sold for last year -- and the deal-making behind them. For example, two homes may each have sold for $400,000, but if one owner gave a 3 percent credit for deck repair and a new furnace, that's a $12,000 reduction. Your agent should be knowledgeable about the details of sales in your area and be nimble enough to revise the marketing plan for your home to reflect changing conditions.
"People need to price themselves under the market because the competition is so stiff," says Allyson Bernard, the owner of Real Estate Professionals of Connecticut. Tighter credit is also having an impact. "A buyer for one of my listings had pre-approved financing that got yanked because the guidelines changed," she says. The change meant she had to sell her own home before qualifying. "She dropped the price of her residence, which was already aggressively priced at just under $200,000, another $30,000," Bernard says. "She was prepared to go down another $15,000 when she got an offer."
Sweeten the deal. Sellers are reportedly offering some unusual sales incentives -- plasma TVs, cars, boat slips, vacations, and golf carts -- but cash may still be king. "I think dollars carry a lot more weight than a free TV," says Kopple. For example, some sellers have agreed to pay condo maintenance fees for the buyer. "If six similar condos are on the market, and a seller offers to pay the first quarter's maintenance fees -- which run from $225 to $250 a month in this area -- that $750 can help make a deal," she says. Other ideas include covering moving expenses or a month's mortgage payment.
In a slow market, offering to pay a "seller contribution" toward the buyer's closing costs may make more sense than lowering the sales price. The closing costs include such items as the appraisal fee and title search, points to reduce the mortgage, and attorney and recording fees. "If the seller can give a contribution, it's in many cases going to be smaller than a price reduction on the home but more appealing to buyers who need cash to close," Miller says. Individual mortgage programs often allow seller contributions ranging from 3 to 6 percent. Borrowers need to check with lenders to see what's allowed.
Offer a warranty against defects. A home warranty provides protection for mechanical systems and certain appliances against unexpected repairs in the first year. "We use them quite a bit," says Kopple. "If plumbing or kitchen appliances are on their last legs, I recommend the seller replace them and then get warranties. A lot of warranties will cover items while a property is listed and then convert to the buyer." The cost ranges from $250 to around $400, depending on coverage. Companies that sell warranties include American Home Shield and First American Home Buyers Protection Corp.
Be flexible on the deposit. To "bind" a deal, the buyer should put down a deposit (separate from the down payment), which varies widely depending on the local market. You'd like the biggest deposit you can get, but in a slow market you may have to settle for less. "If the buyer is pre-approved for a loan and has a strong interest in the property, and no better offer is on the horizon, reducing the deposit can help bring in the buyer," Miller says.
Curb your enthusiasm. Walk down your street, then walk back to your home and try to see what other people see. Tend to any overgrown landscaping, and make sure shrubs are nicely trimmed. "When people look for a house, curb appeal is the most important thing, bar none," says Bernard. "People are already forming an opinion when you drive them up to the curb. If the outside looks overgrown, stark, and hard, I've had people say, ?I don't even want to get out of the car.'"
Use staging to enhance the home's appeal. A professional home stager can make over your home to de-emphasize your personal taste and become more visually appealing to a broader range of buyers. Pros say the key is to clear out clutter and clean, clean, clean. "If you can smell it, you can't sell it," says Barb Schwarz, a real-estate broker and author of "Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House for More Money" (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).
Staging can extend from rearranging your furniture to preparing an entire house for sale with rented furniture and accessories. A two-hour consultation with written recommendations for do-it-yourselfers costs around $300. But a full staging of a large home could range from $500 to $5,000, notes Schwarz. Costs average around $1,800 in the Midwest, $2,800 on the West Coast, and $3,800 on the East Coast. Those fees are paid up front to professional stagers, but many real-estate agents include some staging as part of the services they offer that are covered by their commission.
"It's difficult for people to change a home so it's functional for them, but arrange it so buyers can imagine themselves in it," says Bernard, who stages homes for her clients. "I had a house listed that had been on the market about three months. The owners had a four-piece sectional in a living room, which was also the entrance to the house. I took apart the sectional and just used two pieces, and stored the other two. It completely changed the room and made it feel twice as big. The house had a deposit within three weeks."
Be ready to negotiate. Buyers are likely to be demanding in today's market, so be prepared for hardball negotiating. Some brokers advise that you remove anything you absolutely can't part with before you show the house. "A mirror on the wall almost broke one deal, and things got a little testy for a while," Kopple recalls. The buyer wanted it because it fit the spot; the seller didn't want to leave it because of its sentimental value. The seller finally agreed to sell the mirror to the new owners.
Ellen Murphy of Prudential Rand Realty in Nyack, N.Y., tells of a buyer who fell in love with both the home and the owner's cat. She requested the cat -- and got it.
Monitor and update your MLS listing. If it's April, you don't want the photo of your house on the Multiple Listing Service displaying a snowman on the lawn. An out-of-season picture is a dead giveaway that your home has been on the market for awhile. And with many buyers doing their first "look-see" on the Internet, the quality of the photos is paramount, too. "If you have something that sets your property apart -- French doors in the living room or a wonderful view -- highlight that in a photo," notes Murphy. "Make sure that any unique qualities are emphasized in the write-up, which may not always be apparent, even to a broker." She recalls one co-op owner who had invested in extra "bin space" in her building, where storage was at a premium. The storage bonus helped sell her apartment quickly.
And proofreading the description of your home for the MLS and elsewhere is always a good idea. "I saw a listing recently for a house with a ?coy pond' in the back yard," Murphy says. "That must have left buyers scratching their heads."
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