Given everything they knew about the lackluster housing market, Meghann and Cort Battles didn't expect much when they listed their four-bedroom home in Centennial, a Denver suburb, for sale in January. So they were taken aback by the onslaught of interest.
Meghann, at home on maternity leave with their two sons, juggled 32 showings in the first month. "It's so exhausting trying to find somewhere to go for an hour two or three times a day," she says. The Battles even installed a special front-door handle to text them when buyers enter and exit so that they can return as soon as possible. "It's just crazy," she says.
Wait, isn't the real estate market still supposed to stink after five straight years of falling prices?
Turns out that while analysts debate when the market will hit bottom, for a surprising number of cities the turnaround has already begun. In December, prices rose in 109 of the 384 metro areas tracked by the data firm CoreLogic. Scrub out foreclosures, and that figure climbs to 169.
If you think that recovery means a return to the boom's double-digit price increases, forget about it. "The market won't suddenly snap back," warns CoreLogic economist Sam Khater, who has studied past housing busts.
And for harder-hit areas such as central Florida and the Rustbelt, improving may simply mean things are less bad than they were two years ago.
No matter where you live, though -- or where you want to live next -- the strategies you employ to sell your home must change to reflect the realities of what's now a healing market.
1. The higher your price, the more patient you must be.
Cheaper homes are affordable to more buyers and appealing to investors, so recoveries usually start there. Two years ago Denver properties above $210,000 were still falling. At the end of 2011 it was homes above $315,000. Also, jumbo mortgages that aren't government-guaranteed -- loans above $417,000 and up to $625,500 in high-cost areas like New York -- not only charge higher rates, they come with tougher underwriting standards, further slowing things down.
2. Screen your buyers.
Working only with buyers pre-approved for a sufficient mortgage has long been standard advice. But with more offers rolling in, a good agent will call loan officers for more information. There's an incentive for borrowers to grant their loan officer permission to talk. "If I'm going to speak with a listing agent to advocate on my borrower's behalf, I clear it with the borrower first," says mortgage consultant Kym Poladsky. "Most borrowers who are competing want you to help get their offer accepted."
3. Strike the right balance on pricing.
While you don't have to placate low-ballers anymore, you can't shoot for the moon either.
Adele Work and Jennifer Caldwell can attest to that. The couple have lived in their 1910 home in the desirable Washington Park neighborhood near downtown Denver for the past 12 years. They weren't thinking of selling their place, until they happened upon a farm in northern Colorado last August while visiting their son in college.
They wound up buying that property and put their Washington Park "baby" on the market in October for $734,999 -- even though their agent lobbied for a lower price. Sure enough, the buyers' feedback started to come in: "Love the house, but slightly overpriced." So they cut the price tag to $714,000. In February they dropped it again, to $699,000. "If we had priced our house lower to begin with we maybe would have sold it before the end of the year," Caldwell says. Adds Work: "We've let our heart lead us a bit."
4. Get it right the first time.
Set a realistic price from the get-go so your house doesn't look like a throwback to lousy price-slashing times. To do that, think like an appraiser. Analyze comparable sales for price-per-square-foot and see how long competing homes have been on the market.
Scouting active listings is also crucial, says appraiser Matthew George. "You have to know what you're competing against," he says. Arm yourself with a simplified evaluation of your home, called a summary or restricted-use appraisal, before listing ($150 to $200). To find professionals in your area, go to appraisalinstitute.org.
5. If you think you erred in pricing, act quickly and decisively.
Are you getting lots of showings but still no offers after 30 days on the market? Cut the price by at least $10,000, says Justin Knoll, chairman of the Denver Realtors organization. At that point, you can hold firm on price and try to negotiate offers up.
6. Let your home's value dictate the price.
This advice may seem self-evident, but owners may have lost sight of it during the bust. On the one hand, some sellers clung to the false hope of a return to boom prices, so they set prices unrealistically high. Others may have gone too far the other way -- by setting the price on their higher-end home below jumbo loan levels simply to draw more interest. In an improving market, that type of thinking isn't really necessary.
7. Understand that you're no long competing with gutted foreclosures.
Buyers are tired of looking at worn-down, neglected, distressed properties and often don't have much extra money to do a lot of fixing up. "Clients tell me all the time, 'I'll spend a little more for something that's ready to move into,' " says Knoll. "Sellers need to take advantage of that."
8. Take care of structural and cosmetic necessities -- but not much more.
In lean times, forking over $50,000 on a new kitchen may have seemed like a necessary move to stand out. That's probably the wrong thing to do now, says George, the appraiser. Instead, stick with basics like paint and flooring. And fix things that will come up in inspection. For instance, Kathy and Bruce Frank, of Golden, Colo., recently spent $1,600 to repair a sunken driveway before they put their house on the market.
In their 28 years there, the Franks -- she's a retired elementary school principal; he works at the University of Colorado -- have done a little of this and a lot of that. "Finished the basement, popped the top on the garage and added a master suite, new hardwood floors, moved the laundry room to the top floor, new roof," she says.
When the empty nesters listed their home, they focused on small stuff, like decluttering and packing up their personal stuff. They also brought in a stager to set the kitchen and dining room tables. The Franks' agent, Buss, says the house is shipshape but admits it reflects the longtime owners' tastes. "Blue," he says. "The house is very blue."
9. Respond quickly to feedback.
If an issue arises over and over in buyers' reactions, it needs to be addressed immediately. Buss, for instance, planned on giving the Franks 10 days or 10 showings. If buyers complained about the blue, he was going to have them paint. It turned out not to be necessary. Just three days after listing, the Franks had a full-price offer: $375,000. They're under contract.
Things aren't moving quite as fast back in Centennial, where Meghann Battles sits in her car, e-mailing on her iPad and playing the waiting game. Meghann is waiting for lots of things -- for her 32nd showing to end, for would-be buyers to realize how few homes are for sale in the neighborhood, and for families hoping to move in the summer to start searching. As husband Cort reminds her, though, "It takes only one showing for it not to be a waste of time."
Rebounding Real Estate Markets: Top 10 Turnaround Towns
It's Safe to Sell Your Home Again
Median List Price Appreciation: 17.79 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -16.18 percent
Inventory Change: -29.25 percent
Home Price: $2.999 million
Sq. Ft.: 5,123
After slipping out of Realtor.com's top 10 rankings for the third quarter of last year, Punta Gorda has reclaimed status as a town in the vanguard of real estate recovery. Home prices are reportedly just beginning to trend upward. But they still have a long way to go: home prices in town are 56.2 percent lower than they were in 2006, at the peak of the housing boom.
Median List Price Appreciation: 9.09 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -28.89 percent
Inventory Change: -35.28 percent
At 11 percent, the Lakeland-Winter area has the highest rate of unemployment on Realtor.com's top 10. But the real estate market seems to be another story. Realtor.com says that the area was the fourth-most-searched spot by users of their listing service. Distressed home sales have fallen significantly from last year as well.
Home Price: $1.3 million
Sq. Ft.: 7,813
The local market may be on the road to recovery, but distressed home sales still are hindering the market. This French mansion is selling by way of short sale.
Median List Price Appreciation: 7.84 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -35.71 percent
Inventory Change: -41.63 percent
Home Price: $5 million
Sq. Ft.: 8,700
Sale prices in this sultry town have risen 18 percent year-over-year, as of November, quite an encouraging sign for the local market. Meanwhile, unemployment is shrinking. The rate fell to 9.4 percent in November.
This Mediterranean may have just seen its price slashed, but with a $5 million ask, it'll still cost you a pretty penny.
Median List Price Appreciation: 13.38 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -13.64 percent
Inventory Change: -35.94 percent
Home Price: $19.9 million
Sq. Ft.: 8,226
Naples finds its way onto Realtor.com's list for the first time this quarter, thanks, in part, to its housing market's 13.64 percent decline in median age inventory and 13.38 increase in median list price.
Naples offers its fair share of uber-luxury homes. This waterfront mansion, at nearly $20 million, costs $2,419 per square foot.
Pictured here is a dining room of the home (we're guessing there's probably another one considering the place is 8,000 square feet). The elaborately decorated room features what appears to be a flying saucer. Maybe it can beam up the filet mignon.
Median List Price Appreciation: 13.77 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -23.42 percent
Inventory Change: -39.66 percent
Home Price: $1.5 million
Sq. Ft.: 4,875
A drop in foreclosures in this city shrank its year-over-year for-sale inventory by a whopping 40 percent as of last year's fourth quarter. The city also enjoys the benefit of an unemployment rate that is lower than the national average.
Median List Price Appreciation: 10.78 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -26.57 percent
Inventory Change: -31.01 percent
Home Price: $12.5 million
Sq. Ft.: 7,194
In Sarasota, home sales jumped 17 percent last year while median list prices defied the national downward price decline by ticking up 2 percent. Realtor.com goes so far as to suggest that the market may have graduated to "seller's market" status, unthinkable in most housing markets across the country.
Thrust out into the Gulf of Mexico, this jaw-dropping manse practically commands its own square-shaped peninsula. But apparently personal peninsulas don't come cheap in Sarasota: This property is listed to the tune of $12.5 million.
Pictured here is the home's covered dock that parks at least two boats. Inside the home you'll find an exercise room, library and attached "oversized" verandas. Other outdoor amenities include an expansive pool and shuffleboard courts.
Median List Price Appreciation: 31.27 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -17.60 percent
Inventory Change: -35.31 percent
Price: $8.7 million
Sq. Ft.: 13,723
The Fort Myers-Cape Coral area continues to chug along the path to recovery with its median sales price zooming upward by 20 percent last year. But there's more to brag about: The area experienced the highest year-over-year increase in median list price for the fourth quarter -- 31.27 percent.
Median List Price Appreciation: 8.22 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -36.52 percent
Inventory Change: -44.02 percent
Home Price: $3.99 million
Sq. Ft.: 8,676
Year-over-year inventory plummeted by 44 percent in Orlando in the fourth quarter of last year, while list prices rose 8.22 percent. Both movements point toward a market that is truly beginning to right itself.
Fit for the big-swinging, cigar-smoking mogul, this luxury home, which recently had its price cut, puts you close to the links.
Median List Price Appreciation: 15.38 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -27.47 percent
Inventory Change: -48.10 percent
Home Price: $5.995 million
Sq. Ft.: 11,039
An area that had its housing market severely bruised by the foreclosure crisis, the Phoenix-Mesa area is mounting a recovery in a big way. While residents continue to file for foreclosure at a rate above the national average, the glut of cheap homes idling on the market has lured bargain-hunters. The area's relatively low unemployment rate of 7.7 percent also will work in its housing market's favor.
Median List Price Appreciation: 28.57 percent
Median Age of Inventory: -30.89 percent
Inventory Change: -51.44 percent
Home Price: $6 million
Sq. Ft.: 3,870
Buy in the city where the heat is on -- all night on the beach 'cause the housing slump's gone! Welcome to Miami (beinvenido a Miami)!
Miami leads the pack of cities building toward a recovery. Existing home sales in the Miami area leaped 51 percent in the third quarter compared to a year ago. Meanwhile, inventory shrank by half. Realtor.com suggests that much of the improvement is attributable to strong foreign activity in the market.
This luxury apartment may soon be the trophy home of some foreign magnate. According to Realtor.com, in May of last year, international buyers purchased about 60 percent of existing houses and condos and 90 percent of the newly built homes in Miami.