The environment for home sales becomes more difficult with each passing month. Some estimates put 11 million mortgages, about 20% of the U.S. total, underwater, meaning that homeowners owe their banks more than the underlying properties are worth. Home repossessions reached more than 100,000 for the first time in September. Rising foreclosure rates continue to further depress housing prices.
The federal government let its tax benefit for homeowners expire in April and has not renewed it since them. The program did boost sales earlier this year. Shoppers must now face a market without the credit in which many home prices continue to fall.
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The clamor over flawed foreclosure paperwork and robo-signers could further chill the housing market. People who might buy have bought a home in foreclosure will now worry about obtaining proper documentation and effective transfer of title.
24/7 Wall St. spoke with experts at real estate research firms Zillow.com and RealtyTrac to find the best way to sell a home. We also interviewed management from the National Association of Realtors, a number of real estate brokers, bank managers and elected officials in affluent communities. What emerged from these conversations and our research is the following: successful home sellers often do the same small number of things correctly. Often, these tactics are the difference between finding a buyer and not.
1. Pick the Best Broker
Many people who decide to sell contact a real estate brokerage with a sterling reputation or go to one that has the largest number of listings. Frequently, when potential sellers call these firms, they are turned over to the first available broker in the office. That person is often not the best representative. As a matter of fact, what is a successful broker doing in the office anyway? There are a small number of brokers in most markets who have a better track record than their peers. Most of them have been brokers for a long time and did not lose their jobs when the housing bubble collapsed.
2. Get an Appraisal
Sellers should obtain an appraisal for their home before they put it on the market. One of the major reasons house sales fall apart is that the bank assesses the home for less than the buyer has agreed to pay. For example, a buyer and seller agree on a price of say $250,000. Then the buyer goes to his bank to get a mortgage. But, the bank appraises the house for $200,000. Now, the buyer has to put up more money. Sellers who get their own appraisals get a realistic idea of what price a bank would value a house at before they enter into a sale. Most appraisers already do some work for banks. An appraisal often tells a seller what a "safe" price is. And an appraisal's average cost is only about $200.
3. Get the Right "Comp"
Sellers must make sure that foreclosures in their area are included in the "comps" the Realtor gives them. Traditionally, a broker will give a seller a list of similar properties in the market and that information is part of what is used to set a price. What brokers do not always do is put the price of any foreclosed properties that are comparable into the calculation. A typical foreclosed home sells for 25% to 30% less than similar inventory in the same area. If sellers don't take that into consideration, their home will not be priced competitively and they put themselves at a disadvantage. Sellers wind up slashing prices after their overvalued properties are on the market for several months without success.
4. Tax Assessment
Low property taxes are critical to finding buyers. Property taxes in most cities, towns and counties have gone up for years as home values appreciated. This revenue is used to run schools and other local services. However, now home values have dropped sharply, and the appraisals by local authorities on which taxes are based are too high. Many cities have a process for homeowners to request lower appraisals, and as a consequence obtain a reduced property tax. Some states even have a board of appeals for homeowners who do not think they were treated fairly. One way for people to get local authorities to cut the tax assessment of their home is to put it on the market at below the appraised price. If the home does not sell for several months, they can present empirical evidence of the lower value. A home assessed for $300,000 that goes on the market for $275,000, but does not sell for a year, is probably not worth $300,000.
5. Conserve Utilities
Turn the lights off! Most buyers ask for utility bills. "Energy wasters" who sell a home will rue the times they forgot to turn off lights, turn down the air conditioner or left the TV on all day. It would be ill-advised to fake the amount of energy being used by simply living in the dark and cutting utility costs to nearly zero. However, careful and prudent use of energy can cut bills by enough so that a buyer does not have sticker shock about what it costs to maintain electricity, gas or oil to run a house.
6. Sell "Green"
Not very many homes are actually built with environmentally friendly material or heated by solar panels or wind. But those that are have a special appeal to the crowd that buys green cars such as the Prius. A seller may have one of only a few "green" homes in their town or city. That may make it highly desirable to many shoppers.
7. Curb Appeal
This item appears on most lists, and many sellers don't bother to take the advice to prune the hedges or clean the gutters. But it is even more complex than that. Walk to the road on which your home is located. Now walk toward the house. What does a buyer see for the first time? Most sellers never bother to look at their homes through a buyer's eyes. Do the shingles need a paint job? Are the shutters looking shoddy? "Love at first sight" is no less rare with homes than with people.
8. Everything Is Negotiable
Negotiate the fee with the broker. The fee paid to a Realtor for selling a home is traditionally 6%. Sellers often believe that they can get that down to 5% or even 4%. But, in a market where brokers are desperate for business, pressing for 3% or even 2% may work. Whatever the savings are, they can materially affect how much a seller can drop the price of his home and still walk away with a profit.
9. Get an Inspection
Sellers should do some of the inspection work and testing before their home goes on the market. Inspectors for buyers are often aggressive when they report what is "wrong" with a home to their clients. For as little as $250, an inspector will go through your house and tell you what the inspector is likely to flag such as a roof leak or old, energy-wasting windows. That gives the seller a chance to fix the problem for less than the buyer may want to lower the price by, or at least know the items that a buyer will use to negotiate down the price.
10. Hire a "Stager"
For as little at $200, you can hire someone who can make your home look better by moving pictures, furniture, lights and addressing problems that may make the home show poorly. These people are cousins to the men and women who "fix" expensive homes before magazines come in to photograph them for stories. "Stagers" have lists of tricks that few Realtors and almost no homeowners know. The "better" your home looks, the more appealing it will be to potential buyers.
11. Fix It First
Sell a house that does not need any work. In a market in which people count every penny and worry about job security, fewer buyers want homes that are "fixer uppers" that require work that could cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to address. These days, a buyer choosing between two homes will most likely take the one that needs the least work. It may cost some money to get your home to the point where a buyer can walk in and do almost no work. However, it may be the difference between selling a home and having it languish on the market.