Six months ago my family and I moved from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine. YES I KNOW I’VE BEATEN THIS HORSE TO DEATH ALREADY. Bear with me. Although we wanted to buy a new house right away, we had to sell our place in Philly first. So for many months we were living double lives. I’m not talking cloak & dagger. I’m talking bank rolling two properties. As in paying mortgage AND rent, dual sets of utility bills, and more.
To say this was financially draining would be putting it mildly. My husband & I needed to sell our house – and fast. In order to speed things along, we thought about hiring a real estate agent. We were, after all, living 400 miles away from our home, making showings a challenge. Our house was sitting virtually empty, without the furniture most people expect and some indeed must see. A professional might mean the difference between a sale or no sale. He/she could find buyers, schedule walk-thrus, handle paperwork, and explain why the hell we weren’t there. In essence, do it ALL for us.
But real estate agents don’t come cheap. 3% commission is standard. On a $389K house, that’s over $11,500. And in Pennsylvania, the seller has to pay both agents at the time of sale. Both making 3%. So that’s 6% of the sales price or over $23,000 grand we could kiss goodbye. IF AGENTS WERE INVOLVED. Hmmm.
All that money.. Money we could be putting towards a new house. Money WE HAD WORKED DAMN HARD FOR!!! – scraping wallpaper, painting, sanding, breaking our backs lugging crap in and out, YOU CATCH MY DRIFT. As we were already cash-strapped and smarting from the burden, we decided an agent would indeed be helpful, but was not mandatory. We had, after all, done this before…
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When we bought the West Philly palatial estate 8 years ago, we purchased it not through an agent, or from a real estate firm, but — wait for it — DIRECTLY FROM THE FORMER OWNER. That’s right – we drove by and saw one of those 50 cent Home Depot signs in the window reading FOR SALE. We called the phone number. We went in, we saw the house, and we made an offer. Bada-bing. Our first house purchase and nary an agent involved, on either side. Now, I can hear you asking, what about the process?? Well, friends. I confess. John & I didn’t know bupkis about the process. We were young. We were inexperienced. We didn’t know what to expect, and that’s a good thing. A great thing – really, because we were dumb enough not to have any preconceptions. We didn’t think ourselves OUT of it. We didn’t say OoooHhhh NoooOOOOo, this is Soooo scary. What are we doing?? We didn’t know this wasn’t how house sales normally happen. And lest I forget to mention, we were damn lucky too. At the time my husband was working for UPENN, with its (at the time) guaranteed mortgage program. So even though we were young & inexperienced, they guided us through the process. We hired a lawyer. We secured a title company. We got insurance and mortgage approval. And we bought our first house.
It was a baptism. Not by water or fire, but by savings. It taught us that we didn’t need an agent to make things happen.
Now, circa 2009. Even though we were living remotely from our house, and were facing perhaps the worst real estate market in decades, and we didn’t even have furnishings to enhance the loveliness or desirability of our home, we WERE NOT DAUNTED. Come hell or high water – my husband & I had invested everything we had in our home and we were determined to reap as much of the reward as possible. We did several things, which I will outline now. Yes, you are welcome.
We did research. Before putting our house on the market, we looked at local real estate websites, as well as Yahoo and Zillow to determine sales in our area. By looking at comparable sales, we were able to pinpoint the asking price for our house w/ a fair degree of accuracy. We also read up on the process. In particular, I found THIS BOOK invaluable. I borrowed it from the library FOR FREE! And although there are dozens of similar books on the market, this one covered everything from A to Z, was thoughtfully and concisely laid-out, not to mention a simple and engaging read. And NO I am not being paid to endorse it (though I should be).
We signed up with For Sale By Owner.com. Although it cost us between $700 and $800 for the “package” we selected, we gained increased exposure through their website, received professional looking signs, as well as all the paperwork necessary for completing the sale. AND WE GOT OUR HOUSE INTO THE MLS!!!! This, my friends, may mean THE DIFFERENCE between a house selling and a house sitting. Only downside? Once our house got into the MLS, we received many calls from agents. Although the ones calling to schedule showings were very welcome, we also received a bevy of calls from agents curious to downright pushy wondering (and/or demanding) to know WHY WE WERE GOING IT ALONE?! and attempting to sell us their services. My advice: Be polite and hold your ground. If necessary: Hang up.
We hired a local lawyer. In our case, Marsha Wolf, Esquire. If you are looking for an excellent real estate lawyer in Philadelphia, I cannot recommend her services enough. Marsha vetted all of the documents involved w/ the transaction, and additionally acted as an intermediary between all parties: us, the buyers agent and the title company. She made our sale as smooth and easy as possible. And while lawyers don’t come cheap, they come a WHOLE lot cheaper than real estate agents (BY MANNNNY THOUSANDS). It was also incredibly reassuring knowing we had our butts covered, since we had a lawyer double-checking everything. AND we had someone we could trust completely to act in our stead. Marsha even went to closing for us – saving us the time & expense (and hassle) of traveling back to Philly w/ our kids in tow and our crazy pets at the kennel / bird sitting village.
We had faith that we could do it ourselves.
Real estate agents want you to believe real estate is rocket science, but it’s not. Much of what a real estate professional does is simply paperwork, or legwork. They turn the wheels for their clients, but they don’t actually sell houses. HOUSES sell houses. Simply put, the price you select, the neighborhood you are in, the features of your home, these are the things that matter. Ultimately, if you price your home right, someone will buy it. Price it and they will come.
The hard part? Being realistic. Your house is valuable to you. More valuable than perhaps anything else in the world. For most people a home is their only asset, and they must get as much money out of it as possible. BUT – and this is a BIG but, no one else sees your house in the same way you do. It may be nice, in your eyes the prettiest thing ever, but to other people.. who knows? And it will never be another person’s HOME until they buy it. AND – don’t forget – no one will buy it if it’s overpriced, especially in this economy. This is why many properties languish on the market for months, even years. A real estate agent may encourage you to drop the price, but they can’t do it for you. The seller sets the price, always. So when you hear people complain about their agents, remember – a seller is equally culpable.
Now that I have offended you, I’ll move on to my next point. Let’s talk about your crap. You see, it’s getting in the way. Not only does it look bad, piling up everywhere in your house, and often, yard. But it’s obscuring the beauty and accessibility of your home. If potential buyers have to be guided through hallway labyrinths of stacked newspapers, discarded books and broken furniture, your house is not likely to sell. If buyers cannot see themselves in your home b/c it is filled to the brim with junk, if they are distracted by your tchotchkes, mezmerized (or conversely, offended) by your artwork, they will walk. Buyers may be speaking of your house for years to come, but not necessarily in A GOOD WAY.
Our friends just put their house on the market. I was truly impressed by the way their agent is handling things. First she walked through – then she had her entire office come through as well. All offering helpful suggestions as to how to improve marketability. Our friends are artists and have a LOT of very serious work – pretty much everywhere. They’ve had to store away much of what makes their house their own, simply to avoid overwhelming potential buyers. You do not want your house to seem too personal, as much as you want it to be upstaged by your stuff. If you are selling it yourself, or even if you are using a less-involved agent, try the following. Before you put your house on the market, walk through with a discerning eye. If something is certain to turn people off, or turn them ON, or in general distract them from the house as a whole – get rid of it. You SHOULD NOT sell it if it’s meaningful, but you should hide it away. If you can’t part with your stuff, rent a storage unit. If you couldn’t care less, then have a yard sale. Or three. Try giving stuff away. Craigslist, thrift shops, freecycle, all terrific. I myself have fought against the dreaded demon of pack-ratism my whole life long. When selling our house, I had an advantage. I was forced to clean house b/c we simply couldn’t take it w/ us. Moving from a 3-story home to a 2-bedroom apartment forced me to make decisions about what was really important. I realized I could give up that massive collection of yogurt containers. I tossed 2 decades worth of school work. And it felt GOOD. When you move you are going to have to haul your stuff anyway. Parsing through it, deciding what to keep and what to toss, it’s healthy. For your back, for your sanity, and for the sake of your sale. Having junk stashed in every nook & cranny will kill your chances of selling fast. And will likely deduct thousands off an offer.
Look around your house. Be HONEST. Does it look good? Are things reasonably clean? DOES IT SMELL LIKE CAT PISS?? All of this matters, folks. First impressions count, big time. What is the first thing people notice when they enter your house? If it’s not something good, do something about it – and if you can, try to improve it. If your house is butt ugly, if the ceiling is falling down, if the exterior is all hanging-off paint and crumbling facade, it may be time to call Vinnie.
But otherwise, do yourself a favor, and BEFORE you try to sell, fix things up. If you have started one or more home improvement projects in the past, FINISH THEM before you try to sell. If you are financially unable to do so, that’s one thing. But otherwise, just get it done. Especially if doesn’t entail vasts sum of money, you can seriously improve your return on investment by doing so. Potential buyers are attracted to homes where things are finished because it means less work for them.
You want buyers envisioning themselves living in your home. You want them mentally sipping coffee on your front porch whist nibbling on croissants. Why? B/c THIS sells houses. People the world over want to appear classy. It needn’t matter that the definition of class varies by person. Everyone, regardless of taste, longs to be admired. And everyone, regardless of taste, knows TRUE CLASS. This is why people hire professionals to stage their homes. If you’re unsure how to decorate, if you don’t know color scheme or interest from a hole in the wall, then get help. Ask a friend, beg a relative, or pay someone trustworthy. Buyers flock to homes that showcase wealth and taste, whatever that may be.
Now that I am done THE LONGEST POST OF MY BLOGGING CAREER. may I wish you all the best in selling your home! Whether you decide to go w/ an agent, or go it alone – it is never an easy task, and I hope in some small measure I have helped you in the process. Good Luck and God Speed!