- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

Inventories are down; prices are up. The housing market is hot. But while many homes are receiving multiple bids, a few others are collecting dust.
"There are some houses sitting on the market, and there are some very good reasons why they're sitting there," says Julia Criss, chairman of the board of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and managing broker of the Arlington office of McEnearney and Associates.
"There are basically three reasons a house doesn't sell in any market," Ms. Criss says. "One reason could be location. Location is a factor that cannot be changed, but it can be compensated for [in price and property condition]," she says.
"A second factor is condition," Ms. Criss says. "In this market there are many buyers out looking, but the buyers in today's market are smart. They know how to trade off the relative value of condition vs. price," she says. If a property is in poor condition or has serious defects and the price ignores this, buyers will refuse to make offers or will make extremely low offers, Ms. Criss says.
The third factor is price, Ms. Criss says. "Pricing a property in this market is an art form," she says. Realtors must constantly look at the market sales and the terms of the contracts to price the sell.
In a hot market, homes still can be overpriced, says Betsy Twigg, associate broker at Long & Foster Arlington. "People think they can ask any price for a home and that they will get it," she says.
"In today's market, if a house in reasonable shape hasn't received an offer in less than a month, it's overpriced," says Frank Blake, a Realtor at Coldwell Banker Realty in Silver Spring. Mr. Blake tells sellers they can set a price, "but the buyer is going to determine the value."
Ms. Criss suggests pricing a house no more than 5 percent higher than what the seller expects. Buyers have access to tax records and comparable sales in their neighborhoods and have counsel from their agent, she notes. Pricing a property "right" has its advantages.
"If a property is priced too high [in this market], it receives lower offers and gets a lower net than if the property is priced in the correct range and receives multiple offers," she points out. If priced right, buyers will come in with a good clean offer, she says, often with an escalation clause. An escalation clause allows the real estate agent to increase the offer a set dollar amount over the highest offer up to a cap.
"You don't see this happening with an overpriced house," Ms. Criss says. In addition, when a house is priced too high, buyers think the sellers will be unrealistic and difficult to work with, she says.
Rather than reduce the price, there is another, temporary, solution. Currently, Ms. Twigg has listed a single-family home in Alexandria that, she says, has very little curb appeal. It's priced at $449,000. Rather than reduce the price, the seller will rent it until it can be sold.
The condition of the home is another variable in the buy or pass equation. Condition starts with curb appeal. It is the No. 1 selling factor, Ms. Criss says.
"If the buyers like the outside, they tend to take that feeling inside with them and are more forgiving," she says. If the house is unattractive on the outside, that attitude also carries with them, Ms. Criss says. This is particularly true with first-time buyers, she notes.
The exterior of a home should be painted, and the front door should be attractive, she says.
Overgrown yards should be trimmed, and barren yards should be lightly landscaped, says Nancy Pearson, a designer in McLean.
Interiors need to be depersonalized, Ms. Criss says. "Put away knickknacks, simplify decorating themes, and arrange furniture so the home feels spacious and is easy to walk through," she says.
"[T]here is a difference between neutral and cold," Ms. Pearson says. The key is what you feel the minute you walk into a house, she says. "It needs to be depersonalized and yet be made welcoming, and that's a very fine line," she adds. "It needs to be a home rather than a house."
Because this is a multicultural area, smells, too, need to be neutralized, Ms. Pearson says. "The family that is presently in the home will not smell their regional cooking [and] seasoning odors," she says. The same goes for smokers and pet odors. She suggests cleaning drapes, carpeting and clothes. Alcohol, religious items, nude pictures and "anything that is a sensitive issue" should be removed, Ms. Pearson says.
"[There should be no] stuffed animals, animal heads, [or] furniture made of animal remnants," she advises. "The cultures are so fiercely proud, but [some things] may be offensive to a person of a different culture looking at the house," Ms. Pearson notes. "So you have to be sensitive to anything that is a delicate issue," she explains.
Fundamentally, the home must be immaculate, and the rooms must be bright and airy, Ms. Pearson says. She suggests opening or removing all heavy drapes that block light. Rather than cloves, cinnamon, or vanilla, which may be too strong or cloying to some prospective buyers, Ms. Pearson suggest using bowls of apples and/or lemons to fill the home with a fresh scent.
Ms. Pearson also suggests keeping bedding fresh and not letting laundry build up in the hamper. "Odors can permeate an entire floor," she says.
While sellers can change the price of their homes and the condition, they cannot change location.
"The only way to compensate for that is with price and condition, Ms. Criss says. She suggests first getting the home in exquisite condition. Sometimes that's enough for a buyer, she says. Other times buyers will be satisfied with a decorator allowance.
Even if the wallpaper is gaudy, if it's clean, the house will probably sell, Mr. Blake says. Some buyers are willing to do cosmetic repairs, although they might ask for a $2,000 or $2,500 decorator allowance at settlement, he notes. This may be less expensive than redecorating and risking that the interior still might not appeal to buyers.
But cracked or peeling paint is a different story. "You've got to do something about that," Mr. Blake says.
If neither improving the condition or giving a decorator allowance works, re-evaluate the price. A realistic price could be up to 10 percent lower, or more, than comparables in the neighborhood, depending on the area and price range, Ms. Criss says.

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