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Cover story: How not to sabotage a timely sale

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While inexperienced homebuyers often share stories of their naive mistakes, home sellers make their share of missteps, too. Some seller errors can be minor and may mean a slower sale or perhaps the loss of a small amount of money, but others can sabotage a sale. Here are some of the biggest mistakes home sellers make and how they can be avoided.

Failing to price the home for market conditions

"The number one, most important task of any seller is to price the home appropriately for the market," says Pat Fales, an associate broker with Re/Max Allegiance in Burke, Va. "A good Realtor can show the seller the black-and-white facts about comparable homes, but a lot of sellers believe their home is better than others on the market."

Sellers who choose to add a cushion to the price to see if they can make more money from the sale often end up with a property sitting on the market too long or selling for a lower price.

"Sellers need to realize they have two or three weeks to control the listing, and then the purchasers are in control," says Kimberly Casey, an associate broker with Washington Fine Properties in the District. "Statistics show that the longer a home is on the market, the lower the percentage of the asking price the seller will earn."

Heather Elias, a Realtor with Century 21 Redwood Realty in Ashburn, Va., says the worst thing a seller can do is list a home for an elevated price.

"Overpriced homes sit on the market," Mrs. Elias says. "When buyers come into a home, they ask me three questions: 'How old is the home?' 'How many square feet does it have?' and 'How long has it been on the market?' Buyers want to know what's wrong with a home that is staying on the market."

Mrs. Elias says sellers need to price their home based on what the market will bear and what a lender will approve based on an appraisal.

"Sellers often start by thinking about how much money they want to earn from the sale rather than current market conditions," she says.

John Burgess, a broker with Realty Executives in Burtonsville, Md., says today's market is extremely price-sensitive.

"Sellers who put their home on the market with a 'Let's see what happens' mentality will end up with slower interest and then will be chasing the curve of the market," Mr. Burgess says. "They will end up selling it for less than if they had priced it right in the first place."

Staying emotionally tied to the home

"Sellers need to treat a home sale as a business transaction," says Harlene Bernstein, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda, Md. "Sellers that stay emotionally attached think their home has a greater value than it does and are less likely to price it right. If they want to sell, they need to price the property at the exact right price so that it sells before it gets stale."

Being inflexible and unwilling to negotiate

Mrs. Fales says sellers sometimes are disappointed by the first offer they receive and refuse to compromise on their price.

"If an offer comes in very low after only a few days on the market, the sellers are sometimes insulted and will not make a reasonable counteroffer," Mrs. Fales says. "In a couple of cases I know of, the buyers never came back, and both of those homes are still on the market months later. They will end up selling eventually, but the sellers have already had to drop the listing price below those original offers."

Flexibility can close a sale even when a good offer is made.

"Sellers need to price their home so that it is the best value compared to other comparable properties," Mr. Burgess says. "They also need to be prepared to negotiate. For example, buyers recently gave a full-price offer to my sellers, but they needed closing-cost assistance. The sellers were able to negotiate an increased sales price but gave back the extra money to the buyers as a closing cost credit."

Not looking at the competition

"I always suggest that sellers look at the competition before they put their home on the market so they know what they will be up against and can price accordingly," Mrs. Elias says. "Every seller thinks their home is the best, so it can be helpful to see the types of amenities other homes offer, such as a deck or a newer kitchen."

Not keeping the home clean

"Most sellers are not prepared for the inconvenience of selling their home," Mr. Burgess says. "I always stress with them upfront that they are not likely to be able to live they way they normally do. But the sellers that keep their home meticulously clean every day that it is on the market will end up selling faster."

Mrs. Elias recommends hiring a professional cleaning service before putting a home on the market and, if needed, before an open house.

Failing to declutter and depersonalize the home

"You hear a lot about staging for a reason," Ms. Casey says. "You have one chance to make a first impression on buyers. It should start with curb appeal. You need to present your home in the best light, with neutral paint colors, all deferred repairs remedied and all clutter and personal effects removed."

Mrs. Fales says sellers can enhance their property value just by getting rid of things, particularly family photographs and children's belongings.

"Buyers don't want to see your stuff; they want to be able to visualize their own stuff in your home," Ms. Bernstein says.

Mrs. Elias suggests that sellers pay for a portable storage container for any seasonal items, such as extra clothing or holiday decorations. The storage container can then deliver those items to the sellers' new home. In the meantime, the closets in their listed home are emptier, and they can get rid of some of the clutter in their rooms.

Making too few or too many home improvements

"I find that a lot of homeowners have either very high expectations for what they need to do before putting their home on the market or really low expectations," Mrs. Elias says. "Some people call me a year or more before they think they will put their place on the market and ask me what they should do to make their home more competitive. Getting professional advice can make a big difference in deciding how much you need to do."

Mrs. Fales says she and other Realtors make recommendations to sellers about making the small repairs and improvements necessary to sell the home, but not all sellers listen.

"Sometimes they won't listen to me, but then I will give them the feedback from other agents and their clients, and they will begin to realize they need to fix up the property," Mrs. Fales says. "It is understandable, since you are dealing with people's homes, that they don't want to hear criticism. But it is our job as agents to help them understand what they need to do."

Some sellers fear the time and expense of making major improvements, but they may be able to make smaller changes and still sell the property.

"Sellers should meet with a Realtor prior to doing work on their home, especially if they think they need to redo their whole kitchen or their baths," Mr. Burgess says. "They might be able to do a light fix-up rather than spending more money than they can get back. A Realtor can figure out the price range for the neighborhood and show you things you can do that will improve the look of your home without going above the other homes in the area."

Mrs. Fales says sellers who don't want to do any work and put their homes on the market "as is" likely will sell their home for a lot less than if they had done some minor things to improve the property's appeal.

Limiting the availability of the property to potential buyers

Some sellers try to control the hours their home is available for viewing, but this can hurt their chances of a sale.

"No one wants to have to make their home available all the time to buyers, but sellers definitely inhibit sales if they don't allow a lockbox to be put on the property," Mrs. Fales says.

Mrs. Elias recommends sellers leave the home when potential buyers are there so the buyers can take their time looking at the property and asking questions of their agent.

"Buyers won't spend as much time in the home if the sellers are there because they feel as if they are intruding," Mrs. Elias says.

Ms. Casey says if sellers make their home too difficult to see, some agents and buyers will simply take it off their list of potential properties.

Choosing the wrong real estate agent

"Realtor fees are similar no matter which agent you choose, so sellers should hire the agent who will work the hardest for them," Ms. Casey says. "Sellers should hire an experienced agent with a respected firm who will market their home to buyers and to other agents. The Realtor should know your neighborhood and be able to advise you on price and the condition of your property."

Listening to the wrong advisers

"Sellers who really listen to their agents, price the home right, improve the condition of their home and make it accessible will sell it faster, so this means the discomfort of living in a home for sale will last a shorter time," Mrs. Fales says.

While some sellers dutifully listen to their Realtor, others take advice from family and friends without knowledge of the local real estate market, which can derail their chances of a sale. Sellers hire professional Realtors to market their homes, so perhaps the worst mistake of all is not to listen to someone with experience in the local real estate market.

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