- - Thursday, October 13, 2011

When real estate agent Trudy Severa works with a seller, she’s waiting for her client to utter a sentence that can take a long time to say and can be even harder for the seller to realize:

“It doesn’t feel like it’s my house anymore.”

When she hears those words, Ms. Severa knows the homeowner has turned a corner.

“My response is, ‘Good, it shouldn’t,’ ” said Ms. Severa, who is with Long & Foster’s Reston office. “You can’t be so attached to your home that you won’t make the changes you need to in order to sell.”

Selling your home, whether in good times or bad, can be among the harder things you will have to do. It can be an especially trying process for first-time sellers, who may have purchased their first homes during the peak of the housing boom and are finding that the town home they bought for $400,000 a few years ago is worth only about $250,000. Meanwhile, owners who have been in their existing homes for years may have little expertise in navigating the sometimes murky waters of today’s sales contracts and buyer expectations.

Just thinking about selling a home can be daunting. Actually doing it in today’s tough market often is overwhelming. But don’t despair. Today’s real estate professionals have plenty of advice on how to make the process go more smoothly.

  • Choose the right agent. Your agent is your expert on both the state of the market and the state of your home, so you’ll want to find one you can trust to set the right price to get the job done.

“Look for those agents who have done a good job in the last two years,” said Loren Keim, author “How to Sell Your Home in Any Market” and owner-broker at Century 21 Keim in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. “Anyone could have sold houses back in 2006.”

Mr. Keim recommends interviewing two or three agents before settling on the one who’s right for you. And if you can, get an independent appraisal of your home’s value.

“Realtors are likely to give high numbers,” he said. “You don’t want to pick an agent based on the price they tell you - that’s one of the worst mistakes you can make.”

Instead, consider the strength of your agent’s marketing plan, which should include a variety of selling strategies.

“Realtors need to set expectations appropriately,” said Karen Trainor, managing broker at Weichert, Realtors’ Ashburn, Va., office and chairman of the board of directors of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. “They will do a comparative market analysis to determine what kind of buyer will purchase your kind of home and what kind of financing they will bring.”

Expect your agent to communicate with you weekly.

“We really work to keep people informed,” said Jeanne Siracuse, an associate broker with Weichert, Realtors in Dulles. “We’re armed with third-party data, so sellers don’t think we’re just targeting them.”

  • Learn the market. Whenever you bought your current home, it is fairly likely the process was easier for that seller than it will be for you. But markets do differ from place to place; be sure to review the state of your own market with your real estate professional.

Remember, the market works differently these days. Nearly 90 percent of buyers surf the Internet before buying a home, so having lots of photos of both the interior and exterior of your home is key.

“Online marketing is so important,” Ms. Siracuse said. “There are all kinds of online sites that cross-reference or carry listings from particular agencies.”

Most buyers are better prepared than they were in years gone by, expecting seller disclosures, demanding home inspections and being represented by buyer brokers. Sellers who have not sold a home for many years may be taken aback at the size of the sales contract and the various stipulations, which together may run to 30 pages.

“Everything is different now,” Ms. Trainor said.

Forget your assessments, appraisals and even your list price. What your home is worth right now is what the buyer is willing to pay.

If there is no activity on your home after several showings and open houses, you may have a marketing problem or a pricing problem. Ask your Realtor about options available to you if your home does not sell right away. These days, many sellers are offering buyer incentives, in the form of assisting with some of the closing costs, that homeowners would never have dreamed of offering just a few years ago.

“Try to get feedback from showings,” Mr. Keim said. “Find out what potential buyers liked and what they would change in order to sell it. If you hear the same issue over and over, you probably should address it.”

  • Develop a budget. Just about any home can use some primping and pampering in the weeks leading up to being put on the market. How much you can do, though, is predicated on your budget. Work with your Realtor to identify key areas that need improvement, repair or updating. (Your Realtor also may be able to refer you to contractors and other professionals to accomplish some of these tasks.)

“I like to have sellers do everything they can possibly do,” Ms. Trainor said. “The buyer doesn’t always see the big problems right away, but he’ll certainly notice the little ones.”

  • Clean and declutter. It’s another easy-to-say-but-harder-to-do phrase that can have huge payoffs down the road if things actually get done. If you are especially budget conscious, cleaning and decluttering can be two of the cheaper quick fixes there are.

“You want to be sure that the home shows the best it possibly can,” Mr. Keim said. “The buyer will look at about 15 houses before making a decision. Yours has to be the best value, even if they have a better feel for another house.”

Start by cleaning walls, windows, carpets and floors. Be sure to get those hard-to-reach places, like behind beds or along the top of kitchen cabinets. Remember, buyers are primed to look for things you regularly overlook, such as dust bunnies.

“The seller has to get inside the mindset of the buyer,” Ms. Severa said. “The buyer should see the features of the house, not the possessions and accomplishments of the seller.”

Once the cleaning is accomplished, move on to phase two: decluttering. Here is where you dismantle your china closet or model airplane collection, clean out the spare room and get rid of those toiletries cluttering up the bathroom.

“You have to pack up anyway,” Ms. Severa said. “You may as well get started early.”

Decluttering can be tough for many home sellers, real estate professionals say, because so much of what they own is wrapped up in various stages of their lives. It can be difficult to put away family pictures, throw away that old furniture or put fine antiques in storage. But if you want to sell your home, it’s necessary.

“Living in a home and marketing one are two different things,” Ms. Severa said. You really need to take your personality out.”

  • Consider the lighting. This can be an exceptionally quick and inexpensive fix. Replace dated brass or leaded fixtures with newer pieces that can be found at your local home improvement store. Open up windows by getting rid of heavy window treatments or tattered vertical blinds. Some windows show best without any covering, particularly if there’s a view to showcase.

Especially as the days grow short, you want your home to be bright, light and airy. Adding a few standing lamps with opaque shades, for example, can help provide the soft light that helps spell “home” to potential buyers. And a lesson from our Colonial forbearers: An extra mirror or two can help reflect the light you already have.

  • Update and repair. An updated appearance is essential these days. But how you update is, of course, dependent upon your budget and can be as simple as freshening the paint.

“If you want top dollar, it is in your best interest to paint,” Ms. Trainor said. “I’ve never known a seller who hasn’t had to paint, at least the stairwells and other high-traffic areas.”

More money to spend? Consider updating your kitchen cabinets or master bathroom, refacing old and scratched surfaces and replacing fixtures and faucets. At the very least, your home should look good enough that buyers feel they can live with it for a few years before they remodel.

“It really makes a difference,” Mr. Keim said. “It can be the difference between selling and not selling.”

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