Cover story: Best way to sell your house? Stay out of the way

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The location, the time of year, the economy — these are just some of the factors that can impede the sale of a property. But talk to Realtors, and they say one of the biggest impediments to successful sales often is the homeowners themselves — particularly the ones who are trying the most to be helpful.

“The number one thing that sellers can do to really torpedo a sale is following the buyer and agent around the house and trying to be helpful by giving a running commentary on each room,” said Dana Scanlon, a Realtor with Keller Williams Capital Properties in Bethesda, explaining that they say things like: “This is where my husband hung the wallpaper.”

“Of course, the buyer thinks it’s ghastly and has to come out.”

A hovering homeowner makes it difficult for potential buyers to talk freely about how they would live in the house or changes they would make, Ms. Scanlon said.

“Anyone would be loath to talk about gutting the kitchen where the homeowner has just announced she spent 25 years baking cookies,” she said. “You need to let the house speak to the buyers and let them think about how they would fit in that house.”

Other Realtors agreed, pointing out that overly helpful homeowners can give off a sense of desperation and raise suspicions among buyers. Virginia Cheezum, an associate broker with Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax, said the homeowners who talk about every nook and cranny come off as trying to “sell” the house.

“Any favorable impression the buyer may have had can be diminished by instead having to wonder why he is getting the ‘hard sell,’ ” she said. “Sellers think they are offering helpful information, but what happens all too often is they say something inadvertently that kills the deal for the buyers.”

Elley Kott, a member of the board of directors with the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors and a Realtor with Long & Foster in Bethesda, said it’s not uncommon for homeowners to gossip about the neighbors — another no-no.

“I was showing a house, and the homeowner said, ‘The dogs next door bark all the time,’ and I thought, ‘Great — I’m going to have to sell this house to a deaf person,’ but in the end, that’s exactly what happened.”

Ann McClure, a Realtor with McEnearney Associates Inc. in McLean, remembered showing a property during a drought.

“It hadn’t rained in nearly a month, but we were walking in the backyard, and the owner was off from work and lingering close by,” she said. “We all noticed that the ground was wet and our feet were sinking into the ground.

“I wondered why, and he volunteered, ‘Oh yeah, that used to be an in-ground pool, and we didn’t want it, so we filled it with old car parts, trash and fill dirt.’ There’s a proper way to get rid of a pool, and creating a dump and a cesspool is not that way.”

While the Realtors agreed it’s best if homeowners make themselves scarce during showings and open houses, they acknowledged there are circumstances in which it’s hard for the homeowners to leave.

“If you have a homeowner for whatever reason who is not very mobile — even a stay-at-home mom with a baby and it’s pouring outside — open the door and say, ‘Take your time, I’ll be here if you have any questions,’ ” Ms. Scanlon said, adding that at that point, it’s best for the seller to be as unobtrusive as possible and remain out of earshot of any conversations.

“When the client goes upstairs, you stay on the main level; when the client is on the main level, you go upstairs. You keep your kids and yourself out of the buyer’s way.”

Ms. Scanlon remembered one homeowner who ate lunch in his condo during an open house.

“That was terrible — it made the potential buyers feel as if they were intruding,” she said.

It’s an equally good idea to be out of the picture during home inspections, Ms. Cheezum noted.

“This is a time when the buyer wants to get to know the home, and having the sellers there makes the inspection awkward,” she said. “I had a home inspection last week, and I had to ask the sellers to leave the kitchen so we could inspect that room. The homebuyer can become resentful, and this may be reflected in what they ask for in the home inspection addendum.”

Eddie Berenbaum, a broker-owner at Century 21 Redwood Realty in Arlington, said he also advises his clients to vacate the house for showings and inspections.

“You want to limit the communication because it’s so easy for misunderstandings to happen,” he said. “The homeowners may say to the purchasers: ‘We’ve taken impeccable care of the house — we’ll fix any problem that arises.’

“That may seem like an innocuous comment,” he said, “but it can come back to haunt them because on moving day, the master bed is moved out and it’s left some indentations on the hardwood floors, and now the purchasers want to hold them to their promise and want that entire floor replaced.”

If the homeowners must be present for a showing or inspection, Mr. Berenbaum said they should not be available for questions.

“Real estate agents, Realtors, brokers — that’s our job to answer questions and be the buffer between the two sides,” he said, adding that buying and selling a house is an emotional process. “It’s easy for both sides to get excited and nervous. If the owners appear to be overly excited, that may come off as being desperate to the purchaser. If the purchaser seems overly excited about the house, that’s a bad way to start negotiations.”

Ms. Scanlon agreed that it’s best to remain neutral.

“If you do answer questions, be unemotional and keep it short and to the point,” she said.

Ms. Kott added that it’s helpful to have fact sheets and disclosure documents at the ready.

“How old is the roof? How old is the furnace?” she said. “If the seller can just hand over the paperwork, that stops a lot of the questions.”

Ms. Kott pointed out that the most common question potential buyers ask is: Why are you moving? Here, she said, it’s important to work with the Realtor to finesse the best way to answer that question, especially if it’s for less-than-positive reasons.

“You don’t want the homeowners to stand there like deer in the headlights,” she said. “In the case of a divorce, you could say something like: ‘We’re going our separate ways, but it’s also a good time for us to sell the house.’ “

Even if the move is for positive reasons and the homeowners have nothing but happy memories, Ms. Scanlon said it’s still best to be reserved during showings and inspections.

“We all have a lot of history in our homes, but save the warm, fuzzy stuff about the karma of the house until settlement,” she said. “Then it’s fine to say things like: ‘We raised our children here’ or ‘Wait until you meet the neighbors — they have children the same age as yours. Those types of conversations are best once the house is under contract.”

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