- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2000

This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article will appear next week.

Of course it is tempting to think you can do without a real estate agent in today's economy. After all, millions of homes are available for sale on the Internet, right? And you're pretty savvy when it comes to negotiating. Why can't you handle this yourself? Besides, paying a Realtor thousands of dollars to help you sell your home just seems like pouring money down the drain.
It isn't quite that easy. Nancy and Mark Hulkower of Falls Church tried to go it alone recently and quickly learned they needed help.
"We have friends who sold their homes by themselves very successfully," Mrs. Hulkower says. "So we thought we'd try it because the market was hot. Once we realized it wasn't selling in a day or two like we were told it would, we began to reconsider."
Many homeowners don't realize just how much work a Realtor does. A great way to learn that lesson is to try selling solo.
"It's a lot more work when you sell on your own," Mrs. Hulkower says. "You have to keep the house clean all the time, you have to show it yourself, and you have to do all the paperwork yourself."
After their house had been on the market two months and had taken one price drop, the Hulkowers listed it with an agent. Before long, it sold.
If you want to sell your home in the shortest time, taking the fewest antacids and pain relievers, you need an agent on your side. A professional Realtor will coach you through the process, be your advocate in negotiations, advise you how to prepare your home for sale and, finally, provide access to the Multiple Listing Service, or MLS. Having your home sale posted there, known as a "listing," may be the most powerful real-estate sales tool in existence.
The Multiple Listing Service is just what it sounds like a collection of thousands of listings in one big database. The service lets Realtors who are helping buyers see what's available throughout a region, sorted by price range, house type, number of bedrooms and so on.
The Washington-Baltimore area MLS is managed by Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, or MRIS. It is the result of a recent merger of the area's county-level MLS systems into one mammoth database managed from a central location in Montgomery County.
The power of the MRIS system is the biggest argument against selling your home yourself, according to veteran Realtor David Rathgeber of Century 21, Laughlin in McLean.
"How can a sign in your yard and some ads in the newspaper compare with thousands of Realtors seeing your listing in that database?" Mr. Rathgeber asks. "Expecting buyers to find your house by driving around looking at signs is simply unrealistic, especially in today's market."
Today's market is very hot, and it favors sellers because of the low number of listings and the large number of sales each month. Many "For Sale By Owner" (FSBO) homes will sell, but for how much and after how long? The advantage of the MRIS is exposure.
"Once our home was on the MLS, we knew we would get a fair price for it," Mrs. Hulkower says. "We just couldn't get that kind of exposure when we were selling by ourselves."
By letting a large number of people know about your home, you are more likely to get a good price for the home in a reasonable amount of time. You also will have peace of mind knowing that the sales price represents the home's fair market value.
"For those lucky folks who sell their FSBO in a reasonable amount of time," Mr. Rathgeber asks, "How will they know if they got a good price? How could they know unless the home has been exposed to the largest number of buyers possible?"
If you try selling on your own and you find a buyer who will pay what you are asking, will you know how to handle the rest of the process?
"I recently took a buyer to see a FSBO," says Kathryn Montalbano of McEnearney Associates in Arlington. "When my buyer expressed interest in the home, the seller told me she had two offers. I was pretty impressed until she told me that the offers weren't for full price. No Realtor would ever show her hand like that. It's just not good negotiating, but she didn't know any better."
Maybe you are thinking you can negotiate with the best of them. Perhaps you are in sales and deal with such situations every day. But how about the intricacies of real-estate law?
Home-sales contracts have many idiosyncrasies and potential pitfalls that Realtors are trained to understand.
"Another buyer of mine found an FSBO she liked," Ms. Montalbano says. "When I presented her written offer to [the seller], he didn't understand it. So I went over it with him paragraph by paragraph."
Ms. Montalbano was generous with her time, because she was doing the job the seller's listing agent should have done, if he had hired one. This is one reason some buyer's agents steer their clients away from FSBOs they know they will have to do 100 percent of the work for only half of the commission.
Unfortunately, a careful explanation of the sales contract still didn't prevent problems in this case.
"He defaulted on the contract by refusing to make Paragraph 3-required repairs," Ms. Montalbano says.
Paragraph 3 of the standard home-sale contract requires that all systems be in normal working order at settlement. Those systems include plumbing, heating, gas, electricity and the like.
"An active water leak certainly counts as a required repair," Ms. Montalbano says. "But he said, 'This is a great house, I'm not doing anything.' That alone put him in default of the contract."
The house had other problems. The roof had less than one year of life left, making the home unacceptable to a lender. There also was structural damage in an area where the wood had rotted completely through an outside wall.
A listing agent never would have allowed the seller to put such a home on the market and thus would have saved everyone a lot of time and frustration. In the end, Ms. Montalbano's client bought a different house, and the would-be seller hired a Realtor to list his home.
He even told Ms. Montalbano after it was all over, "I learned one thing; you Realtors really earn your money."

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