- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2001

The fast pace of this year's real estate market has made the business of buying and selling homes a little smoother for Realtors and their clients. If one deal falls through, there's usually another buyer waiting.

What happens, though, when things just aren't going smoothly? Do Realtors ever have to walk away from a deal? Can they?

"It actually happens quite a bit," says Jack O'Donohue, president of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. "As prices increased this year, some sellers developed expectations beyond market realities."

It's easy to imagine the typical scenario: A home seller is convinced his home is worth $300,000, but the Realtor tells him it will not sell for more than $270,000. They list it for $300,000, and few offers arrive. The offers they do receive are for $280,000 or less, and the seller will not budge.

"A Realtor cannot keep spending money and time marketing a home that someone won't sell," Mr. O'Donohue says. "My next-door neighbor recently had his house on the market, and in my opinion it was priced too high. It stayed on the market for 90 days, and now the sign is gone."

Ninety days is a long time for a home to sit on the market in Northern Virginia these days. All year, homes have only remained on the market for 20 days to 30 days. Properly priced properties usually sell in a week or two. Many agents will tell you that a home without significant flaws in a popular neighborhood that isn't selling is by definition overpriced.

"Eventually, you have to walk away from a seller who is being unreasonable," Mr. O'Donohue says.

The only hitch is a little thing called a "listing agreement." This contract obliges the agent to do his utmost to sell his client's home. Most listing agreements are for 90 days, after which they may be renewed. If an agent wants out of the contract before the period is up, his office manager may need to get involved.

"A listing agreement is with the agent's company, not the agent itself," says Ruth Dickie, manager of Long & Foster's Bethesda Gateway office and former president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. "The company will stay with the seller for the full term of the contract, but we might assign them another Realtor if things aren't going well."

Relationships seem to go south with sellers more often than buyers. Mrs. Dickie points out that discrimination can sometimes be the reason a Realtor has to walk away.

"We have done this probably 10 times with rental listings, because the landlord says, 'I'm not going to rent to 'blank' kind of person.' That's illegal, and we always walk away immediately when we hear something like that from a seller or landlord," she says.

Things can go awry with buyers, too. Due to recent jumps in home prices, a common problem for buyers is sticker shock.

"These days, you may have a qualified couple who balk once they see the houses in their price range," Mr. O'Donohue says. Buyers may have an emotional commitment to a particular neighborhood or type of home, dreams that were within their reach a few years ago, but rising prices have forced buyers to revise their expectations.

"Sometimes, what they can afford just doesn't match what they want," Mr. O'Donohue says.

Indecisive clients can also sour a relationship with a Realtor. It must be said that an agent's job is to work patiently with a client to buy or sell a home. Sometimes it is difficult and takes time, and that is no one's fault.

There are times, though, when things simply aren't going to work out.

"I don't work for money," says David Rathgeber of Century 21, Laughlin. "I accept money, but I work to make clients happy. Sometimes, however, it just becomes impossible.

"I had a seller once we had been trying to sell her condo for six or nine months. All of a sudden, we got three offers. For a condo in the mid-1990s, that was great," Mr. Rathgeber says.

"It took her a couple of days, but she eventually came to my office and we reviewed the offers. By then, one of the offers had been withdrawn. I told her that after such a long wait, we really needed to act on one of these offers. But she said: 'I'll get back to you in a few days; I need to think about it.' By the time she made up her mind, only one offer was left, and that one eventually fell through, as well."

Generally, agents loathe ending a listing agreement. The sign in front of the house bears their name, and that is good advertising. If the home does sell eventually, that is when the agent gets paid. It can pay to stick around, but not forever.

"Most people around here are quite reasonable," Mrs. Dickie says. "Everybody wants more for their house than they might be able to get, and in the past few years they have been getting quite a lot. If the home is overpriced, and the buying public keeps saying 'no,' we give the seller a chance to change the price.

"On occasion, however, it just can't be worked out. That's when the relationship has to end."

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