- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

The strong seller's market of last year has continued into 2002, but selling your home remains a big undertaking. Due to rapidly changing market conditions, sellers need solid advice as much as ever. So, if you are thinking about making a move, take to heart the Friday Home Guide's Top Five Tips for Home Sellers:

Get your house ready. There was a time when selling a home took months. If your home wasn't in perfect shape, you could continue to dress it up while it was on the market.

A little fresh paint, neaten up the basement, do some landscaping.

Today, however, new home listings attract buyers immediately. Your home needs to be ready for visitors well before the sign goes up in your yard.

"Before you put your home on the market, you need to look at it with fresh eyes," says Brooke Myers, broker and owner of City Houses in the District. "It's like going back to your grandmother's house for the first time in decades. What will your impressions be? Buyers will be seeing your home for the first time, and that first impression is important."

Some sellers may think that the competition among buyers means they don't need to put special effort in preparing their home for sale, but doing so could increase your profits.

"In this market, there are so many buyers that you are going to sell your home whether you fix it up or not," says Bill Duerre, managing broker at Weichert in Fairfax. "Where the condition of the home makes a difference is the bottom line. A property in good condition is going to be more attractive to buyers and will maximize your profit."

There are two reasons why a home in good condition will sell for more money.

First, many buyers today have busy schedules. "They just don't have the time to spend reconditioning a home," Mr. Duerre says.

Second, recent increases in area home prices mean that many buyers are stretching their budgets just to get into a home. "They don't have a lot of money to spend remodeling it," Mr. Duerre says.

Use a Realtor. If you want to sell your home in the shortest time for the best price, 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 Metropolitan Regional Information Systems database the MRIS. Having your home sale posted there, known as a "listing," may be the most powerful real-estate sales tool in existence.

The MRIS is 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.

Washington's MRIS is the biggest argument against selling your home yourself. How can a sign in your yard and some ads in the newspaper compare with thousands of Realtors seeing your house in that database? How are all the 90 percent of buyers who are working with buyer's agents going to find out about your house?

You need to hire a Realtor to be your listing agent, because that's how you get your home on the MRIS. There are some no-frills real estate offices out there that will list your home for a set fee, but they provide few other services, if any. A full-fledged Realtor brings experience and knowledge along with that crucial MRIS access.

"There are people out there looking to scalp you as a seller if you have no one protecting you," says Dolly Riegert of Prudential, Carruthers. "A seller who has no agent has no one looking out for her interests, no one to help her decide which competing bid is the best one to accept."

Because today's market is very hot, favoring sellers with few listings and many sales each month, you might be tempted to sell your home yourself, and it might sell, eventually, but how hard will it be?

"If you sell yourself, you will not be objective when negotiating," Miss Riegert says. "You are emotionally attached to your home, so of course you are going to take things personally. Your Realtor's job is to help you understand what is standard in the market and to respond to buyers in a way that gets you the best price for your home."

Know where you're headed. The current real estate market in the Washington area, at least is easy on sellers but hard on buyers, but because most home sellers are also home buyers, you need to prepare yourself. Your home may sell quickly, and you can't wait until it does to begin thinking about where you want to live, what lender to work with and how much you can afford.

"You don't want to be pressured to buy a home," Mr. Duerre says. "If you are, you may end up renting for a while, or buying something you don't want simply because you couldn't find anything else."

To get ahead, do some serious thinking about your next home well before you put your current one up for sale. Speak with your lender so you'll know your price range. Look at homes for sale in communities you like. Can you afford to live there?

If you want to give yourself the most home-shopping flexibility, speak to your Realtor about including a contingency in your sales contract.

"Basically, it means that the contract you sign with the buyer will be subject to you finding your home of choice," Mr. Duerre says. "If you don't find a home within a set period of time, the sales contract becomes void."

Set the right asking price. When you place your home on the market, one of the most crucial things you do is determine an asking price. These days, when values are rising and homes are selling quickly, it is especially important to price your home correctly.

If you ask too much, your property will probably sit on the market for a while and you may have to drop the price to get a buyer.

If you ask too little, you will probably find a buyer (or three) quickly, but you may reduce your profit.

"Helping sellers set the right asking price is what we do for a living," Miss Riegert says.

Many sellers today are excited about rising home prices, but they can get greedy and overprice their homes. Doing so can cost you money.

"When buyers see an overpriced home, they start to nitpick," Miss Riegert says. "They are more critical of the condition and amenities, and many won't even make an offer, but if the home is priced fairly, it entices buyers to make offers. Then they bid the price up, and you get the best possible deal."

If you have selected your real estate agent carefully, he will have the experience and tools needed to determine the best asking price for your home. A listing agent will prepare a comparative market analysis that should be quite accurate.

The key is a list of "comps," or comparable homes sold recently. Your agent will come up with three to six homes that are similar in style, size and condition.

It will be good if they sold within the past six months because things are changing quickly around Washington.

It is also a good idea to make a list of similar homes that are for sale. Such an analysis will show you whom you are competing with. Look at your neighborhood through the eyes of home buyers, and you will get an idea of where your property fits in.

One word of caution: Don't shop for a listing agent by looking for the Realtor who tells you he can sell your home for the most money. Your home will sell for whatever the market will bear, not some inflated estimate.

Review your listing carefully. Believe it or not, your most important selling tool isn't a newspaper ad, a sign in your yard, or even your Realtor. It is an 81/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper from the MRIS database. It's called a listing, and it contains the only information home buyers will know about your home until they visit it.

An accurate listing ensures buyers will make that visit.

Make sure the lot size and property lines are correct, the square footage of the home is right, and the property tax and utility information is accurate. Your Realtor can help with all of these items.

Many of the other items are rather obvious just make sure they are entered correctly in the system. After the price, bedrooms and bathrooms are often the first things buyers look at, and you don't want a mistake there. Be sure you don't list a "bedroom" in the attic or basement that doesn't legally qualify as a bedroom. Some jurisdictions require an escape route from the room other than the door to the hallway.

Once you have the basics right, think about the things that make your home different.

"Often, buyers will be attracted to your home by the same things that attracted you to it years ago," Ms. Myers says. "Think about those, and mention them in the remarks section."

Be sure to mention the great view or the new deck. Unique features such as fruit trees or rose bushes will stand out. Wood floors in good condition are a draw for many buyers, as are fireplaces, skylights and ceiling fans. You definitely want to point out any work you've done on the home recently.

Remodeled kitchens probably top the list of attention grabbers. Older homes with new wiring or plumbing will stand out in comparison to other homes on the block. New appliances, such as a furnace, water heater or air conditioning can be a big draw.

You may have appliances such as that old washer and dryer in the basement that you would rather leave than take with you. You may want to keep your generous intentions to yourself, for now. They could be an important bargaining chip later: "Well, we really can't go that low in price, but how about we drop it $1,000 and throw in the washer and dryer?"

If your house isn't in great shape, that can even be a draw itself.

"Handyman Special" is a term that brings many bargain hunters running, but make sure your home is, in fact, a bargain. You will have to price it accordingly.

In the Washington-area, an easy commute may be the biggest selling point of all. Mention whether the Metro is nearby or what bus lines you are on. Travel time or distance to the District can be helpful if it is reasonable. Distances to shopping centers, airports, recreation centers and the like can also grab shoppers' attention.

After your agent has put all this information into the system, ask for a copy of the listing. Show it to some friends and family to see if you are missing anything. If you aren't getting any bites after a few weeks, be sure to review the listing to make sure everything is still accurate.


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