- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

During a seller's market, it might seem easier for homeowners to sell property, but there are still steps that make the process smoother.

Whether the decision is made months in advance or a few weeks before putting the home on the market, the countdown is the same, from finding the right Realtor to handing over the keys on settlement day.

"There's no set time frame for deciding to sell a house," says Realtor Ed Crowley, with Long & Foster in Bethesda. "Sometimes when someone receives a job transfer, they need to put their home on the market within three days, and other times people make a decision as much as six months before they will actually put their home on the market."

According to Ann Nichols, assistant manager of Weichert Realtors' McLean Center office, "pre-planning everything is key when you are selling your home, from the streamlining of your home to instructing the settlement attorney on what to do with your funds on closing day."

In any situation, the countdown begins for sellers with choosing a Realtor.

10. Meet with several Realtors and choose one to be the listing agent.

An initial step for both buyers and sellers is to choose a Realtor with whom they feel comfortable and who they feel will best represent them during the buying or selling process. Sellers may want to work with the Realtor who represented them when they bought their home if this agent represents both buyers and sellers, or they may find they would rather work with another agent recommended by friends or neighbors. Interviewing several agents before choosing one is always a good idea.

"Once homeowners have decided they want to sell their home, they should meet several Realtors and choose one to work with," Mr. Crowley says. "It's very important to meet with the Realtor in your home so that the Realtor can take a look at your property. Your Realtor needs to know all the particulars of your house, including the location and condition before he or she can offer good advice."

9. Go over your home with the Realtor. Discuss your goals, objectives, and time frame and "staging the house." The Realtor will prepare a market analysis and discuss ways to put the property in the best marketing position.

"The first step when selling your home is to bring in a Realtor who can tell you which things are important and which are not," Ms. Nichols says. "Sellers can make an expensive mistake in deciding to remodel a bathroom or kitchen when it is not always necessary, or deciding to replace the wallpaper rather than just tearing it down and painting. A good agent can advise the homeowner what needs to be done."

According to Sharyn Goldman of Long & Foster Realtors in Bethesda, "Buyers today are able to buy a better house because of low interest rates, but they don't necessarily have more money. They are apt to spend more money to buy a house they don't have to do anything with rather than a home which will require cash for repairs or minor remodeling. That's why it is so important for sellers to 'stage their house' by making all the necessary repairs, getting rid of clutter and doing some minor cosmetic work such as taking down the wallpaper."

Mr. Crowley says, "Sometimes sellers will replace all the appliances, the heating and air conditioning systems, refinish the floors and paint the entire house inside and out in order to maximize the price they will receive for the property. Often they will more than make up for the money they have spent. But normally it's littler things which need to be done to prepare a house for sale, such as getting rid of the fuchsia wallpaper, pulling up old carpet and re-mulching the yard."

After the initial meeting with a Realtor and a frank discussion of what needs to be done to make the home more marketable, the Realtor should return in a few days with a market analysis comparing recent listing and sales prices of nearby, similar homes. This information will help the seller and the Realtor determine the initial listing price for the home.

8. Have a prelisting home inspection. Declutter, hire contractors if necessary, and begin landscaping work so the house will be at its best when actually placed on the market.

"I recommend that sellers have a prelisting home inspection so that they will know what needs to be done for everything to go smoothly later," Ms. Nichols says. "I actually did this with a home I owned, and the home sold within one day. I think it's a great way of taking inventory of what needs to be done before your house can sell. Plus, it can be very difficult to get contractors in to work on your home. Everyone needs to realize that however long you think it will take to fix up your home, the reality is that it will take twice as long.

"The largest project which needs to be done first is landscaping, especially with the drought this area has been experiencing," Ms. Nichols says. "People choosing to sell in the spring should start their landscaping projects now so it will look good by then."

Ms. Nichols also recommends neutralizing the house, taking down wallpaper and painting everything in a neutral color so that buyers have a clean palette to work with and can visualize their own furnishings in the home.

"Sellers should pack up everything that they don't have an immediate need for, and store it someplace else or have a yard sale," Ms. Nichols says. "The entire home needs to be streamlined, including such little things as replacing or cleaning the light fixtures. The last step should be replacing the carpet so that it's perfect when the house goes on the market."

7. Discuss and possibly buy a homeowner's warranty. This policy will cover major appliances and heating and air conditioning systems before listing the home.

"It's a great idea for sellers to decide to purchase a homeowner's warranty policy because it protects them against something going wrong while their house is on the market, and then it transfers to the new owners and protects them for the first year that they own the property," Ms. Goldman says.

"A homeowner's warranty is great for the seller's peace of mind," Ms. Nichols says, "and it can be paid for at settlement even though it covers the sellers all during the listing period."

Ms. Goldman estimates that homeowner's warranty policies cost about $385.

6. Execute a listing agreement with your chosen Realtor. Decide when the home will actually be put on the market. Decide on an optimal settlement date.

"When the seller and the Realtor sign the listing agreement, they need to decide when the house will actually go on the market," Mr. Crowley says. "The rules say that within 24 hours of the listing agreement being signed, the home must be available for viewing by buyers and their agents. Sometimes a seller wants to delay this so that the house can be painted or the garden improved. As long as this is agreed to in writing by the listing agent and the seller, this is allowed."

Once the listing agreement is signed, the seller needs to prepare the home for sale and keep it in excellent condition. The Realtor's job at this point is to go ahead with an agreed-upon marketing plan.

"Realtors will typically hold a 'broker's open' on the Tuesday after the house is on the market for other agents to see it, and then an open house on Sunday for the general public," Mr. Crowley says. "Other marketing techniques include advertising, direct mailing cards or passing out fliers to neighbors, placing the property on one or more Internet sites along with photos, and making phone calls to other Realtors who may have clients interested in the neighborhood."

5. Be ready for an open house and for agent/client visits.

"Sellers should plan to go to the movies every Sunday while their house is on the market," Ms. Nichols says. "Weekends are the busiest times for Realtors and buyers, so sellers should plan to be out of the house as much as possible so that buyers can look at will. Sellers need to understand that they are living in a goldfish bowl and prepare themselves and their families for that experience. Even though this can be a great hardship, in the long run it will pay off. Buyers are uncomfortable looking at a house when the owners are there, and sellers are uncomfortable, too, when strangers are poking into their closets. It's better for everyone for the sellers to be gone."

Ms. Nichols also reminds sellers that if they go out of town for the weekend, they need to be accessible by phone or fax or both in case an offer is made.

4. Once an offer is made, work with the Realtor to determine how to respond.

"Once a contract or contacts come in, the listing agent will register the contracts and establish a time for contract presentations," Mr. Crowley says. "The seller has three choices for each contract: to accept it, reject it or make a counteroffer. "I recommend never rejecting a contract, because at least it's a ball out on the field. Even if it's insulting, at least you can hit the ball back to the other side."

Mr. Crowley also recommends, "If there are multiple offers, you look at them simultaneously but privately, and then work with the strongest offer or the best offer. Sometimes the strongest offer is not necessarily the highest price. Sellers should rely on their Realtor to help them sort out these offers to choose the one which is the most solid and reliable, one which won't fall through. Sometimes the timing of the settlement date is more important than the price, too. Ultimately, it is the seller who chooses which offer to accept and ratify."

According to Ms. Nichols, "Sellers should be prepared for the possibility of a quick sale or even multiple offers. If multiple offers are made, sellers shouldn't be guided only by price. They should be guide by the expertise of their listing agent. An agent can help prevent a fall-through of a contract."

3. Once the contract is ratified, have your home available for appraisal and home inspections, including radon and termite inspections.

"Sellers must make their home available for an appraisal," Mr. Crowley says. "Usually a time period is specified in the contract for a home inspection to take place, along with a termite inspection and a radon inspection, too. It is the responsibility of the seller to make sure that the home can be accessed by these inspectors."

2. Transfer utilities, arrange for movers, instruct settlement attorney about what to do with funds.

"As soon as the settlement date is finalized, the seller needs to confirm with their movers a move-out date and begin canceling or changing their newspaper subscriptions, cable, etc.," Ms. Nichols says. "The sellers must have the utilities in their name through the date of settlement and not have them turned off. The utility companies should also be called by the new owners so that a transfer can be made on settlement day."

Ms. Nichols recommends: "Don't move out. It's very important that the home must be in good shape and delivered to the buyer in substantially the same condition as the day the contract was written. So, if there's a hole in the garage wall that wasn't there before, then the sellers must fix it. The sellers need to stay in touch with their agent to make sure that everything is proceeding smoothly. If the movers should do any damage to the house, the sellers need to be prepared to hold them responsible, because the buyers will hold the seller responsible."

While a substantial amount of paperwork is handled at the settlement, sellers should also prepare for that day in advance by informing the settlement attorney about what they want done with their funds.

"Prior arrangement must be made for the funds to be electronically wired to an account, if that is what the sellers want, especially if they will be leaving town immediately," Ms. Nichols says.

1. Go to settlement prepared.

"Sellers need to remember to bring all the keys to the house and the mailbox and storage shed, if there is one, to settlement," Mr. Crowley says. "They also need to bring a picture ID and be ready to sign the deed to the house, the settlement sheet and other papers. Any seller's costs will be deducted from the proceeds of the sale of the property, so basically all they need to do is sign the papers, hand over the keys and get their check."

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