Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Neighbors can offer stiff competition when you’re trying to sell your home, especially if the houses are similar. Because it’s common for neighborhoods to have homes with comparable exteriors and floor plans, sellers must expect that their home may not be the only four-bedroom, brick-front Colonial with a fireplace on the market in the neighborhood.

Although it may be your home that caught the buyer’s eye at first glance, Realtors agree that prospective buyers interested in a particular community will almost always look at all the homes in the area that meet their specific criteria. So what can a seller do to avoid just highlighting the same features as the home for sale on the next block?

Sellers can relax, because Realtors say there are ways to make a home stand out from a crowd of similar properties. Robbi Kimball of Long & Foster in Takoma Park says each house has at least one unique attribute, and the seller and Realtor should draw attention to that special feature. You never know, it just may be enough to sway the buyer into purchasing your home rather than a neighbor’s.

“As the French say, every pot has its lid — in other words, every home fits at least one home buyer,” Ms. Kimball says. “A savvy listing agent will work with the seller to identify, then accentuate and publicize, the distinctive features.

“Many times, this involves removing the distractions [that] keep the buyers from discovering how well the home fits them,” Ms. Kimball says. “For example, heavy drapes might obscure large windows that would throw light on a unique mantel or hearth; the carpeting might hide unique hardwood floors that could frame beloved antique rugs; overgrown shrubs might hide a deck or patio that could host lively gatherings of friends or family.

“The key is to allow the buyers to understand how the house could fit their lives,” she says.

While price may play a part in the buyer’s decision, Sharon Slowik of Long & Foster in Tysons Corner says a seller shouldn’t price too low.

“You’re always walking a tightrope when pricing your home to sell, but you don’t want to leave any money on the table,” she says.

Realtors agree that the lowest-priced home, even though it may offer the same amenities and have a similar floor plan as its competitor down the street, is not always the first to sell. Besides price, buyers also take into consideration how the home looks and its condition. Experts say sellers should take extra care in cleaning the house and fixing things that don’t work before placing their home on the market.

“I call it prom-night pretty,” Ms. Slowik says. “The house should show well and be in tip-top condition.”

“If that seller is the most competitively priced and the home shows well, it means that it’s a great value over the other home,” says Rachel Widder of Evers and Co. Real Estate in the District. “It’s all about price and presentation.”

The nonverbal message to the buyers should be “these people have loved this house and have taken phenomenally good care of it,” Ms. Kimball says. “Sellers can compete by making sure their home shows much better than the twin down the block. Make sure that every storage area is as clean and organized as the living room.”

Ms. Kimball adds that if the home is not in great condition, the sellers should consider offering the house “as is” with a price reduction or decorator allowance.

“Realtors should provide sellers with a detailed checklist on how to really fix up their house inside and outside to make it more sellable,” says Keith Gamboa of Weichert Realty in Silver Spring.

“The market is going to talk to you. If you get no showings, then it’s the price, but if you get a lot of showings and no sale, it’s the condition,” Ms. Slowik says.

Sellers have to be flexible and willing to make changes to their home if the market warrants it, says Ms. Slowik, who says she has had similar homes in the same neighborhood on the market together, including one that had a sunroom and a hot tub and another that didn’t.

Ms. Slowik thought the house with the extra amenities might have had an advantage over the other home, but it turns out a lot of couples with young children were looking at the house, and they didn’t want to deal with a hot tub. The Realtor asked her sellers to remove the tub.

Curb appeal also is crucial because it is the first impression prospective buyers get of a home. Real estate experts say the moment buyers pull up to the curb, they’ll make an immediate judgment. Suggestions include making sure leaves are raked up, shrubs are pruned and toys are out of sight — at first glance, buyers will get a more positive impression of the home with a well-kept exterior.

“Offer a home warranty as part of the deal,” Mr. Gamboa says. Home warranties provide peace of mind, and Realtors say they are one of the extras sellers can offer to make their home more appealing.

“I highly recommend home warranties,” Ms. Slowik says. “Depending on the particular property, it can be especially important.”

To be more competitive, real estate experts also suggest that sellers can offer to pay the nonrecurring closing costs, be flexible with their move-out dates, and create an inviting home atmosphere by setting out fresh flowers and opening the blinds and curtains to let in light.

Though it’s a common occurrence for neighbors to compete to sell similar homes, at the same time, sellers shouldn’t worry about the prospective buyer’s perception of the neighborhood if there are several homes for sale at once.

“I’ve been in the business many years and have found out that if you see three signs within a couple of blocks, people will say “What’s wrong? Why are they leaving?’” Mrs. Widder says.

She says knocking on the door of each house is likely to net three different answers.

“Chances are, you can ask @ the first house, and it can be an older person who lost a spouse and wants to move, the second house could be due to a job transfer, and the third house could be selling because it’s a couple who just had their fourth child and the house has become too small,” Mrs. Widder says. “But after those homes sell, 10 years can pass by and there may be nothing [for sale] on that street.”

“A lot of homes for sale in one community shouldn’t have any effect on their buying decision,” Mr. Gamboa says. “Sometimes, many people are selling in one neighborhood because maybe the homes have increased in value and people are using that as an opportunity to sell.”

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