- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

The shift from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market during the past two years may have initially taken homeowners by surprise, but by now savvy sellers understand that they need to do something special to make their home stand out from the crowd.

Despite the fact that more homes are listed for sale across the Washington region, allowing buyers the luxury of choice, some properties sell within days or hours of going on the market, and some sellers still enjoy the thrill of entertaining multiple offers for their homes.

Yet other residences languish far beyond the average number of days on the market, which in the greater Northern Virginia area in February 2008 was about 121 days, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors reports (www.nvar.com).

The differences between homes that sell and those that don’t are many and depend in part on factors out of the control of sellers, such as location and neighborhood markets.

A home sited on a street with many other homes for sale may have a harder time attracting buyers than one in a subdivision with only one home for sale.

However, local real estate agents can point to several steps sellers can make to ensure that they can move when they are ready, despite the competition.

In the greater Northern Virginia area, NVAR reports that listings were up 34 percent in February 2008, compared with February 2007.

In the District, single-family home listings rose nearly 48 percent in February 2008 compared with February 2007, the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors reports (www.gcaar.com).

District condominium listings rose 17 percent in that same time period.

In Montgomery County, GCAAR reports that single-family home listings rose 53 percent in February 2008 compared with February 2007, while condominium listings for that same month rose 40 percent.

Despite these daunting statistics, Realtor Parvin Navid, with Long & Foster Real Estate’s Potomac office, recently sold two homes in Montgomery, one within hours of being listed and the other with multiple offers.

“The key about any home in this market is the price,” says Ms. Navid. “A home can sell in a few hours if it is priced right, and when sellers price their home too high, it can sit on the market forever.”

Ms. Navid also says homes for sale must show well because buyers have so many choices in any given price range.

“The home I sold with multiple offers was 20 years old, but the owners had remodeled the kitchen and the master bath so it looked like anyone could move right in,” Ms. Navid says.

Ms. Navid’s listing, which sold almost instantly, was a luxury town home that backed to a golf course.

“In both of these cases, the sellers were realistic about pricing,” Ms. Navid says. “A home has to be perfect and priced right at the moment it goes on the market because buyers are notified by e-mail and by their agents when a home in their price range is listed. A home will either sell quickly or it will crash.”

Dan Stone, a Realtor with RE/MAX Allegiance in Alexandria, says the way to make a home stand out from the crowd is to have it be the “nicest home for the money” — immaculate and priced right.

“Sellers really need to work with an agent who can help you stage your home so it looks at its best,” Mr. Stone says. “People tend to have too much stuff, which makes a house look smaller. They also have too much personal stuff, which makes it harder for buyers to mentally move in.”

Mr. Stone recommends taking everything off the refrigerator and counters, including the blender and the toaster so that buyers can see the utility of the space.

He suggests that sellers pare down their belongings to only what they need, especially since they need to pack to move anyway.

Valerie Blake, an associate broker with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in the District, says that while location is important, cleanliness is also crucial to the sale of a home.

“I go by the rule of three, that any surface should never have more than three things on it, whether it is a counter, a dresser or a coffee table,” Ms. Blake says. “I also have a little saying: ‘blinds up, toilet seats down,’ because buyers want to see your home, not your personal business. A home needs to be in showroom condition.”

Ms. Blake has been experimenting with evening open houses to attract additional potential buyers, offering wine and cheese to create a pleasant atmosphere. She’s not alone.

“I play some quiet music, either soft jazz or classical music, which helps set the stage and makes people want to linger at open houses,” Mr. Stone says.

Mr. Stone also keeps candy in a dish and recommends that sellers keep at least a few strategic lights on at all times, even when they leave the house. He also warns sellers about odors from cooking or pets, telling them, “If you can smell it, you can’t sell it.”

“People need to turn their home into a product,” Mr. Stone says.

Ms. Blake says sellers must focus on curb appeal, especially as the seasons change, since buyers will often not bother to go inside a home if they are not attracted by the exterior.

She recommends cleaning up winter leaves and debris and starting early with a few spring plants.

Ms. Blake says that sellers need to have their home available as much as possible, despite the inconvenience, and she says they need to leave their home in perfect condition at all times, putting the dishes in the dishwasher and making the beds.

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” says Realtor Michael Moore with Tutt, Taylor & Rankin/Sotheby’s International Realty in the District.

Mr. Moore recommends hiring a professional staging company if a home is vacant or if it is a high-priced property, although the level of work that is needed changes from home to home.

“You have to create an impression on the buyer that this is an environment that they would strive for, that this is what they want,” Mr. Moore says.

Associate Broker Mike Schaeffer with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in the District says that getting rid of excess clutter is the first place to start.

“We listed a home on Church Street Northwest, a condominium where the owners had recently had a baby, and we took out about two-thirds of their belongings and placed it in storage so that buyers could see the true size of the place,” Mr. Schaeffer says. “It’s the prep work upfront that makes a home sell or not.”

Mr. Schaeffer says sprucing up the home with little things such as new faucets, light-switch covers, doorknobs and light fixtures can make a home look less tired.

Painting the main rooms can be the cheapest fix of all.

Jim Haskins, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Oxon Hill, also recommends staging a home and moving items into storage or to a friend’s house to make the home more appealing.

He says the sellers and their agent should evaluate the home as objectively as possible to see what can be moved and where the home needs to be decluttered.

“Any type of cosmetic improvements that can be made to the house should be done, especially if the homeowner can do it themselves, but not necessarily a capital improvement unless the property’s systems need replacing,” Mr. Haskins says. “In this market, you might not get the money back for major home improvements.”

One place sellers and their agents should be prepared to spend time and money is in developing a strong online presence.

“Seventy to 80 percent of buyers start their home search online, so it is key to have curb appeal online, too,” Mr. Schaeffer says. “The number of hits on a virtual tour of a home online is just as important as the number of physical visitors to the home because these virtual visits are just like showing the property.”

Mr. Schaeffer emphasizes that seller must do all their prep work before the home is photographed so that it shows as well as possible.

“Sellers need to stage their home for the virtual tour, even if it means borrowing furniture just for the photos,” says Mr. Schaeffer. “You need to make sure the photos look exactly the way people want to see the home so that they leave a favorable impression.”

Mr. Schaeffer recommends that sellers and their agents put as many photographs online as possible.

“A lot of buyers won’t waste their time looking at a property that doesn’t have a strong presence through photos,” Mr. Schaeffer says.

Ms. Blake says that when she was looking for a home to purchase last year, she went through Web sites and immediately eliminated homes that didn’t have a picture.

She also recommends putting as many photographs as possible online and retaking the photographs, especially the outdoor pictures, until they are just right.

“Besides the photos, it’s important to have as much information as possible about the house online, such as open house dates and special features,” Ms. Blake says. “I have a blog that attracts extra visitors online, and advertise my Web site on my signs. I put ads on Craigslist every week, too, with photos.”

Mr. Haskins says that sellers should be sure to work with agents who are willing to pay extra to have a home listed as a “featured home” or “featured community,” which makes them stand out on a Web site.

Mr. Stone emphasizes the importance of working with agents who have a strong Internet representation so their listings can be found in multiple places, but he says having good photographs and a virtual tour with every listing is also important.

“I use a wide angle lens and edit the images, plus I put verbiage with every picture so people know what they are looking at,” Mr. Stone says.

Mr. Haskins says vacant homes require more effort to make them look fresh, especially in online photographs. Homes with negative factors such as too few bedrooms or bathrooms or an awkward floor plan will take more than staging, probably requiring a substantial price reduction.

While all the Realtors interviewed agree that pricing a home appropriately is the first step toward gaining attention, the agents surveyed have mixed opinions on the value of seller financial incentives, such as offering bonuses to buyer agents or to pay closing costs.

“I don’t think sellers should bother with agent bonuses because if a buyer wants the house, they’ll want it regardless of whether their agent gets extra money,” Mr. Stone says. “I think incentives that go directly to the buyer, such as closing cost assistance, can be helpful. But, frankly, sellers are being asked to do this even if they don’t offer it.”

Ms. Navid says she doesn’t believe seller incentives work at all, instead recommending that sellers be realistic with their price.

Ms. Blake suggests a variety of financial incentives directed at agents and buyers can make a difference in getting additional visitors through the door.

“Negotiating a commission split with the buyer agent or a cash bonus can work, and I’ve even had some sellers offer their frequent flyer miles so that the agent or the buyer could get two tickets to anywhere in the U.S.,” Ms. Blake says.

Ms. Blake says offering to pay closing costs can help, especially for homes in the midlevel price range, but she usually prefers to work out these arrangements at the time of the contract unless the sellers have plenty of flexibility.

Mr. Moore points out that home sellers can rarely compete with the concessions offered by builders, so he recommends pricing a home appropriately and then negotiating any seller contributions after the contract is received.

“Sellers often think they need to add padding to their price to save room for negotiations, but pricing a home too high often just turns away buyers,” Mr. Moore says.

Mr. Haskins says sellers should offer as many concessions up front as they can afford, emphasizing the fact that financing programs such as 100 percent financing are rarely available.

He also recommends offering a bonus to the buyer’s agent.

“You have to be aggressive in this market, and an agent bonus will bring more visitors to the home,” Mr. Haskins says.

Mr. Schaeffer says real estate agents on both sides of the table should be aware of financial programs that can help the buyers afford the home without direct financial assistance from the sellers.

“The FHA mortgage limits have been raised in the D.C. region recently to $729,750 for a single-family home, which means a significant number of buyers can take advantage of their programs,” Mr. Schaeffer says.

Most real estate agents agree that gimmicks and tricks do not sell homes.

What sells homes, especially in challenging times like these, is hard work on the appearance of the home online and in person, hand- in-hand with appropriate pricing.

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