14-Step Seller’s Guide:
Selling Your House in Today’s Market
by Jean Cameron-Smith
STEP 1: Get the Facts
What are similar homes in your neighborhood selling for? Getting specific information on the market in your neighborhood will help you have realistic expectations regarding how much money you will net and how long it will take to sell. As a first step to selling your property, you need to obtain these key facts:
- The number of homes on the market in your price range within your school district and how much that number has increased or decreased within the last year
- The selling price of the most recent sales of homes similar to yours in your school district
For most of us, moving is a major life event and being informed is key to managing the stress of moving. Having an idea of how much cash you will have after the closing will enable you to focus on your next housing purchase or general financial goals.
Remember: It is the market that truly determines the ‘list’ and ‘sales’ price. Not how much you paid for your house. Not how much you put into a renovation. Not how much you need for your next step, but how much buyers are paying, now.
As a client you deserve a thoughtful comparative market analysis (CMA), customized marketing plan, and an artful negotiator to sell your property at the best possible price.
STEP 2: Invest in a Realtor®
Why do you need a Realtor®? Few people want to pay a commission. Some people feel that Realtors just put ads in a paper, place a lockbox on the door and pick up their commission check at the closing. Many people make the mistake of hiring a neighbor, friend or relative to try to sell their home. This person could be the right choice — but only if they have certain qualities and expertise.
Why would you entrust your single biggest asset to anyone other than a true expert?
WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT FROM YOUR REALTOR? Some homeowners are not clear about the services a professional Realtor provides. We want you to understand what we are doing to market and sell your house.
The following is a partial list of what you are paying a good Realtor to do:
- Find and secure a Buyer.
- Advertise: Research shows that over 90% of buyers begin and continue their property search on the Internet. Significant resources are needed to quickly advertise across multi-media platforms.
- Negotiate a deal that is acceptable to you and the buyer; This is no small feat. Buyers and Sellers may have different expectations.
- Meet various legal requirements regarding how your property is represented.
- Keep the deal on track.
- Manage the deal from offer to closing.
- Stage your home for sale. Provide you with names of reputable professionals (if you need help).
- Develop a strategic marketing plan outlining how he or she will market your home and the tools they use to gauge buyers interest.
- Produce professional high-quality photographs, brochures and direct mailings.
- Follow-up on showings to get feedback from buyers to make course corrections if necessary.
- Be ‘in the know’; Advise you on the competition. Share what is happening with houses in your price range currently on the market.
- Facilitate ‘Open Houses’.
- Utilize Office staff to answer phone inquiries about your property.
- Outline ‘Special Features’ of your home.
- Provide town audio-visual tours, professional photos and floor plans.
- Always communicate and show how your property is being marketed to its fullest potential.
STEP 3: Finding a Realtor
Once you have made the right decision to invest in a Realtor, here are some questions to ask:
- What sets the you apart from other agents?
- What kind of experience and track record do you have?
- How accessible will you be?
- What kind of back up or coverage do you have when you are away?
A: Your property will be displayed on www.raveis.com which has an international reach.
B: According to a 2011 report from the National Association of Realtors, 90% of buyers start their real estate search online. So the plan to sell your home must include effective internet exposure. NCSIR’s approach is to utilize more websites than any other agency in an effort to target buyers on the web. These websites include sothebysrealty.com and ncsir.com, the ‘digital property’ search section of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Journal News, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Realtor.com, zillow.com, trulia.com, yahoo.com, google.com, cyberhomes.com, frontdoor.com, homes.com, openhouse.com, and smarteragent.com.
STEP 4: Pricing It Right
What is one of the most important decisions you need to make? In today’s climate, it is important for sellers to be in tune with a value-driven market. One of the most important decisions you make in selling your house is entering the market at the right price.
Smart agents will explain the realities of the market, how much the buyer may be willing to pay, and illustrate how the market determines the price.
A significantly underpriced property is likely to draw multiple offers, even in a buyer’s market, and end up near the fair market value (FMV). FMV is determined by what buyers are willing to pay, today. An overpriced house will linger until the price gets down to the FMV.
A good Realtor’s goal is to help you get the most money for your home. We give you the benefit of our expertise in identifying the right price for your house — one which takes into account your timetable and personal situation.
Getting an Appraisal. If you and your realtor come up with a different price, we may suggest you consider a ‘purchase appraisal’ done by a licensed real estate appraiser.
What can happen if you do not enter the market at a price that reflects fair market value?
- Less buyer traffic. If the price is too high, you run the risk of not getting buyers in to see your house.
- Your listing can get ‘tired’. Realtors will sometimes pass by a property when they see that it has been on the market for a while.
- Buyers may focus on the negative(s). Typically, buyers look for the flaws in anything overpriced but see the positive features if priced well.
- Buyers may have an educated advantage. Internet buyers are very savvy and well informed. A qualified buyer has probably seen the same comparable sales Realtors use in a Comparable Market Analysis (CMA) to determine value.
- Less offers. Some sellers believe that if their property is overpriced, a buyer will just make a lower offer, but it does not work that way. Typically, buyers will pass on a property rather than get involved with a seller who is not realistic.
When should you consider reducing the price? If nothing is happening — no showings or tons of showings with no offers — it is time to reassess the list price.
A ‘price reduction’ will get you more attention from agents and may generate more activity. Another option is to re-list under a new MLS number with new photos and copy. This will get your property on the ‘Hot Sheet’ as a new listing, and will again get the attention of more than 6,410 Westchester-Putnam Realtors and their prospective buyers.
STEP 5: Doing Your Homework
There are several documents you need to have ready to show a potential buyer:
- Property Survey.
- ‘Certificates of Occupancy’ for additions or other renovations.
- The offering plan (if you live in a condo or co-op).
- Documentation on any repairs.
- A list of special features and upgrades.
- The last two years of utility bills and monthly expenses to maintain the house and property, such as landscaping, cable, etc.
Check the records. It is also critical to check with your town’s Assessor’s office to see the legal description of your house. What is the square footage? How many bedrooms and bathrooms do they acknowledge? If the physical structure differs from these records, be aware that you and your Realtor have to represent the house as it is legally described in the Assessor’s records. Usually the better option is to get the Certificates of Occupancy that will legalize the areas in question, such as an addition. Make sure you and/or your Realtor check with the Assessor to see how much an addition or renovation will impact your taxes. You do not want to lose a buyer who discovers late in the negotiation that they have to pay substantially more in taxes than initially represented.
Getting an inspection. While getting a full inspection prior to listing your home is usually not necessary, getting a professional opinion and estimate for specific issues, like a French curtain drain, can be a good idea.
Buried oil tanks. Buried oil tanks are legal in New York State, but no one likes them. They can easily become an issue during negotiation. In short, the buyer of your property may be concerned about assuming liability if there is a tank leak. If you have a buried oil tank that is still in use, ask your Realtor for advice on how to get insurance that could transfer to the new owner. Many sellers decide that it is worth replacing the buried tank with an above ground tank. This is a technical area highly regulated by the State Department of Environmental Protection. We will refer you to experts who can help you make the right decision for your situation.
STEP 6: It’s Show Time
Think of a showing as a performance with your house as the star. First and foremost, make your house as accessible as possible. This means allowing other agents to use an on-site lockbox rather than picking up a key every time they want to show your property to prospective buyers.
Many Westchester Realtors use Sentrilock lockboxes, which create a computer log of anyone who enters your house. Although buyers will be with a licensed agent, if you have a safe, consider storing jewelry and other small but valuable items.
Most often, Realtors will attempt to give you feedback after each showing.
Often homeowners like to be present. As a general rule, this is discouraged. Try not to worry, a licensed Realtor will accompany any buyer coming to your home. The buyers looking at your house are making the most important financial decision of their lives. They value privacy and the opportunity to freely discuss their reactions without being afraid you will hear them complain about the wallpaper.
If the agent and buyers are late, try to accommodate them within reason. This may mean just stepping out for a walk around the block when they arrive. Some buyers are looking at several houses in a large geographic area and may be late for unavoidable reasons. If you have special requirements for showings, tell your Realtor in advance so he/she can communicate them to other showing agents.
Feedback from the showing. Most often, Realtors will give you feedback after each showing. ‘Reactions’ reveal important marketing data such as who likes it and why.
Feedback is also helpful to build a list of buyers who like your house but are not ready to buy. Realtors will review the list to see what happened with interested parties and keep negotiations alive.
STEP 7: How to Stage Your House
“Staged homes sell 32% faster than un-staged homes,” according to Barb Schwartz, author of “Home Staging: The Winning Ways to Sell Your House for More Money.”
How to accomplish the best staging of your home before showing it:
De-clutter, de-personalize and streamline. Think of this as essential preparation for the sale and your move. Buyers should see the house’s bones, not years of accumulated personal items. You want the buyers to be able to see themselves and their furniture in your space. Nothing makes a house seem smaller than having every surface stacked with books, photos, papers, etc. Remove photos; keep your refrigerator door clear of clutter. A general rule to follow is ‘no more than one or two decorative items on surfaces’. Leave lots of room between furniture pieces. This also means clearing out the basement, garage, and attic.
Stand in the doorway. You need to see what the buyer sees so you can make the changes that will get them to experience the benefits of each room.
Consider making high pay-back improvements. If you have not painted in the last three years, paint. Spending a few thousand dollars on new appliances, a kitchen counter, re-facing cabinets, stainless steel appliances, or a bath vanity can make your house sell faster. A buyer may know that you have hardwood floors under the carpets, but if you take up the carpet and get the floors re-finished, you will reap the reward. You will hear, ‘Great floors.’ Not, ‘How much will it cost to take up the carpet?’
Don’t forget the outside. Apply the same principle to the porches, patios, and the yard.
Pick a staging point. Think, ‘How will the buyer use this room?’ If it is a bedroom, the staging point is the bed. If it is the living room then stage around that room’s focal point, such as the fireplace.
Get rid of some furniture. Move it out if it is crowding the room. Keep the basics. Get rid of the extras, which usually means keeping the sofa and coffee table and getting rid of extra chairs. Less furniture, more space. The rooms will look open, balanced, and twice the size they did when you started.
Rebuild with accessories. Be creative, but remember ‘Less is more‘.
Fine tune. Stand in the doorway again. Is there anything else you can do? Anything else you can remove or anything missing you should add? Now is the time to do it.
STEP 8: The Showing Checklist
- Pick up clutter.
- Put away dishes.
- Make beds.
- Straighten up toys and desks.
- Make sure closets are neat and reasonably organized, and the doors close without difficulty.
- If you have pets, get them out of the way. Many people have allergies and some are afraid of animals. A normally friendly pet may not react well to strangers.
- Make sure you have no unpleasant odors from cooking, animals, etc. A quick spray of neutralizing air freshener where buyers enter can go along way.
- Turn on the lights, even on a bright day. Most houses are better seen with the lights on.
- Raise the shades and open the curtains. This brings in more light and buyers like to see what is outside.
- Do a bathroom check: Clean sinks, clear vanity tops,and pick up towels, and put toilet seats down.
- Put away valuables like cameras, jewelry, checkbooks and financial documents.
- Pick up everything off the floor.
- Put dishes in dishwasher or wash and put away.
- Wipe down counter tops and stove tops.
- Empty garbage, vacuum quickly, turn on soft music.
- Leave the house before the showing.
STEP 9: When You Get an Offer
There are four main considerations when assessing the strengthand validity of an offer:
- Is the price acceptable? This is the obvious one that will get the most attention.
- Can the buyers get a mortgage? In other words, do they have the ability to ‘get to the closing table’?
- When can they ‘Close‘, and is their time-frame acceptable?
- What, if anything, is their offer contingent upon?
- Do buyers have to sell a house?
- How much money are they ‘putting down’?
- Is there a ‘mortgage contingency’?
Your Realtor will help you evaluate the impact of different contingencies and the strength of each offer.
Some agents like to present the initial offer verbally to get the ball rolling, and that is fine. But your first words should be ‘Do we have it in writing?’
Additionally you need background information on the offer bring presented in order to know how to proceed. Important areas to consider are:
Who is the other agent working for? Is he/she a sellers’ agent, abroker’s agent, or a buyers’ agent? This will impact the transparency of information regarding the buyers’ ability to close, and clues on whether the buyer is actively bidding on other properties.
Make sure you get a strong pre-approval letter from the buyer.This should be from a known lender, preferably with the name and telephone of the mortgage broker preparing the letter. Talk to the person who wrote the letter. Your Realtor can get permission from the other agent and the buyer to call the mortgage broker and confirm that he or she is comfortable with the buyer’s ability to secure the mortgage. This conversation can also help the Realtor verify that the buyer does not need to sell a property to qualify for that mortgage, if those are the agreed terms.
Understand the contingencies and terms of the buyer’s financing.If they are putting down a larger than normal percentage in cash, where is it coming from? You need documentation to prove that they have the funds.
Are you in agreement with the closing date? Although it is not an actual law, it is generally understood that the closing can occur up to 30 days before or after the date on the contract. Verify this with your lawyer and consider whether this time-frame is acceptable to you.
STEP 10: Negotiating Offers and Signing Contracts
Each sale is unique. Negotiations can occur within hours or over a period of weeks or even months.
There are typically three negotiation stages: the first two are offers and counter-offers handled by the agents and the third by client attorneys.
Once the buyer and seller agree on terms the Realtors will submit a ‘Memo of Agreement’ (MOA) which the Seller’s attorney uses to draft ‘the contract’.
Memo of Agreement: This is an agreement of terms such as the ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ including:
- Property inclusions/exclusions
- Closing date
- Financing: amount of down payment and the source of funds
Negotiations are not ‘finished’ until contracts have been signed, inspections have passed, and full mortgages have been awarded. Even then surprise requests may occur.
STEP 11: Inspections
There are several ancillary inspections beyond the basic structural inspection. They may include:
- Oil tank test. This is standard for in and above ground oil tanks.
- Radon test. A test for the presence of radon gas in a basement or crawl space.
- Termite Inspection. Many lenders require that a buyer have proof of a passed termite inspection.
- Private Well Water test.The private well water test is the responsibility of the homeowner to ensure the water is potable. As of November 19, 2007, the Westchester County Private Well Water Legislation applies to properties served by private wells used for drinking water. It requires that a water test be conducted upon the signing of a contract of sale for any property served by a private well. Any additional questions regarding the Local Law or the Rules and Regulations, should be directed to the Westchester County Department of Health at 914-813-5000.
If your property fails any of these tests, a buyer will expect you to address the problem. Your realtor can direct you to several experts who handle remediation.
After the inspections. Many deals fall apart after the inspection. Even if you accept a price before the inspection, with the understanding that you will not make concessions after the inspection, buyers may still come back with issues to be negotiated. Every situation is different and your agent will help you determine if the buyer’s demands are reasonable.
One rule of thumb: If a problem is visible and cosmetic, it has already been factored into the asking price of the property. However, legitimate structural or health/safety issues that emerge during the inspection will reopen negotiations.
Also, appliances may be old but as long as they function the Seller has a case for not giving more concessions. Other stumbling blocks may be expensive items that are well-worn but show no evidence of need for immediate repair, such as a roof that may not be actively leaking but is 25 years old, or has worn and peeling shingles.
Getting the contracts signed. The inspections are over and you have come to updated terms with your buyer. Now the real estate attorneys prepare the contracts based on information your Realtor includes in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA).
Be aware that deals can also fall apart at this stage. Good, experienced real estate attorneys know how to protect your interests without creating conditions and animosity that might cause the deal to fall apart. Agents can provide you with a list of recommended attorneys who:
- Primarily handle real estate transactions.
- Colleagues respect and have the reputation of being true to their word.
- Have staff to keep the process moving, even if the attorney is at another closing.
- Can keep a deal together even if the other side is inexperienced or ‘difficult‘.
Step 12: Congratulations! You are in ‘Conditional Contract’
What happens now? The contracts are fully executed, which means both parties signed them, the down payment check cleared, and each side has a signed copy. You may ask, ‘Can I breath a sigh of relief? Is my house sold?’ The answer is most likely yes, but the next hurdle is a big one if your buyer is awaiting a ‘mortgage commitment’ from a bank.
The mortgage commitment is awarded after a detailed fact-check that includes:
Buyers credit history. The buyer’s ability to get the loan determines whether the bank will give them the money.
Clean Title. Do the sellers actually own the house? The title search determines whether the title is clean and complete.
Appraised value of the house. Is the house actually worth what the bank is putting into it?
Appraisals are a major factor that can make or break your sale. Although appraisers are required to perform their own research, your agent should be able to provide the appraiser and banks with relative comparables to justify the sale price. This is especially important to have ready in case the appraisal is significantly lower than the agreed sales price.
After your Buyer gets a mortgage commitment, the sale is now ‘pending.’ At this stage, barring any extraordinary events, you have a deal! Back to top
Step 13: Getting to the Closing
How can you prepare? Now it is time to get serious about scheduling movers and packing while everyone juggles to get to the closing date. This tends to be a stressful time in the process, so put yourself in a ‘go with the flow’ mindset. As the seller, you have more leverage over the closing date than the buyer because the final ‘walk-through’ and the closing will not take place until you are out of the house.
Although everyone works hard to meet the date on the contract, it is always a good idea to have a place to go for a few days if the logistics don’t exactly line up.
After the bank declares the deal is ‘Cleared to Close’ — meaning that all the documentation required for a closing is in place — the date is set by the three attorneys who will be present: the sellers’ attorney, the buyers’ attorney, and the attorney representing the bank.
During this stage, many agents take a back seat and let the attorneys take over. However, a good Realtor will stay on top of transactions to make sure the agreed terms are being met, and that everyone is informed of progress right to the closing table.
Selling a house can be stressful, and your Realtor should work to make it as painless and financially rewarding as possible. Back to top
Step 14: The Closing
Is there anything left other than signing the papers? A ‘walk through’ must be scheduled prior to ‘The Closing.’ This is the final property inspection by the buyer. Buyers will review the property to confirm that the Sellers have made all agreed repairs, and that nothing has changed in the structural integrity since the ‘structural inspection’.
Once all is reported to the larger group as ‘approved’, the closing can commence. A ‘walk-through’ is generally performed the day of or before the scheduled closing, but this date can vary per each unique agreement.
In the know: Before the actual closing, it is important both Buyers and Sellers communicate clearly with their attorneys to coordinate any additional fund requirements such as a list of closing costs or pre-issued certified bank checks.
What happens at the Closing? The bank attorney sets time and place, and generally all representing members of the transaction (Buyers, Sellers, Attorneys, Title Company, Realtors) come together to legally transfer the property. The Buyer and Seller Attorneys generally lead the meeting and will guide their clients on what and where to sign, checks to write, and manage the flow of paperwork being passed from party to party. This process takes approximately two to four hours, barring any last minute issues.
Immediately after the papers are signed, your new chapter begins. Now it is truly time to celebrate and embark on your new life adventure!
You are a cherished client, and I always look forward to hearing from you!
Call me if you have any questions. - Jean Cameron-Smith | 914-645-7157
*For additional resources visit jeancameron-smith.com/resources.