Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


As the economy heals, more people who've lost a job are finding new work, albeit often in a distant location. But moving for work often means selling a beloved home, and that transition can be painful, says Ronald Phipps, a veteran real estate broker.

To delay the need to sell, some homeowners postpone, believing their property will gain value as time passes. This strategy usually depends on converting the property to a rental unit for an interim period.

But Phipps says that overseeing a rental from a distance rarely works well -- even for owners who hire a rental management company.

"When you rent, there are always complications. Tenants never treat a house with the same care as the owners. In addition, there are always carrying costs involved with renting out a property," he says.

Instead of focusing on the possibility of renting, Phipps urges homeowners planning an out-of-state move to be pragmatic and do all they can to seek a speedy sale.

Phipps says home sellers, especially those who must move quickly, are best served by pricing accurately from the outset rather than trying to "test the market" on the assumption they could take price cuts later if necessary.

"Your highest impact comes at the beginning of your listing. That's when you're most likely to get fair market value -- not after people start to question why your house has been sitting unsold for so long," Phipps says.

Here are a few tips for homeowners seeking a quick turnaround sale in advance of a distant job move:

-- Don't ignore cosmetic upgrades, even if you're short on money.

"Here's the problem: few people have extra cash for fix-ups. But try to sell your house with a ratty carpet or an ugly interior paint color and you'll lose more than it would cost to fix those defects," Phipps says. This is because buyers often demand steep discounts as homes that appear in need of fixing up.

Suppose, for example, that three of your bedrooms have faded and off-color walls. Perhaps you'd pay a total of $1,500 to have these rooms repainted. But, as Phipps explains, a buyer might try to get a $5,000 or greater discount if you let the work go undone.

Are your savings depleted due to recent unemployment or other economic hardship? If so, Phipps says you're better off borrowing for basic cosmetic improvements than going on the market in "as is" shape.

If at all possible, Phipps urges home sellers in a financial pinch to avoid borrowing on their credit cards for pre-sale upgrades -- friends or family would be safer options, if possible.

-- Do the work needed to make your place clean and clear.

Not all home fix-ups cost money. Indeed, two powerful tools for home improvement are virtually free: cleaning and de-cluttering.

"People are used to thinking that 'sweat equity' is for homebuyers. But it's also for home sellers. The only costs necessary for cleaning and clearing are for basic supplies and your elbow grease," says Ashley Richardson, a long-time real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

During the purging process, she strongly encourages sellers to remove family photos and other personal mementos.

"Personal items like photos of your grandparents only serve to distract buyers. Buyers don't want to see your relatives staring out at them from photos. These pictures make it hard for buyers to envision themselves living in your house," Richardson says.

-- Concentrate on your exterior image.

From their agents, buyers often receive listings of property they might wish to visit. But before booking an appointment, many buyers preview homes by computer.

"Nowadays, buyers' first impressions are often virtual. That's because they're using Google Earth to preview homes. In addition, they also drive by a place to check it out before committing to a showing," Phipps says.

He says that just as people judge books by their covers, so do they judge houses by their exterior appearance. Among the outside elements that could dissuade buyers from looking inside are peeling paint, unruly shrubs and clunker cars.

-- Schedule an event that gives you a concrete deadline.

If you're like many people, you need a rock-solid deadline to bring a project to its conclusion in a timely way. You fear procrastination could derail you from meeting your goal of preparing your home for sale quickly.

Assuming that's the case, Phipps encourages you to give yourself a hard deadline by scheduling a "broker's open house" on the day your home goes on the Multiple Listing Service.

A "broker's open," as it's known, is an event to which real estate agents throughout your area are invited. It's an effective tool for marketing an attractive property to those most likely to be working with serious buyers.

"Having a deadline is always a good motivator. You don't want procrastination to cost you valuable time that your house could be on the market," Phipps says.

-- Don't give up without trying.

By this point in the nation's recovery process, everyone has heard tales of homeowners who found it extremely tough to sell, no matter how hard they tried.

But as Phipps says, for every neighborhood where homes aren't selling, there are other markets gaining momentum --as both first-time buyers and move-up purchasers emerge to take advantage of very low interest rates and moderate home prices.

He cautions sellers, especially those who must move to take an out-of-state job, against concentrating on the tales of woe they've heard from people who had a hard time in the recent past.

"These other sellers might have hurt themselves by overpricing. Anyway, the housing market is improving in many areas. Rather than listening to unhappy sellers, I recommend you go out and get yourself some great strategic advice from true real estate experts," Phipps says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at