Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


When it comes to selling your home, information is power.

"Most buyers tip their hands. Just listen carefully and you'll pick up clues that could prove incredibly useful when you're trying to reach a deal," says Ashley Richardson, a real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

Through her more than 20 years in real estate, Richardson has repeatedly noticed how buyer feedback can assist sellers during the bargaining process. The key is to gain insight into a buyer's motivation.

She tells the true story of a pair of her clients who recently sold their small contemporary house on a wooded lot to a single woman. After a brief period of negotiation, the property fetched nearly its full list price. The sellers knew they could hold firm because after visiting the house, the woman left a note telling of her strong interest.

"She wrote about her excitement at finding the house and just how lovely the wooded lot looked," Richardson recalls.

Sophisticated homebuyers are often more cautious about expressing their positive feelings about a property. But even they will give out subtle signals of interest, says Sid Davis, the author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

"One of the biggest clues is how long the people stay in a property when they come for a visit. Anything over 20 minutes is a strong indicator they like your home. If they hate it, they'll bolt out of there in less than five minutes," Davis says.

Here are a few tips for homeowners seeking to learn about potential buyers:

-- Pick up the subtleties of what your visitors say.

"People don't always say what they mean when they see your house. Often it's quite the reverse. For example, some people will gush on and on about the lovely furniture in a home they absolutely hate. They do that to be nice and not offend you," Davis says.

Remarkably, those who lack any serious interest in a home are usually the most friendly and polite, according to Davis. Yet those most likely to bid for the place may often be more judgmental about features they don't like.

"It's a generational thing, but some older homebuyers believe they can get a better deal if they point out minor flaws -- like peeling paint. People in their 20s and 30s don't usually take this approach. They're much more direct," he says.

-- Take note of likely signs of buyer "attachment."

Buyers with a strong interest in a property often begin communicating this on their first visit. They start making what real estate agents call "possessive comments."

"People who start placing their furniture in your property are definitely gaining an attachment to the house. This is a good sign they're starting to identify with the place and to picture themselves living there," Davis says.

For instance, they'll try to imagine how their sofa would look in the living room and whether their bed would fit in the master bedroom.

-- Listen for remarks made by all involved in the home-buying decision.

Multiple decades of experience in real estate have taught Davis to avoid preconceptions about who within a family will prove most influential in choosing a home.

Indeed, Davis has noticed that the opinions of teenage children are increasingly important to parents who are selecting a property -- especially when they're comparing two homes.

He cautions against taking too seriously any negative remarks that teenagers might make about your property.

"In the end, most teenagers don't really care about the house as a whole. They only care about their room in the house," Davis says.

-- Make sure your listing agent collects indirect buyer feedback.

It's not always possible, nor recommended, for owners to be present during showings. And your listing agent may also be absent when showings take place. Still, your agent can gather feedback by calling the agent representing the buyers, Davis says.

"Within a couple of hours after buyers come through your property, your agent should be on the phone picking up intelligence," he says.

Although buyers are rarely candid about their reactions to a property in the presence of its owners, Davis says most agents are truthful with each other when buyers lack interest in a property.

"If the buyers thought your place was a dump and hated the floor plan, you'll be sure to hear about it -- though not in those words," he says.

-- Don't let buyer compliments go to your head.

Perhaps you're confident that people who've toured your home are extremely interested. And maybe you've determined they're under pressure to move due to time constraints or other factors that make your house ideal.

In this situation, Richardson says you should feel more comfortable holding firm to your price.

But she warns it's risky to take your prospects for granted, even if they seem extremely motivated. For example, you wouldn't want to make a counter-offer just to gain a very small advantage on price or terms.

"Remember that in this market, buyers have many, many choices -- if not in your neighborhood, then in other neighborhoods. So it's foolish to be overconfident. Prolong your talks too long or push too hard and your prospects could easily find another house they love more," Richardson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at