Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

MAKE SURE THE PRICE IS RIGHT WHEN LISTING YOUR HOME

Home prices are climbing again, and one of the nation's leading property valuation experts says now might be a good time to consider selling your home.

"If you're in one of those 'up neighborhoods' and want to move, I say go ahead," says Karl E. Case, co-founder of the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller indices, which track home prices throughout the country.

According to the latest index of 20 large cities, home prices rose in all the metro markets, indicating the beginning of a nationwide recovery for real estate.

"It's a real increase. The 'up' areas are really up," says Case, an economics professor emeritus at Wellesley College.

However, he cautions that within the 20 major markets there are pockets of both strength and weakness. That means pricing trends can vary widely on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

"There are now wider disparities in values than there were in past years when real estate was rapidly booming or falling," Case says.

The current neighborhood-by-neighborhood shift in real estate values is making it harder for aspiring sellers to peg the right asking price for their property. To avoid guesswork, Case says there's no substitute for a listing agent with an in-depth awareness of pricing trends in your local market.

"It's never wise to get a real estate agent from the far side of town," he says.

Here are a few pointers for would-be sellers:

-- Acknowledge the vital importance of proper pricing.

Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home," says that in some exceptionally strong real estate markets, buyers are beginning to cope with the reality of multiple offers.

He says the major factor fueling brisker sales in strong markets is that long-pent-up buyer demand is starting to be unleashed in those areas.

He says a skilled listing agent is a valuable ally to sellers who want to hit the target when their home first goes up for sale.

"Even in a strong market, asking more than your home is really worth is a big mistake. Most buyers won't even make an offer if they think you're greedy," Davis says.

-- Seek a general idea on value before looking for a listing agent.

In the Internet age, there are a number of websites that promise to give you a free and immediate assessment of your home's value. One of the best known is Zillow (www.zillow.com).

Davis says that such "fast pricing" websites can't be expected to provide you a definitive answer on your property's worth. Still, he considers them a good starting point.

Besides using the Web, another way to get a feel for the strength of your local market is to attend open houses.

"If people have begun to flock to open houses in your neighborhood, that's a positive signal," he says.

-- Interview at least three candidates before hiring an agent.

When it comes time to sell a home, many owners think it's wise to hire a trusted family member as their listing agent. But Davis cautions against choosing someone from your inner circle.

"Your home is your biggest asset. You have a lot at stake. Would you automatically hire a relative to manage the assets in your retirement fund, or would you search for the best expert you can find? The same principle applies when selling your home," he says.

Even if your family member has a proven track record in real estate, choosing that individual as your agent could be a mistake.

"Your relatives probably won't tell you if your place is a dump that needs to be de-cluttered or that it's worth a lot less than you think," Davis says.

He recommends that you interview three agents who work in your area to determine the right one to sell your house. Ask each to give you a candid evaluation of both the condition and current worth of your place. Also question all three on how they came up with their pricing recommendations.

"You want to see the actual comparable sales used to support their recommendations. In an upward market, it's especially important that these sales be very recent --preferably for houses sold within the last month," Davis says.

-- Check into an agent's track record on pricing.

Are you planning to sell a home in an area where property values are flat or still slipping slightly? In that case, it's unlikely you'll receive your full asking price at the closing table. But if your property was marked correctly from the outset, you should still come quite close.

"The idea is to hit the bull's-eye from the beginning rather than letting your house become shopworn," Davis says.

How can you judge whether the agents you're interviewing have a good track record on pricing? One way is to review a few key numbers on their past listings, such as "list-to-sale" statistics. These compare the original asking price versus the sum ultimately received by the sellers.

If the agent is routinely making realistic recommendations, there should be little difference between the original list price and the final sale price, Davis says.

"As sellers, you always have the final word on your asking price. But you don't want to hire an agent who tries to flatter you into going too high at the start on the premise that you can always make deep cuts later. That's a losing strategy," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)