Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Selling a house can be tough. It can be even tougher if you're forced to sell your house for financial reasons, and don't have much money to make pre-sale fixes or upgrades.

Ashley Richardson, an agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists, tells the true story of one client, a 53-year-old single mother of a grown son who had to sell her small cottage in a neighborhood with much fancier homes. Given her modest salary, the woman, a floral designer, needed the proceeds for her retirement account.

But while the house was being shown to prospects, the floral designer, who lacked funds for home improvement, was so hurt by buyers' critiques that she almost took the place off the market. For example, they complained about her outdated kitchen decor and the rundown condition of her swimming pool.

This points to a common problem confronted by many sellers -- whether female or male, single or married -- who must sell against their will. Their intense emotional responses have the potential to torpedo a sale.

"Selling a house can be an emotional roller coaster. But you have to manage those feelings and face facts or you'll only end up hurting yourself," says Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Seek out a sympathetic listing agent.

Ronald Phipps, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Realtors, says that for home sellers, "feeling frustrated and angry is very common." However, he says it's better to acknowledge your reactions than to deny they exist.

By choosing a listing agent with a compassionate side, you're more likely to find a healthy acknowledgement of your feelings, which can help you move forward.

-- Rely on objective opinions on your home's value.

As they approach a sale, many homeowners start collecting advice from friends and neighbors. But as Phipps says, these opinions are often based on unreliable reports and erroneous information.

"Anecdotal information can be very, very dangerous. Especially when you're feeling emotional about selling, you need accurate information to make sound decisions," he says.

He also recommends that home sellers avoid "automated evaluations" of a property's worth to reach conclusions on how to price. Such valuations typically come from Internet sources, including Zillow. Though such information can be helpful as a general guide, it's hardly the perfect tool for deciding how much to ask.

Before choosing a listing agent, Phipps urges sellers to contact at least two, preferably three, experienced agents who have an established track record selling homes in their immediate neighborhood. Ask each to provide a recommendation on your list price, known as a "comparative market analysis," and to present factual data on recent market sales to back this up.

With facts and the views of veteran agents in your area, Phipps says, you stand a better chance of resisting the kind of emotional thinking that could cause you to overprice your property, which can badly hurt your sale.

-- Avoid taking your listing agent's suggestions for changes personally.

Phipps has the interior walls of his home painted in vivid colors: eggplant, roasted tomato and broccoli. But if he were to put his property on the market, he'd immediately repaint his walls in neutral colors.

"By calming your decorating, you'll appeal to many more buyers," he says.

A strong real estate agent will be candid with you about all the changes needed to maximize your sale. Unfortunately, many involuntary sellers may take their agent's comments as insulting, Phipps says.

He urges sellers to take a serious look at the checklist given them by their listing agent and to follow as many of the suggestions as they can afford, including any repair needed to make the home fully functional.

-- Keep an open mind on low offers.

Davis says that unless you've got multiple stronger offers in hand, it's usually a mistake to reject a bid that comes in somewhat low.

"Frankly, many sellers expect you to counter their bid and nowadays will often pay more if you do. So unless a bid is ridiculous, I'd try to work with it," Davis says.

He says it was an emotional reaction that led him to rebuff three low bids on a ranch-style house that he attempted to sell some years back.

"Before I found an agent who could talk sense into me, I rejected some fairly decent offers by writing "NO" in big bold letters across the contracts. That was a mistake. Probably, I could have brought up at least one or two of them if I'd kept on negotiating," Davis says.

People who must sell against their will sometimes view buyers very unfavorably. But Davis tells sellers to remember that buyers have their own angst about how much to offer in an always-changing real estate market.

Those on both sides of the table are nervous.

"Even with guidance from an expert listing agent, sellers can be confused about how to respond to an offer that comes in low. And vulnerable sellers, including single moms selling involuntarily, can be especially insulted by a lowball offer," Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at