Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

HOW TO SELL WHEN TROUBLE KNOCKS

For more than 20 years, a federal government manager and his wife lived happily in a sprawling lakeside house in an upscale suburban community. There they raised six kids through their college years. But one summer day, tragedy struck when one of their daughters drowned while boating on the lake.

Devastated, the couple in this true story felt an urge to sell their house and move immediately. But after contacting their real estate agent, they were persuaded to delay until they could get beyond the worst of their upheaval and prep their property for an orderly transition.

"People navigating through a personal crisis are in a difficult position to sell. One problem is that buyers can sense their urgency, which makes them potentially vulnerable to unfair lowball offers," says Tom Early, a longtime real estate broker who heads an independent firm.

As it worked out, the couple waited for two years before selling their property. That gave them time to sort through their plans. Ultimately, they purchased an elegant contemporary house in a resort area where the entire family could gather often and continue their healing process.

Unfortunately, not everyone going through a major transition can postpone the sale of a house, says Early, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (www.naeba.org).

"But just because you must sell quickly doesn't mean you have to let your property go under desperation terms," says Robert Irwin, author of "Tips and Traps When Selling a Home," and a number of other real estate books.

Here are a few pointers for those who must sell under less-than-ideal conditions:

-- Find an experienced listing agent to represent you.

"When you feel like your life is out of control, an organized, 'take charge' real estate agent may be just what you need to help make the most of your home sale," Irwin says.

He recommends you find someone with considerable experience selling properties in the same community where you live.

"This isn't just an agent who happens to list a lot of homes in your area. They should also have a track record for pricing neighborhood properties accurately from the get-go," Irwin says.

Contacting the managing broker of a local real estate office is one way to identify a skillful agent. Make it very clear that you're looking for one with an impressive track record selling your type of property in your price range.

"A broker's referral can be a good starting point. But even if you're time-pinched, you'll want to call references," Irwin says.

-- Investigate recent sales in your area prior to setting your price.

Even before your home is listed and open for showings, your agent will likely recommend an asking price. But before accepting any pricing recommendation, all sellers, no matter how hurried, should do at least a nominal amount of research.

"Tell your agent to give you a list of nearby properties that have sold recently, along with the final sum they yielded at closing. Then take that list, get in your car and drive by these homes, noting how they compare with your own," Irwin says.

What if your drive-by tour raises questions in your mind about whether your agent is suggesting too high or low an asking price? If so, request additional data in support of the recommended price. Then reach your own conclusion.

-- Consider a price just one notch below prevailing market values.

Surprisingly, sellers on a tight deadline can often receive more for their property if they price it just 2 percent or so below its apparent market value.

"Pricing a tad low generates excitement from buyers. More people are likely to bid if they perceive the property to be good value. And competition can push up your final proceeds," he says.

-- Use the power of delegation to ready your home for market.

If you're selling quickly and in the midst of a personal crisis, the odds are you'll have no more than a few weeks to get the home ready for show time.

"You need a selling plan that's abbreviated but still covers all the bases," Irwin says.

One obvious way to reduce your prep time is to hire contractors for work you might normally do yourself.

"Some people hate paying others to do work they know how to do -- like painting or carpet cleaning. But if time is short and contractors are available in your area, chances are the work will go much faster if contractors step in," Irwin says.

What's more, as he notes, sellers with properties that are sparkling clean and freshly painted generally recoup more at closing than they spend to hire contractors.

-- Arrange a backup plan for your property's sale.

Sometimes even a home that's well located and accurately priced will fail to sell quickly for reasons hard to determine.

To avoid panic in this situation, Irwin recommends that people selling in the midst of a life-changing situation develop a "Plan B" for coping should the process take longer than expected.

Maybe you'll arrange for a trusted relative to take over responsibility for your home sale. Or perhaps you'll want to "buy time" by putting your property up for rent for a few months.

Arranging for a contingency plan helps you avert thoughts of worst-case scenarios, Early says.

"That way, you'll have the peace of mind of knowing that your plans still go forward even if you experience unwelcome delays in the selling process," he says.

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