Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips to Seal the Deal When Selling

A couple in their late 50s spent months prepping their house for sale. They did everything on their listing agent's checklist, including cleaning, de-cluttering and repairs. They even hired a designer to choose the paint color for their shutters.

But, as with most endeavors, hard work doesn't necessarily preclude hard luck. Ten days after receiving a signed contract offer, the sellers were stunned to learn the buyers were backing out.

"Out of the blue, one day they called to say they just couldn't go through with the deal due to money problems," recalls Joan McLellan Tayler, who handled the listing and eventually sold the property to other buyers.

The lesson is that when selling a home, there are no guarantees. Even sellers who follow all their listing agent's suggestions can have problems, says Tayler, a long-time real estate company owner.

Here are a few steps sellers can take to improve their odds.

-- Look for an experienced listing agent.

Tayler was new to the business when she represented the couple in the above story. Looking back, she realizes she should have asked more questions. That way, she might have helped her clients avoid a botched deal.

Too many people take a casual approach to picking an agent, she says, noting that some make the mistake of hiring a relative, a friend or a young agent looking to get started.

Ideally, she says, sellers should opt for an agent with experience in handling lots of different deals. Those with a track record, she adds, are most apt to sniff out problems before they happen.

If for personal reasons you're determined to choose a newcomer, she suggests you ask that agent to share the listing with an established pro from the same office.

"With two agents on your side, you'll benefit from both their strengths," Tayler says.

-- Request financial details on prospective buyers.

In the face of high housing prices, many purchasers continue to rely on government-backed low down payment loans.

But to prevent a repeat of the mortgage crisis that led to the financial downturn, lenders and their regulators continue to hold would-be purchasers to stringent standards.

"Since the recession, we've never returned to the era of super-easy money," says Eric Tyson, co-author of "Mortgages for Dummies."

Savvy sellers are careful to check the financial standing of would-be purchasers before accepting any bid.

Before accepting an offer, sellers should insist on seeing a genuine "pre-approval" letter from a known lender. This should establish that the prospective buyers have had their credit checked, their employment confirmed and their assets verified.

In addition, prospects can be asked to supply other details about their creditworthiness, such as their credit scores. The most common of these, known as "FICO scores," range from 300 to 850. The higher that number, the more likely are borrowers to get the loan they need to close the deal.

"To be safe, look for buyers with a FICO score of at least around 700 or better," Tyson says.

Bidders can obtain reports on their credit scores from the website

-- Foresee issues that could arise in the home inspection phase.

These days, a majority of buyers exercise their right to a home inspection. And, if they can get away with it, many use the process to better their deal.

"Some buyers view their inspector's report as a chance for a second round of negotiations. They see problems cited on the inspection report as an opportunity to cut their price for the property," Tyson says.

In especially hot markets, a small number of buyers are now voluntarily waiving their right to an inspection to make their offer more competitive. Still, it's unwise for sellers to try to talk buyers out of their own home inspection. In fact, smart sellers may wish to pay for their own inspection even before the property goes on the market, especially if their house is more than 10 years old.

"The sellers' inspector probably won't detect the same small problems as the buyers' inspector will. But both should identify really serious issues," Tyson says.

-- Try to avoid troublesome people when doing a deal.

Obviously, not all sellers are lucky enough to receive multiple bids for their property. But if you're reasonably certain you'll have more than one offer from which to choose, try to avoid cutting a deal with "difficult people."

Perhaps you'll never have face-to-face contact with your potential buyers. But your listing agent or others will likely meet them when they visit your place. And their behavior can be very telling.

"If the buyers make disparaging comments as they walk through the house, that's a red flag," Tyson says.

By avoiding difficult buyers, Tyson says you may spare yourself needless anxiety and conflict.

"It doesn't matter how great the buyers look on paper. If they're jerks at the beginning, they'll probably be jerks to the bitter end of your deal," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at