Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips For an Efficient Sale

Many retirees are counting on funds from the sale of their home to supplement their Social Security checks and sustain their lifestyles going forward. But how can they time their sale to maximize return?

At this point in the economic cycle, that's a tricky question, says Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist with Zillow, the real estate data company. Although houses are now selling quickly in many popular communities, some owners worry that if they sell too soon, they'll miss out on future price gains.

But no matter your decision on timing, Terrazas urges you to plan ahead.

"It's never too early to get a sense of what your home is worth," he says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Don't wait to gain intelligence on the value of your home.

Terrazas says you may wish to interview up to three local real estate agents to get their assessment of your property's value and to learn what repairs and upgrades are necessary to make the most of your sale.

"Sometimes having more than one perspective makes sense," he says.

Those who get a head start on their sale can make sure they avoid a last-minute crisis that forces them to move before they're ready, says Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

Davis entered the real estate field in 1984, and in those early years he recalls how clients would typically call for help at least three months before they needed to sell. Now he says many wait until just a few weeks before they must move.

"Ideally, (agents0 need a minimum of 90 days or longer, even in a fast-moving market," Davis says.

Once you know you're definitely going to move, Davis says it's prudent to commit to the listing agent of your choice.

An agent with ample notice of your selling plans can better advise you on the steps you'll need to take to achieve the best possible outcome.

"Arranging for contractors on a non-emergency basis can save you cash, and careful pricing can mean more proceeds at the bottom line," Davis says.

-- Seek out data on selling times.

How can you estimate the time needed to go from list to sale?

Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (, suggests you ask your agent for statistics on the average selling times for homes in your community.

"The only numbers that count are the ones for your immediate neighborhood. Beyond that, the statistics aren't relevant," Helfant says.

Take these numbers, known as "days on market," and chart them over a six-month period. If selling times are gradually increasing, this could indicate a cooling of demand and should signal caution to prospective sellers.

"If you determine that your market is gradually slowing down, you'll want to allow yourself extra selling time to ensure a smooth transition," Helfant says.

-- Begin packing as soon as you know you'll be moving.

Davis contends that most home sellers procrastinate on the property preparation process.

"Even when they have extra time, it's human nature to wait until the final inning to mobilize. Most of us rely on deadlines to get going," he says.

Besides painting and repairs, nearly all homes need to be purged of clutter to show well. Your first step, Davis says, should be to remove any excess furnishings that crowd your interior space. Then box up smaller items and place them in your garage or a rented storage unit.

"By beginning as early as possible to clear out clothes, furniture and other items that you rarely use, you enhance your chances of fully completing this task before your place goes up for sale," Davis says.

-- Give yourself extra selling time when moving to a brand-new home.

Nowadays, some homebuilders are willing to sign a sales contract with a prospective buyer that's conditional on the sale of the buyer's property. This is a type of contingent contract.

"Some people, including retirees, get so wowed by a model home in a new development that they'll sign a contract before unloading their old place," Davis says.

A contract conditional on the sale of your present property may not obligate you to go through with the purchase. But if you can't sell your current property on time, you might lose both the new house and your deposits, he says.

Because it can take months to construct a new home -- and it's not unusual for builders to take longer than expected -- some new home buyers wait longer than they should before putting their property on the market, according to Davis.

"But remember, this is a one-way street. The builder can be late but you can't or you'll be thrown in a risky situation financially," he says.

Many real estate agents urge their home-selling clients to allow extra marketing time when they're buying a brand-new property with a contingent contract.

"The reality is that many homeowners, including those moving to a new property, are scared that if they sell sooner than expected, they'll be left homeless. Yet in most cases, that's a needless fear. In a worst-case scenario, you can move in with relatives or take a short-term rental," Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at