Memories of the real estate meltdown a decade ago are still fresh in the minds of many home sellers. While housing analysts aren't predicting a repeat anytime soon, they caution homeowners -- who've also witnessed a strong sellers' market in recent years -- against arrogance.
At the Washington, D.C., office of the National Association of Realtors (realtor.org), chief economist Lawrence Yun is beginning to cite "buyer pullbacks" in some neighborhoods across the U.S. Meanwhile, the supply of unsold homes -- once extraordinarily tight -- is gradually increasing.
"Home prices are, on average, rising at a slower and healthier pace," Yun says.
Sid Davis, an independent Utah real estate broker, says many housing markets are becoming more balanced between buyers and sellers.
"Real estate is still neighborhood-driven. A desirable home in a great neighborhood can still attract multiple offers. But generally speaking, the pace of sales is slowing," says Davis, the author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."
He stresses that now -- as always -- the most successful sellers are those who empower themselves through feedback from the prospects who visit their place.
"If you hear your visitors hate your paint colors or that the house is cramped with too much furniture, it's time to make immediate changes while your listing is still fresh," Davis says.
The good news for sellers is that it's often easy to garner seller reactions.
"Most buyers tip their hands. Just listen carefully and you'll pick up clues that could prove incredibly useful when you're trying to reach a deal," says Ashley Richardson, a Maryland real estate agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com).
"I'm amazed how willing some buyers are to blurt out whatever comes to mind about a house and to do so freely. Yet that way they forfeit a lot of their bargaining power," says Richardson, who sells property through the Long & Foster realty company.
"Sharp sellers and their agents raise their antenna to pick up buyer interest. One of the biggest clues is how long the people stay in a property when they come for a visit. Anything over 20 minutes is a strong indicator they like your home. If they hate it, they'll bolt out of there in less than five minutes," Davis says.
Here are a few pointers for sellers:
-- Take notice of the comments your visitors make.
If you're home during a showing, Davis says you should stay attuned to the visitors' comments and seek to accurately interpret their remarks -- including the nuances.
"People don't always say what they mean when they see your house. Often, it's quite the reverse. For example, some people will gush on and on about the lovely furniture in a home they absolutely hate. They do that to be nice and not offend you," he says.
Remarkably, those who lack any serious interest in a home are usually the most friendly and polite. Yet those most likely to bid for the place may often be more judgmental about features they don't like.
Davis urges owners to avoid taking personally any minor complaints about their home. Rather, they should use the feedback from serious prospects to help shape a deal more to their liking -- perhaps by offering an allowance to cover the cost of minor upgrades.
-- Notice possible signs of buyer "attachment."
Buyers with a strong interest in a property often begin communicating this on their first visit. They start making what real estate agents call "possessive comments."
"People who start placing their furniture in your house are definitely gaining an attachment to the house. This is a sign they're starting to identify with the place and to picture themselves living there," Davis says.
For instance, they'll try to imagine how their sofa would look in the living room and whether their king bed would fit in the master bedroom.
-- Pay attention to reactions from all involved in the buying decision.
Multiple decades of experience in real estate have taught Davis to avoid preconceptions about who within a family will prove most influential in choosing a home.
"Don't make the mistake of thinking it's always the wife who makes the home-buying decisions. Sometimes it's the husband who has more influence," he says.
-- Ensure that your listing agent conveys buyer feedback.
It's not always possible -- nor recommended -- for owners to be present during showings. Your listing agent may also be absent when showings occur. Still, your agent can gather feedback by calling the agent representing the buyers.
Although buyers are rarely candid about their reactions to a property in the presence of its owners, most agents are truthful with each other when buyers lack interest in a place.
"If the buyers thought your place was a dump and hated the floor plan, you'll be sure to hear about it -- though not in those words," Davis says.
-- Don't assume buyer compliments will predict an offer.
Perhaps you're confident that people who've toured your home are extremely interested. And maybe you've heard they're under pressure to move in time for their teenager to enroll in advanced placement classes at the local high school.
But Richardson warns it's risky to take your prospects for granted, even if they seem extremely motivated. For example, you wouldn't want to make a counter-offer just to gain a tiny advantage on price or terms.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)