Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Selling a Vacant Home

“Big house fatigue” is the phenomenon real estate pros cite to explain why some homeowners end up selling far sooner than expected, despite the pandemic.

Take the case of a single mom -- a scientist -- who bought a spacious stone colonial in a popular suburban neighborhood. She made the move from a small townhouse to give her 11-year-old son extra rooms for homework and video gaming. She also wanted space for a home gym.

But soon after buying the house, she realized that caring for the place plus its large yard was much more work than she had envisioned. What’s more, her son was no happier in larger quarters. Hence, the pair made the sudden decision to move back to their former townhouse community.

“Against my recommendation, we put the house on the market in ‘as is’ condition and vacant. This despite scuff marks on the walls, pine needles in the gutters and dead bugs in the basement,” says Ashley Richardson, who handled the listing.

Richardson, who sells property through the Long & Foster realty firm, says that given the extreme shortage of available homes, some sellers have become careless about how they present their place to the public.

“Some people resist spending the money needed for a successful sale. Selling a vacant house is especially problematic, because it feels to buyers like a commercial building rather than a home,” says Richardson, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com).

Granted, even vacant “fixer-uppers” will eventually sell, so long as they’re located in coveted areas where supply is tight. But these sellers must typically wait longer and earn less than if their place had been improved and staged.

The scientist in this true story learned her lesson the hard way. Though homes in her neighborhood now typically sell in a couple of days and for above asking price, her colonial sat unsold for more than a month without a reasonable offer. It was only after she took a price cut and made cosmetic improvements that she attracted a buyer who still paid less than the list price.

One problem facing those who attempt to sell an empty house is that it often shows poorly online.

“Nearly all real estate agents now use professional photographers. Their high-resolution images show all the detail in a vacant house, which can leave a very bad impression,” Richardson says.

Visual eyesores aren’t the only problem that comes with trying to sell an empty place.

“Vacant houses often have a stale smell because the windows and doors are rarely open. And odors can be a huge barrier to getting a house sold,” says Kurt Albers, a broker in the real estate field since 1994.

He says a vacant house that lingers unsold raises buyers’ suspicions and can encourage below-market offers from those who believe the sellers are under pressure to move.

“People who walk into a vacant house wonder where the people went and why they had to move. They want to know if the sellers lost their home to foreclosure and whether something is wrong with it,” Albers says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Address the cosmetic flaws in your vacant home.

Sid Davis, the author of “A Survival Guide for Selling a Home,” says the sellers of a vacant property can’t afford to present their place in anything but pristine condition.

To maximize a sale, Davis contends it’s essential that vacant homes be freshly painted on the interior, in a light, neutral tone.

He also urges the owners of vacant homes to replace worn carpet and refinish (or replace) hardwood floors that need work. In addition, fix any unsightly area visitors might encounter, such as scratch marks in a cast iron kitchen sink.

-- Look into hiring a professional stager.

Eric Tyson, co-author of “House Selling for Dummies,” says a vacant property needs a few well-chosen items of furniture so would-be buyers can see the scale of its rooms.

Of course, you can always rent or buy furniture to outfit a vacant home. But Tyson says a better solution is to hire a professional home stager to lend you the “props” you need to stage your place thoughtfully.

Your listing agent may be trained to provide staging services. Or you can turn to professional stagers’ organizations for leads. One such group is the Real Estate Staging Association (realestatestagingassociation.com).

-- Keep your vacant home in show-worthy condition.

As agents know, one advantage of marketing a home that’s vacant is that it’s convenient to show, without the need for complex arrangements with those living there.

But things can still go wrong. For instance, newspapers and litter can pile up on the front lawn. Lightbulbs can burn out. A leak might develop in a bathroom faucet. Dust and cobwebs are a given.

You can always hire a neighborhood teenager to pick up newspapers and do routine yard work. But Davis says it’s also important to ensure that your listing agent keep a close eye on the property, stopping by at least twice each week.

“Looking after your vacant home is part of your agent’s professional responsibility, and it’s not that much of a burden,” he says.

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