Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Selling Quickly in Tough Times

This past January, a New Jersey couple in their 60s crafted exciting plans to leave their grand colonial-style house in favor of a small waterfront condo in North Carolina near their grandkids. The goal was to sell at a leisurely pace in early 2021.

But the couple’s plans accelerated recently after they were furloughed from their jobs. Worse, the husband was infected with COVID-19, and his illness included a costly hospital stay that further drained their savings. So they’re under financial pressure to sell the colonial right away.

With the economy in turmoil and the couple’s house not yet prepped for market, they worry about the implications of selling now. Given their shortage of cash on hand, how can they upgrade their house for showings both swiftly and inexpensively? Must they accept a sacrificial price?

Skylar Olsen, a Seattle-based economist for real estate giant Zillow, doesn’t know the couple in this true story. But she says the outlook for their sale could prove better than feared. Though she cites statistics showing many would-be buyers are now pulling back from the market, she notes that many sellers are also adopting a “wait and see” approach, which means the couple will likely face relatively few rivals.

Ashley Richardson, a veteran real estate agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (, agrees that outlook for sellers may be better than expected in coming weeks.

“What’s surprising now is that a fair number of people working from home with their kids out of school are recognizing the pressing need for a bigger, better house,” says Richardson, who sells property in Maryland through the Long & Foster realty firm.

Realtors say it’s not only low-income people who may confront the need for a rapid sale due to the virus outbreak. People at any level of the economic ladder can find themselves without the money they need to make their place salable.

“I’ve known clients with high salaries who live paycheck to paycheck. When a crisis hits, they must totally restructure their lives and sell their house. But sometimes they don’t have the money to make it market-ready,” says Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home.”

Nash says those confronting the need to sell hurriedly due to COVID-19 issues should face the situation squarely and not delay, even if they’re entitled to postponing their monthly mortgage payments.

“You’ve got to bite the bullet and act quickly,” Nash says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Make your place sparkling clean.

With the current extreme emphasis on hygiene, Nash says it’s more important than ever that for-sale properties appear meticulously clean.

It’s true that many interested buyers are now spending more time previewing property through virtual online tours. Yet Nash says that even now, with fears of infection, it’s exceedingly rare for buyers to commit to a purchase without touring a home’s interior in person.

“Folks will give you many extra points if they think your house is so clean they could eat off the floors,” Nash says.

-- Try to get help to do “strategic painting” and yard work.

Even if you’re financially pinched, it’s unlikely you’ll find volunteers to take on a large-scale house-painting job for nothing. But Nash says that by contacting a local church or synagogue and explaining your current situation, you might find those willing to donate a finite amount of time to help you complete some limited work that will enhance the exterior of your place.

“Focus on the importance of repainting trim, including your shutters and front door. Also, stress the need to perfect your landscaping. All these are tasks you could accomplish quickly and cheaply alongside volunteers,” he says.

-- Find a listing agent trained in “staging.”

The quest by home sellers to get the highest possible proceeds has spawned an industry of home “stagers” -- people hired to rearrange and supplement furnishings to make a For Sale property more appealing.

Stagers typically charge up to $1,000 or more for a redo. Many are quite effective at making a home look more attractive. If you lack the funds to pay a stager, Nash suggests you look for a listing agent who will provide such services without an extra fee.

“Every day more agents are trained in the art of staging, and some have a real knack for it,” he says.

How can you be sure that agents who claim expertise in staging will do a good job? Nash recommends you ask them to email you “before” and “after” photos of properties they’ve staged for clients. Look at these prior to signing a listing agreement with one of them.

Of course, in an era of social distancing, not all talented stagers are comfortable spending time within a property to do physical staging work -- but some will do so willingly if your place is vacant and you provide adequate personal protective gear.

-- Look for guidance on pricing from experienced real estate pros.

As real estate agents point out, it’s crucial that the seller of an “as is” home price it at a level that accurately reflects its condition. That way, you can reduce the risk that it will languish unsold for a lengthy period.

To offer pricing recommendations for their clients, agents typically use what are known as “comparables,” which represent past sales of similar homes in the same neighborhood. But Nash says that in this era of economic uncertainty, the key is to look forward, not back. You need someone with a sense of whether local property valuations are currently rising, falling or staying flat.

“Right now, there are a lot of missing pieces in the puzzle. Still, as the economy gradually reopens in the days and weeks to come, real estate pros should have more clarity on pricing trends,” he says.

Nash strongly recommends that those under duress to sell in the current market seek pricing guidance for agents with substantial experience and an in-depth knowledge of their neighborhood.

“Everyone knows that as in politics, all real estate is local. It takes a pro to tell you about the direction of prices in your particular hamlet,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at