It's resolution time, folks. Last week, we offered some immediate action items for those who want 2011 to be the year they become homeowners. By popular demand, this week it's sellers' turn! Whether you are simply trying to decide whether to sell your home next year, or it's been on the market before and you are trying to revamp your approach to get it sold next year, here are 5 things you can do during what's left of 2010 to position yourself for home selling success in 2011.
1. Reality check yourself . . . before you wreck yourself (and the sale of your home, that is). The age-old real estate advice to wanna-be sellers is to get real about pricing - and like my sweet Grandma's advice about always rinsing the cake batter out with cold water, never hot, the caution against overpricing is advice that will stand you in good stead. (And that cold water trick works, btw - rinsing with hot starts to cook the batter to the bowl! But I digress) Before you even get to pricing, though, first you should get real about what your goals really are. Why do you want or need to sell? And how badly - how important is it to you? What would it take to make selling make sense? If you even think you may want to sell your home next year, get clear on these items in your own head before you even talk to anyone outside of your household. Your very next step is to look at your mortgage account statement online and find out what you owe, and find out what your payoff amount would be.
Step 3? Get a reality-based idea of what your home is worth - by talking with several local real estate agents who have a strong, recent track record of succesfully selling homes in your area; these are the folks who'll have a strong idea of what recent sales are the most comparable to yours, and what a local buyer would agree to pay for your home, as well as what it might appraise at. If 3 agents give you one range, and one gives you a bizarrely higher number, be skeptical about the outlier; there are rare bad apples out there in the agent world who will tell you whatever it takes to get the listing. Get real and stay there - don't fall prey to the fallacy that your home is worth more than others, for no substantive reason beyond the fact that, well, it's yours.
Then, move toward making a decision about whether selling actually makes sense for you. Whatever you do, don't let your mental GPS steer you anywhere near that fantasyland where all your plans for selling, moving, etc. rest on the hypothetical that you can get 25% more than your home's actual fair market value. That sort of magical thinking costs you and your agent the time, inconvenience and money it takes to try to conjure up a sale that just ain't gonna happen, and that doesn't even count the opportunity costs of other things you could be doing with those resources. If your home's current value is bizarrely less than you want or need to move on, consider a short sale and price it appropriately or consider staying put and sprucing up your home so it better suits your needs - but don't price it at your "wishful thinking" price and set yourself and your agent up for failure.
2. Figure out the lay of your local land. National blogs and media outlets offer all sorts of useful advice about whether, how and when to sell your home, but there's one thing that sort of advice cannot convey: what's going on in your local market. Get active in Trulia Voices, ask questions and read blogs in your local market and start talking with the real estate brokers and agents from your area who are actively blogging, listing properties and answering questions. They can give you the hyperlocal essentials you need to knows. Sure, it's a buyer's market nationwide, on average. But if you live in Omaha, that may mean that homes sell at or near asking in 45 days or less; in Mesa, Arizona, your home could stay on the market 6 months and sell for 30% below asking. In my neck of the woods, it's not bizarre for homes to sell at 5 percent above asking, in two weeks - and that's still a buyer's market compared to the 20% above asking sales that were common in 2006.
Every market is different, and you can neither know what to expect when you list your home for sale, nor implement smart strategies for getting your home sold without knowing what's going on in yours.
3. Tour nearby Open Houses. Your job, as the seller of your home, is to present a compelling package to buyers - compelling enough to make them sign away 30 years of their lives and the vast majority of their worldly possessions in exchange for your home (kinda ups the ante, doesn't it?). To do that, it helps to get inside the minds of your home's target buyers. And to do that, you need to think how they think and see what they see.
Visiting the other homes your target buyers will also see online and/or in real life will give you a sense for how your home's price and condition will measure up to the competition. Go view other homes that are for sale in your area, making sure you see at least a few that fall into each of these categories: (a) properties in your neighborhood or similar neighborhoods, (b) homes in your home's general price range, all around town, and (c) homes that have similar numbers of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet - no matter what the price. You'll likely end up seeing homes in a wide range when it comes to price and condition; know that your home, to sell, will need to beat these on one or both measures. Also, if you try to go to at least a few open houses, rather than just asking your agent to show them to you at your convenience, you'll also get a sense for what sort of buyer traffic you can expect from open houses, and you can even chat with those home's listing agents about local market dynamics and what factors they believe may help or hurt that particular listing.
4. Formulate a plan: in A-B-C order. Collaborate with your broker or agent to put an action plan in place. Make sure you address: list price, list date, showing arrangements and the property prep work (see #5, below) that your agent recommends you do prior to listing the place. To minimize the stress of a somewhat inevitably stressful experience (i.e., selling your home!), work with your agent on Plans B and C now, too! What is the average number of days a home stays on the market in your area before it sells (DOM)? (Hint: don't look at the ones that never sold, because you don't want to be part of that group!) Decide up front if your home sits on the market for X number of days with no offer, you'll lower the price to Y. Also cover alternative marketing plans/vehicles for your home, and even calendar when you might start to offer transactional incentives, like closing cost credits, interest rate buy-downs, throwing in personal property and even making reverse offers to buyers who have expressed an interest but can't seem to get off the fence. At some point along the timeline, include a pause where your agent can interview buyer's brokers who have shown your home to collect buyer feedback, so you can course correct your pricing, marketing or staging strategies accordingly.
5. Do your prep work - fix and pre-pack. If you are sure you're selling in 2011, and want to put your holiday vacay time to good use, make a list of all those little repairs you've been wanting to do forever, call up your neighborhood handyperson and get 'em done. Loose knobs and handles, double-hung windows that are painted shut, the frayed carpet on the steps, that broken bathroom tile - fixing those things can give your place just the patina and polish it'll take to compete with the ample, low-priced competition you'll have next year.
It may be tough for non-distressed home sellers to compete with foreclosures and short sales on price. But one area where individual home sellers usually can best the competition is CONDITION! Your home can present to buyers in tip-top condition in a way that most foreclosures and short sales cannot. And this includes staging - most foreclosures will be shown vacant, and/or with the debris of the former owner's lives tragically littering the premises. Short sales are usually (but not always) a bit better, but are most often shown fully occupied, furnished and cluttered - just as the owners live in them, because of the distressed nature of the sale. As a non-distressed home's seller, it behooves you to ensure that your home's curb appeal is at it's best and that throughout the interior, the buyer is able to visualize the lovely life they can, scratch that, WILL live once they buy and move into your home. Depersonalizing and decluttering are essential to this staging effort; in fact, one wise Trulia Voices contributor tells her sellers to go ahead and start "pre-packing" - put most of the personal items that make your home yours in a box, like you're getting ready to move (which you are!) and leave your place in as close to model-home move-in condition as possible.