Selling your first home

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Feb 6, 2018

So, you’ve decided to sell your first home. You’ve clearly bought a home before, so you’re not clueless about the process, but you don’t really know how to handle the other side of the transaction. Here are some areas to consider.

Prepare your home for sale

The first step to selling your home is figuring out who your target buyer is and how your home will appeal to them.

A home that appeals to someone looking to buy at a bargain and make their own repairs will be different than a home for a buyer who doesn’t want to do anything to the home after they buy it, said Keith Hickman, associate Realtor® in the Beverly Hills office of luxury real estate agency Compass.

Once you’ve identified how you want to market your home, there are many inexpensive steps you can take to broaden its appeal and have it present well in marketing photos.

Let’s say your target buyer is someone who wants to live in the home, instead of purchasing it as a rental property. These five tasks will help you optimize your property.

  1. Declutter. Get a head start on packing and make your house look nicer and more spacious by putting away all the nonessentials. Label three sets of boxes: Trash, Donate, and Keep. Items to remove from your house at this stage include oversized and excess furniture, worn-out furniture, as many children’s toys as your kids will tolerate, extra clothes and shoes, and extra kitchen appliances and tools. You may need to rent a storage unit unless you have ample garage, basement, or attic space, but keep in mind that potential buyers will want a good look at these areas, too.
  2. Depersonalize. Put away all the family photos (including pet photos), fridge magnets, travel souvenirs, and everything else that tells the buyer who currently lives in your home. Allowing buyers to envision themselves living there will help you make the sale.
  3. Repair. Unless all-cash buyers looking for fixer-uppers are your target market (and you’ll be limiting yourself to bargain hunters if you go that route), aim to repair every single problem you’ve neglected over the years. Start with anything a mortgage lender might consider a threat to the occupant’s safety or the home’s habitability, like crumbling front porch steps or a broken furnace, because a potential buyer can’t secure a loan otherwise. Then fix the smaller nuisances and eyesores — loose doorknobs, sticky locks, squeaky hinges, burned-out lightbulbs, leaky sinks, and running toilets — to make it look like you’ve cared for your home as well as possible. 
  4. Freshen. Get carpets cleaned if they’re in very good to excellent condition; if they aren’t, replace them. You may want to consider possibly refinishing or replacing floors with hardwood or tile flooring, if those finishes are popular in your market. Give every room a fresh coat of paint in a neutral color if it doesn’t already have one. Replace worn-out window coverings. Hire professionals to deep clean your home and get rid of any pet odors or other unpleasant smells. Create a plan to keep your home super clean until it sells, because you never know when a buyer and their agent might want to drop in.
  5. Stage. You’ll get the best staging if you hire a professional. This is an added cost, but they may be able to save you money by incorporating some of your existing furnishings and decorations. Another option is to rent from a staging company everything that will make your home look perfect. Don’t forget to stage the outside of your home. Create curb appeal by mowing and edging the lawn, adding vibrant new plants, and creating an immaculate front porch. Don’t give buyers anything to criticize before they step inside; only give them details to fall in love with.

Leave the sale to the experts?

Yes, you could attempt a “for sale by owner” (FSBO) transaction by paying a few hundred dollars to display your property on the Multiple Listing Service, thereby cutting out the real estate agent and their 6 percent commission. However, you should know what you’re up against before you forego an agent.

When sellers go this route, they don’t realize that, to many buyers, it translates to “unrepresented seller.” The buyer will likely subtract 6 percent from their offer price off the bat because they know you aren’t paying a broker, said S. Borghei-Razavi, a New York City real estate attorney. But that’s not the worst of it.

“Buyers looking for that special deal are seeking FSBOs because they think FSBO sellers are desperate and unsavvy,” Borghei-Razavi continued. “Once you choose a buyer with this mindset, you have made your bed.” These buyers can often be unresponsive and delay closing for months, he said.

Even if you find a buyer willing to pay market price for an FSBO, you’ll still have to act as an agent, he explained, and the buyer is less likely to be responsive or forthcoming when speaking directly to the seller than to their agent. Challenges might arise during the process, and deals can fall apart without an agent to handle them.

Further, without an agent, you are signing up for a part-time job that you have no experience with, he said. You might not like the job, he noted, and it might make the experience of selling your home even more stressful.

What about making a go of it on your own, then hiring an agent later if it doesn’t work out? Borghei-Razavi advised against it. Buyers may think you’re trying to hide something by foregoing an agent, and you’re likely to misprice your home by using too few comparables (price comparisons for recently sold, similarly situated homes). Real estate agents often don’t show buyers FSBOs, he said, and the longer the home stays on the market, the fewer buyers consider it.

How do you hire a good agent, then? Choose carefully, experts advise.

Talk to friends and neighbors about agents they have used or have experience with. Indeed, many people talk to their financial advisor about a recommendation. Research the reputation, credentials, and track records of various agents. State real estate boards maintain license and disciplinary databases.

Perhaps the agent you used to buy the house you are now trying to sell is a good choice. However, some agents may be better at one side of the transaction. It’s usually wise to ask around and look at the recent listings any candidate has handled.

At the same time, you may want to research whom to use as a real estate attorney to finalize sale terms and paperwork. You may elect to use the attorney who handled your original home purchase. But if you want or need a new attorney, it’s advisable to line one up ahead of time.

Get the price right the first time

“Real estate listing appointments have turned into a horrible game of ‘let’s see who can promise you the most money,’” said Anthony Grosso of Grosso Properties in Malverne, New York. “A lot of agents know the listing will go to whoever promises the seller the highest listing price. This leads many people into signing with an agent who knew it would never sell at the price they gave you. Since they know they are competing with other agents, it’s the easiest way to get the listing and lock you in.”

Make the agent justify the listing price they give you and show you the comparable sales that made them arrive at that price, Grosso explained. Don’t take their word for it and let your property sit overpriced on the market for two months before dropping it to the price you should have listed it at originally (after the agent gives excuses about how the market changed or a few low sales pulled down the price). The agent may still win in this situation, because they secured the listing over other agents, but you lose because you could have sold your home faster with a more straightforward agent.

Grosso also said you shouldn’t assume that a larger real estate office will grant you access to a larger pool of buyers. Larger agencies may have had this advantage before the era of online listings, but today, “no matter what office lists the property for sale, all buyers will see it on the twenty real estate websites out there,” he said. The reason some agents still try to sell potential clients on this presumed advantage is because it increases their odds of “double-ending” a commission — representing both the buyer and the seller on the same transaction and maximizing their commission.

This arrangement is not in your best interest because the agent will have a conflict of interest. An agent working both ends of the deal is “more likely to do and say whatever it takes to make the sale happen, even if it's not favorable to the sellers,” Grosso said.

Ron Lennox, owner of Lennox Home Buyers in Houston, advises pricing your home for immediate interest. When potential buyers and their agents look for properties, they often filter their search in favor of newly listed homes and by price range, he said.

Agents may try to list the home at a higher price than necessary to get more money for the seller and a higher commission for themselves, but this strategy can backfire, Lennox explained. For example, if you list your property at $203,000, you will exclude buyers with a budget of $200,000 or less, unnecessarily shrinking your pool of prospects.

Hickman offers another reason why overpricing your home won’t work.

“Your sale price should be in line with a bank appraiser’s valuation of your home,” he said. “Since most home sales are still financed through a lender, the appraisal price of the home is still king when it comes to a successful home sale.”

What’s more, the longer your home is up for sale, the more buyers may suspect that something is wrong with the home, its price, or the market in general.

Negotiate

Realtor® Monica Rivera of Downey, California, recommends working with an agent who understands the fine art of negotiation so they can create a sense of urgency and scarcity that will help your home sell quickly. She shared some practices many sellers don’t realize.

“Price strategically to create a bidding-war-type situation and leverage the hidden agent remarks that only we can see on the back end of the Multiple Listing Service,” Rivera said. “Too many agents leave this blank when it can be used to inform other Realtors® that offers are due on a specific day, creating a sense of urgency. And when multiple offers are received, rather than simply accept the highest-priced offer, always counter the top three to five offers.”

Another important strategy for first-time sellers is to not be too worried or too eager.

Borghei-Razavi said he often sees nervous first-time sellers pander to the first willing buyer their broker finds. “Sellers should act way more confidently and they should not forget this is a sophisticated business deal where their firmness impacts their bottom line,” he explained.

Once you and the buyer initially agree on a price and general contract terms, such as days to closing and contingencies, the usual steps to closing will begin. Just as when you bought your home, these will likely include attorney review, home inspection, title search, and any other steps that may be required by the buyer’s mortgage lender.

In these stages, additional negotiations can still take place. For instance, the home price can be adjusted should a home inspection turn up repair issues. But, with thought and preparation, such issues may be kept to a minimum, and your home will sell.

More from MassMutual…

Buying your first home

First house: What millennials want

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.