'SALE BY OWNER' HAS PITFALLS Realtors liken plan to 'playing roulette'


Towson resident Joseph DiMaggio thought he'd hit on a sure-bet money saver.

For just $600, he photocopied and distributed hundreds of fliers, expecting to quickly sell his five-level home with skylights, fireplaces, a two-tiered deck and a high-angled living room ceiling.

"Hidden Treasure!!," for $289,900, proclaimed the flier. In July, Mr. DiMaggio paid a mailing house to send it to selected streets around Towson, suspecting that potential buyers with ties to the area would jump at a chance to move up to a bigger home.

"The object of the game is getting as many people to see the house as possible," said Mr. DiMaggio, 44, named for his father and no relation to the former New York Yankee slugger. In theory, he believed, at least 20 people should have responded -- 1 percent of his list of 2,000.

But his innovative approach proved sorely disappointing. Over five weeks, he got just one call. Then, he turned to a Realtor.

So do about half the home sellers who start out on their own, real estate professionals say. All too often, they say, sellers try to avoid paying commissions of up to 7 percent -- some $20,000 in Mr. DiMaggio's case -- only to switch to an agent when they fail to find a buyer.

Many times, sellers overprice their homes. Or they fail to realize that more goes into marketing a property and negotiating a deal than showing a home, Realtors say.

Trying to save a dollar

"If it's looking that easy, I'm doing that good a job," says Lynn H. Creager, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Grempler Real Estate in the Phoenix area of Baltimore County, who is now listing the DiMaggio home on Hillen Road. "Everyone is out to try to save a dollar, and you can't blame them for trying. . . . They could luck out. But they're going out and playing roulette, trying to beat the odds."

"If the home is in the right location and priced well, it can be successful," says Sarah Davidson, a Realtor with Joan Ryder and Associates in Harford County. "But more cases than not call a Realtor in to help" or work out a co-op agreement, in which the seller pays a partial commission to a Realtor who finds a buyer.

Owners selling on their own often stop short of what's needed to market a property -- "It's not just a matter of having a buyer come in the door," Ms. Creager says.

For instance, sellers might place ads in one or two publications and assume they've covered the marketplace. Most Realtors place ads in several newspapers and home-buying guides, she said. Or they'll place sleek, color brochures near "For Sale" signs to answer questions on price, room size and features. The information could be for passers-by interested in the house or for buyers who visit the home but forget -- after a long day of house hunting -- that a specific home has decks or fireplaces.

Following up with buyers

"Details like that many times can bring back a customer," says Ms. Creager, noting that a poorly designed handout can have the opposite effect.

But even more crucial than showing homes are follow-ups with potential buyers -- determining what a customer liked or disliked about a property, answering questions on financing and linking buyers with special financing programs, Realtors say.

"Sometimes people have questions about a house or financing," says Sandra Blaker, broker with Homeowner Consultants Inc. in Columbia. "If there's no one to answer their questions, it's easier to move on to the next house."

And without someone to negotiate the deal, sellers can end up spending more in points, transfer taxes and other closing fees than they'd save in commission, Ms. Creager says.

Going it alone

Homeowners selling on their own, though, say a little time and LTC effort can produce the same results as with an agent -- and save them money.

"It comes down to having the patience to do the things that a real estate agent wants to do," says Dr. James D. Kassolis, asking $141,000 for his end-of-group, four-bedroom Silver Lake townhouse in Cockeysville.

"I have a real problem with taking a 7 percent commission out of a home," says the periodontist. "I don't see you get a whole lot out of a real estate agent."

Dr. Kassolis has struck upon a way to get the exposure that could make the difference in selling a home, he says. He paid an agency $450 to include his home on the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service for six months.

"In my eyes, this is the best of both worlds," he says. "The whole idea is that if I can save a few dollars in doing this differently, why not? I know what my limits are to sell the house."

Even Realtors disagree about whether some services are best left to the homeowner.

At Homeowner Consultants, Realtors do everything but show the property, a method that has sold 80 percent of the agency's homes within 45 to 60 days, Ms. Blaker says. For a fee -- about 2.5 percent of the asking price -- the agency gives sellers signs, places ads, schedules appointments for showings, negotiates and writes contracts and helps buyers get financing.

Owners 'know the extras'

Sellers are "the worst people in the world to negotiate because they're emotionally involved," Ms. Blaker says. "But the owner is the best person to show a home. They're the ones who know the extras they put in and the intricacies of the neighborhood. An agent off the street has no idea of the extras the sellers have put in."

When he first put his home on the market, Mr. DiMaggio agreed he'd be the best person to show his sandy-colored brick house on a three-quarter-acre lot.

Now, he says he feels more comfortable with a Realtor, "if for no other reason because people come to your house, and a lot don't know what they can afford and what they can't afford."

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