ADVICE TO SELLER: THINK COMPETITIVELY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For half a year, buyers passed up the brick, semidetached house on Walther Avenue. The discouraged seller switched real estate agencies and dropped the price. Twenty six days later, she had a contract.

The buyer, a young woman, saw something no one else had seen. It turned out she had grown up in the house and just noticed it was for sale.

Bringing the asking price in line with comparable sales -- from $89,000 to $83,000 -- likely clinched the deal, says Morgan

Amaimo, the agent who took over the listing. But the emotional draw didn't hurt.

Most sellers can't count on such unusual emotional ties. But to discount emotions altogether could mean the difference between selling in five months or five weeks, agents and brokers say.

Buyers can be turned off by something as simple as a weed-choked flower bed. A cracked, paint-chipped front door might invite buyers to stay out. One agent says a townhouse whose owners played up its water view sold faster than a similar, but less expensive and better-cared-for one nearby.

During an economic slowdown in which some homes languish on the market for months and statistics say only a quarter of properties listed will sell at all this year, sellers need to think competitively, agents say. And that can be painful. For one thing, it can mean pricing a home at the lower end of the market range, rather than based on what the seller paid or believes the home is worth.

"The toughest thing for a seller to understand is they get egotistically involved in the price," says Mr. Amaimo, associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Fells Point. "They want to say they got top dollar when they should look at the bottom line. If it takes six months and they're paying a mortgage of $1,000, and most of it is interest, are you really getting top dollar for your home?"

Betty Jans, an agent with The Prudential Preferred Properties in Arnold, says she discusses the downside of overpricing with clients.

"Your home will be looked at, picked apart and criticized and they'll move on to the next one, finding a reason why the price is not right," she says. "By the time you lower the price you're trying to gather momentum with another group of buyers."

Carolyn Gardiner, another Prudential agent, will only accept listings from highly motivated sellers.

"I wouldn't meet with them, unless the price is realistic," says Ms. Gardiner, who says that 70 percent of her listings sell in less than 90 days, the majority in fewer than six weeks. "If somebody wants to go fishing, now is not the time. If they're looking to test the waters, it's not the time -- and won't be in the '90s."

In late January, Ms. Gardiner listed a Colonial north of Annapolis for $249,900. It sold two weeks later for $242,500, but "the seller paid no closing costs or points and could sell the house for less," she said.

At the same time, a much smaller house next door listed for

$249,000. As of last week, it hadn't sold, though the price had been dropped to $229,900, Ms. Gardiner said. "It was overpriced, and the longer you wait, the less you make," she said.

Competing for buyers also means offering the home in the best condition for the price, agents say. They say the yard must be tidy and the interior bright, spotless and clutter free. But many sellers fail to take even the most obvious steps, such as cleaning carpets, painting walls, washing windows or removing heavy, dark draperies.

"It sounds like common sense -- for the person who cares about what other people think about how they've kept their home," Ms. Jans says. "There are some who don't care, and the ones who don't are the ones you have to convince. Some people allow things to deteriorate a little bit, and it becomes a lot more to do."

When she listed a 10-year-old duplex in Pasadena, she knew it would need to be shown in top condition to compete with numerous similar properties. The seller weeded and mulched, painted shutters, checked for loose boards in his deck and fence. He power washed the exterior. He stored everything inside that cluttered the home and rearranged the furniture for better traffic flow.

"If you can walk into the room and have people walk in and turnaround, they can visualize their furniture in there," Ms. Jans said. "If they can't even walk in, the only thing they will do is peek in and not even think about how their furniture will fit."

An offer came after the second day's showing. The contract was signed the next day and settled just over a week ago -- for list price.

Marc Witman, an associate broker with Long & Foster, says one of his clients saw for himself the importance of condition. The client was living in and trying to sell an older home that had belonged to his parents.

"It had good bones, but needed some paint," Mr. Witman said of his client's house. "It had peeling paint in the kitchen and an old roof that leaked and [the house] was cluttered. He's a bachelor, and there were clothes all over."

While helping the client and his fiance buy a house, Mr. Witman took them to see two similar townhouses. The first, well-maintained, with freshly painted walls, showed like a model home. The second, being sold by an older person, had worn carpeting and appeared cluttered, dark and dreary.

"We came out of the second house, he looked at me and said, 'I will go home and I will get my house straightened up,' " Mr. Witman says. "He saw the emotional appeal. If you don't fall in love when you walk in the door, there's nothing a real estate agent can say. When people walk into a house in poor condition, they don't fall in love."

He contends that the market is full of houses looking for buyers. But surprisingly, he says,"there are buyers out there looking for houses -- and not finding them. There are tired houses. They may be dark, they may have worn carpeting."

Sue Zitzer, an agent with Century 21 Forty West, sold a 20-year-old, split-foyer, single-family house in Catonsville in 11 days -- worn carpeting and all. Several similar neighborhood homes were for sale, including a neighbor's on the market nine months.

"They wanted a quick sale because they had seen what their neighbor had gone through," Ms. Zitzer said.

She suggested a price range based on what had sold and the sellers settled on $139,900 -- $3,000 to $4,000 below market value.

At her urging, the sellers painted the mailbox and the garage door, weeded, edged and mulched flower beds, mowed the grass, trimmed bushes, placed flowers on the doorstep and a wreath on the door.

They created space and light inside by clearing old newspapers and magazines, removing heavy draperies, washing the windows, painting and replaced the family room carpeting with a neutral color.

"When you walk into the living area, let the area be impeccable, with neutral colors and clean windows and tasteful window treatments," she says. "It's really a lot of elbow grease."

By painting and enhancing windows on the first floor, the sellers hoped to divert attention from the outdated living room carpeting -- a sculptured pattern of gold, brown and rust. As part of the final deal, the seller agreed to offer a "carpet allowance," which in effect meant lowering the sales price about $2,000 below asking price.

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