Two years ago, Paula and Roy Grant were on top of the world. In their early 30s, they had just completed building their dream home on a secluded, 2-acre wooded lot in Ellicott City.
But after living in their 4,000-square-foot brick home for a little more than a year, the Grants realized it was just too much for them to care for while rearing three children under the age of 5.
So in October 1996, they listed their four-bedroom house for sale at $449,000, believing the home would sell quickly because it was almost new and in model-like condition.
But six months later, frustrated and with no offers in sight, the Grants took their home off the market, struggling to understand why it wouldn't sell.
"We had a lot of activity on our home. We had people seeing the house constantly," Paula Grant said. "But they never made an offer."
Realtors and lenders say the Grants' experience is not uncommon, especially in the current market, where Maryland buyers have the upper hand. Industry experts attribute the buyer's market to three factors: There is a glut of homes for sale; there is little fear that mortgage rates will spike upward; and there is a strong economy, creating high consumer confidence.
But that doesn't mean that sellers have to roll over and play dead. They just need to be as resourceful as ever, and employ strategies that will make their homes stand out against the competition, industry experts said.
"The reality is that a home now has become more of a commodity than ever before, like silver or gold," said Dawn Dougan, a Realtor for Champion Realty Inc. of Annapolis.
Unlike years past when location was the key to selling a home, today's buyers are interested in price and condition, said Cindy Ariosa, branch manager for Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty in Timonium. Couples buying homes now both have careers, car payments and often children, so they don't have the time, the money or the desire to buy a home that needs a lot of fixing up, she said.
"We tell the sellers the house needs to look like a model -- neutral colors, new, light, bright, move-in condition," Ariosa said.
Buyers also are pickier, Dougan said. Her statistics show the average homebuyer in today's market will drive by at least 75 homes and physically walk through about 35 homes, she said.
By comparison, just seven years ago buyers typically checked out only 10 homes before buying one, Dougan said.
"Buyers are realizing there are so many homes out there, they don't want to miss one," she said. "They will keep looking until they see one that's a good value."
According to the Maryland Association of Realtors, there were 40,768 homes on the market statewide as of June, selling for a median price -- half cost more, half cost less -- of $125,594. That doesn't include newly constructed homes that builders are selling. Suburban Washington counties had the highest number of homes for sale, followed by Baltimore County and Baltimore City.
In Prince George's County, 6,232 homes were on the market in June, while in Baltimore County, 5,579 homes were up for sale. In Baltimore City, 4,591 homes were on the market as of June, according to the state Realtors association.
"There's more houses on the market in Maryland than ever before," said Pat Hiban, an associate broker with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia. "This is one of the worst seller markets."
Part of the problem is that there simply are not as many buyers as there are sellers, he said, so supply exceeds demand. He estimates there are about 10 percent fewer buyers than sellers.
So what's a seller to do to make his or her house really stand out against the competition? Plenty, industry experts say.
There's little most sellers can do to improve or change the location of their homes, but they do control condition and price, two vital elements of selling a home.
"You've got one shot to get ahead of the market, and then you're chasing it," Dougan said. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
The first six to eight weeks a home is on the market are the most critical because that's when 80 percent of the activity involving potential buyers will occur, she said.
In fact, market studies show that if a house is not sold within the first 90 days it's on the market, that it will take more than 180 days for it to sell, Ariosa said.
"Our objective is to get a buyer emotionally attached to a property," she said. "It's the little cosmetic details that make a difference."
The Grants can attest to the importance of the exterior of a house, especially when it comes to landscaping.
In their case, after taking their home off the market in April 1997 when the contract with their first Realtor expired, the Grants took another look at their home and consulted a new real estate broker -- Hiban. He suggested they landscape around their home, something they had been thinking of doing.
"All the feedback we got was that the house showed extremely well," Paula Grant said, but without landscaping, the couple realized that people couldn't see how attractive the home was, only that any buyer would have to pay to landscape the lot himself.
So the Grants spent more than $1,000 to landscape their home professionally before putting it back on the market with a $10,000 price reduction in May. Within two weeks, they had two offers on their home, and by the end of the month they had sold it for close to $439,000, Paula Grant said.
The landscaping "made an enormous difference," she said. "I used to say our house looked like it was dropped from an airplane. Now it looks like it belongs."
If a home isn't attractive from the street, lacking what Realtors call "curb appeal," potential buyers will drive right by, Hiban said. Once a seller gets buyers to stop and come inside the house, they have to make sure the interior looks as much like a model home as possible.
The reasoning is that sellers are competing with new construction, a powerful competitor because everything is new, Hiban said.
Sellers also need to make sure their homes are as neutral as possible, even if that means removing wallpaper and repainting rooms in antique white, or pulling up worn or brightly colored carpeting and replacing it with a beige color.
In fact, sellers are much better off replacing old carpeting than providing a carpet allowance to buyers, Coldwell Banker's Ariosa said. Even better is if a seller can remove carpet and let hardwood floors show, she said.
"A buyer will deduct $10,000 from the sale price if a house is not painted or has dated interior wall colors," Ariosa said. Buyers wonder "that if the sellers haven't taken the time to update the paint, what else haven't they updated?"
Sellers need to keep in mind that the two most important rooms in a home to a buyer are the kitchen and the master bedroom, Hiban said.
"You want to make these rooms appear as big and bright as possible," he said.
And it's important to keep the master bedroom and all other rooms simply furnished, Hiban said. Sellers might want to consider putting unused or worn furniture in storage, he said.
Ariosa stressed that rooms that have too much furniture in them will appear smaller than they really are.
Finally, sellers need to eliminate clutter, said Doug Poole, a real estate broker with Re/Max Preferred Realty of Hunt Valley. That includes packing away excess pictures or collections, Hiban said.
For sellers in a buyer's market, it is essential that they make their home as competitive as possible, Champion Realty's Dougan said.
"People will buy what they perceive to be the greatest value compared to the competition," she explained.
As a result, price and marketing of the home are important.
"If homes are priced right, they are not going to stay on the market, unless you have a depressed market," said Layne Morrill, president-elect of the National Association of Realtors.
Maryland's home market is not depressed, but during the last several years, many sellers have seen their home values remain the same -- symptomatic of a nonappreciating market, Poole said.
Many sellers don't realize their homes aren't worth as much as they think they are or should be, and will often overprice their homes, industry experts said. So the first thing sellers need to do is to check the prices on similar homes in their neighborhoods and make sure their home is priced right, Realtors said.
That said, sellers often can employ a variety of strategies to move their homes. For instance, Dougan said, some sellers offer bonuses to the selling Realtor of anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000.
However, for sellers who need the cash from their home to buy another one, coming up with that kind of money is difficult, and Realtors often see it as a sign of desperation, Dougan said.
The usual commission paid by the seller is 6 or 7 percent of the sales price. That is usually evenly split between seller's and buyer's brokers. However, Dougan sometimes advises her clients to write an addendum that would add an extra 1 percent to a selling Realtor's commission. Offering agents 4 percent instead of 3 percent often increases showings and generates greater interest among agents, Dougan said.
Another tool Dougan has used to interest agents in a home is to have sellers with large amounts of frequent-flier miles offer -- if allowed by the airline -- two round-trip tickets to the selling agent, she said.
Columbia residents Lorraine and Louis Caracci felt they were giving their home away when they kept dropping the price of their three-bedroom Cape Cod.
"I was pulling it from the market," Lorraine Caracci said. "I could not afford to sell it."
The Caraccis, who bought their single-family home in 1992, put more than $30,000 into it. But they over-improved their home -- fixing it up to the point that they couldn't recover their investment.
Sellers helping buyers
The Caraccis initially listed their home for $174,000, but after few showings over five weeks during the spring, they dropped the price to $160,000 -- so low they were afraid they couldn't afford to sell their home. But they persevered and sold it in July for $171,000, after listing it with another agent.
"Everybody wants the most bang for their buck, but with the competition the way it is, it's hard," Lorraine Caracci said. "We're still losing a fortune. I have to go to the [settlement] table with $6,000."
Sellers bringing money to the table at closing time is not unusual, real estate experts said. In fact, close to 80 percent of homes sold now include some sort of seller contribution, Coldwell Banker's Ariosa said.
Many buyers can afford the monthly payments on a home, but they simply don't have enough savings to cover a down payment and Maryland's closing costs, which are among the nation's highest.
Sellers have several options to help buyers, such as paying closing costs and points, but Realtors such as Dougan and Poole advise sellers against advertising that they will help with these items. It's better to negotiate such things, because if a seller advertises that he will pay $5,000 in closing costs on a $200,000 home, the buyer automatically sees the price as $195,000, Poole said.
And sellers need to remember that, despite the hassles, now is not a bad time to sell a home because once their home is sold, sellers become buyers, Dougan said.
"The silver lining of the market is that if you sell now, you won't get the highest price, but when you go to buy, you will get a better deal and save some money," she said.
Your home must be clean and neutral to attract as many buyers as possible. Other suggestions from industry experts:
* Mow the lawn, trim the trees and clean the yard.
* Put away tools, toys and garbage cans.
* Add fresh mulch to flower beds and around trees.
* Remove window screens to make interior of house seem brighter.
* Replace broken shingles, shutters and window panes.
* Add brighter light bulbs to fixtures throughout the house.
* Clean woodwork and all carpeting. Replace any worn or loud-colored carpeting with a neutral color.
* Open curtains.
* Discard worn furniture and move extra furniture out of rooms.
* Clear away all appliances you don't use regularly.
* Give walls a fresh coat of paint in a neutral color.
* Clean closets and start packing away unused items.
* Eliminate clutter, discard magazines and newspapers.
* Clean all appliances - oven, stove, refrigerator.
* Scrub bathrooms.
* Straighten garage and park cars inside it.
* Clean basement.
* Change furnace filter.
* When showing your house, turn all lights on to help it appear brighter. Also, add cinnamon sticks to a slow-boiling kettle of water in the kitchen to freshen the air.
Price your home correctly. Look at comparable sales within the last six months in your immediate area. An overpriced home will not attract buyers or agents.
Pub Date: 8/10/97