Seller and agent: Love helps; Success: Short of love, a blend of respect, rapport and communication may ease tensions and help sell that house.


It's a relationship that's not unlike others, but a special bond has to evolve.

Like any marriage there will be highs and lows. Stress and tension. Suspicion. Perhaps, even anger. But when it comes time for the seller and the real estate agent to part ways, both parties hope the only emotions they'll remember will be joy and satisfaction.

Yet when a seller and agent are contractually bound, how should the two interact to avoid situations that may cause a split or a divorce?

Brokers and agents say it is a blend of communication, rapport and respect.

The relationship between seller and agent is critical to the sale of a home. Sellers often don't know what to expect from their agents -- or what will be expected of them. If communication breaks down, it can result in sales stagnation and ill will. As with any relationship, there are indications that things are going downhill.

"When you don't feel like anyone's willing to listen to anyone anymore, there's no longer goodwill there, it's time to change agents," said D. R. Grempler, president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Real Estate Inc. in Towson. "[Problems are] usually from unreasonable situations and people. People become very upset with real estate. It's one of the most upsetting situations other than a death in the family."

Similar to the dating process, phone calls can be a sign of a strong or weak rapport with real estate agents. If the agent is calling regularly, usually weekly, with feedback from showings and updates, it's a good sign. If your calls aren't being returned, it's a warning.

"When you don't have communication, there's a sixth sense about it," said Adam Cockey, a veteran manager with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA at Wyndhurst. "Cut bait. No phone calls from the agent indicates the first wave of disinterest. You may not have to dismiss the agent, but call and ask the agent the plan from here on. Agents should create answers even if you don't know questions."

"I've inherited listings where I told the seller the same thing as the old agent, but, because the chemistry was there, they listened and the house sold; it's like any other relationship," said Marc Witman, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and an associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc.

Every question the seller has should warrant a proper answer, said Susanna Gutberlet, an associate with Riley & Associates.

"If the house isn't getting any bites, why? If the agent expects a certain commission, why? If it's estimated that the house won't sell for six months, why?" she said.

Sellers must also share their agendas with the agent from the onset.

"Don't hide the fact that you're leaving in 60 days or that you want top dollar," Witman said.

The experience of an agent also is important to success.

High-profile agents are going to be busy, and you may get a feeling that you're not a top priority. If a licensed assistant handles showings, paperwork, inspections, and even some phone calls -- sellers shouldn't panic, Witman said. Witman compares the division of labor to a dental technician doing your teeth cleaning, or a paralegal preparing routine documents.

"A top-producing agent's primary job is to negotiate and keep the deal together until the sale closes," Witman said. "We earn our money from the time the offer is submitted to the closing table -- and evaluating the offer, too."

On the other hand, some sellers say top producers are too abrupt and impersonal.

"They may be wrong for you," said Arthur Davis, president of Chase Fitzgerald & Co. "If your agent is seasoned and knows the area and has the respect of others, you may have one who doesn't do $10 million a year."

Although a prestigious Baltimore real estate company had successfully sold their first two homes, when Erik and Christine Fyrberg decided to sell their most recent home near Hampstead, they switched.

"We had a country property, and we'd met Cindy Riley [president of Riley & Associates] when we first bought the property," Mrs. Fyrberg said. "She seemed like someone more local, who knew the area -- the small piece of the market we were dealing with here in Baltimore County."

Riley also had extensive knowledge of wells, septic systems and other testing requirements necessary in rural parts of the county. With a good marketing plan, they had a contract in hand within two weeks.

One of the most delicate but important issues for sellers and agents to discuss is price -- and many times it can lead to the most tension. Most agents will say that a reasonable and realistic price will lure a buyer. But many times a seller wants to go for the gusto.

Darrell String of Parkton tried to sell his house for $239,000 three years ago without success. When he recently gave it another try, he followed his agent's advice and priced it at $229,000. A buyer turned up in three weeks.

"[The agent] came in with reasonable comparisons. We talked about what we bought it for. We were more anxious to move quickly and not be on the market for a year. If we left money on the table, so be it," String said.

Grempler said agents should show a seller current data on prices from competing homes in the area. That data should include listing prices and recent sales prices.

Asking prices of area homes are a seller's competition, whereas, recent sales prices represent the neighborhood's sales history, added Davis, of Chase Fitzgerald.

If the property is listed at the price the seller and agent believe the market will bear (within 5 percent of its "real value"), usually it will sell in 30 to 60 days, providing the economy doesn't dip. Others estimate six months. If it's been shown 10 times and there's been no offer, something -- usually price -- needs to change, Grempler said.

"You need to make a big enough reduction to bring in new blood and change the position competitively," Witman said. "A good agent has an eye to logical price breakpoints."

Sellers who must have a certain amount of profit because of relocation costs or fear of losing money on the home need to be ready for a wait, brokers warn -- and not blame the agent.

"If the property is on the market for a long time, and it's established that it's overpriced, it does get harmful. If your fellow real estate agents look at it and say it's not worth it, where is the value?" Cockey said. "The agents and buyers suddenly don't know what the real price is and wait for the price to change. Buyers just shoot darts at it and the seller is offended because that figure isn't any more correct than the seller's."

Other brokers warn that cutting price later isn't as effective as pricing it correctly from the start.

"The seller decides the price. The buyer decides what it's worth," Witman said.

Marketing plan

Along with appropriate pricing, a good agent should also present and discuss an appropriate marketing plan. That plan involves everything from newspapers in which the home will be advertised to open houses, to the Internet. Informing other agents is just as important as showing the home.

"The greatest percentages of sales are from another broker [not the listing agent]. It's that other broker who has the buyer," Gutberlet said. Because of this, she believes the listing agent's chief job is to market the home, not necessarily bring in the buyer.

"When I'm the listing agent, my customers are the other agents in the area," Witman said.

One big debate in the industry concerns the value of the traditional open house. Many sellers expect them, while many agents find them fruitless. Again, the seller and agent should discuss the merits and philosophy of holding open houses. Either way, many agents will hold open houses if the seller requests them.

But agents say a better marketing tool are the midweek "brokers opens," where the listing agent invites local colleagues to tour the home, give feedback, and possibly bring in a buyer later. If there's no brokers' open planned for your home, ask why.

Looks are everything

An agent should tour the seller's home and suggest cosmetic changes that can attract more offers. By the same token, the seller shouldn't be offended when he or she gets a list of suggestions. And after all showings, house-hunter comments should also be relayed to the seller.

"The seller deserves the property to be presented in an accurate, exciting way," said James P. O'Conor, chief executive officer of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.

Those changes typically involve repainting, getting rid of clutter, re-carpeting certain rooms if necessary, cleaning windows and painting basements. If the seller senses the agent is going too far in terms of cosmetic changes, he or she should again talk about it.

"Sometimes if an agent doesn't like a house, you can just see it," Gutberlet said. "It's offensive. As an agent, you don't want to be that way."

Often the changes aren't very complicated. Grempler said it comes down to about five things: Don't be home during a showing; get animals out of the way; pack and get ready to move when the listing is made; freshen up the house; and have the key readily available so an agent can come in on short notice.

Agents in the area generally have a good reputation, according to local lawyers who handle real estate litigation. Few agent malpractice suits arise, attorneys say. Even so, a good seller-broker match is critical to avoiding disputes.

"The number of times in my 30 years that I've seen a legitimate legal dispute between the seller and seller's broker is nearly zero," said attorney James Wright, head of the real estate department at the law firm of Venable Baejter & Howard.

If such a case does occur, it's typically because the buyer is unhappy that a sale didn't go through, said attorney Jonathan Azrael, partner with the Towson law firm of Azrael, Gann & Franz.

"The seller may be unhappy because they felt the price wasn't the best or because the contract wasn't presented to them properly," Azrael said.

But the first thing to do when things have come to a standstill is to talk with the agent. State your feelings and relevant complaints, such as the fact that your calls haven't been returned for several days, and see if anything can be corrected.

If that doesn't solve the problem, it's time to call the office manager or broker. At that time, the broker may assign you a different agent.

Finally, if a seller is soured by the entire brokerage, he can usually cancel the listing contract with 30 days' notice. Most listing contracts expire in six months.

Sellers aren't always the victims. Azrael said a typical dispute can arise when a seller tries to cancel a listing contract in order to sell the house to someone who saw it during the time it was listed (and avoid paying a commission).

But the key to having a successful seller-agent relationship remains communication, rapport and respect.

When problems occur

* Contact the agent. Meet and discuss problems.

* Contact the office manager or broker. Ask for a different agent.

* Give required notice -- according to the terms of the listing contract -- and change brokerages.

* Contact Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

* Contact the Real Estate Commission of Maryland (state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation) and file a complaint. The state's Real Estate Guaranty Fund pays claims up to $25,000 and sellers can avoid litigation. For information, call 410-333-6230 or, on the Internet:

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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