When the Rodgers Forge townhouse went on sale, dozens of people showed up for the open house. The next day, a prospective buyer toured the home and quickly made an offer. Within hours, the seller had a signed contract, for close to the asking price.
Such a fast-paced sale would have been business as usual two or three years ago during an overheated housing market. But today, selling fast is a rarity. Home sales have plummeted, values are flat or falling, and homes languish on the market month after month, waiting for buyers who never seem to show up.
In a slumping market where homes linger, on average, more than three months, a small percentage of houses are still selling quickly. In November, for instance, when the average time on the market was 105 days, 13 percent of the 1,892 homes that sold in the city and five surrounding counties had contracts in two weeks or less, according to data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Those 251 homes went from listing to selling in an average of seven days. They were typically older, three-bedroom, two-bath houses that sold at an average of $304,355 - about $4,000 under the overall average sale price.
An address in a trendy neighborhood will no longer guarantee a fast sale, experts say. Rather, fast sellers in a slow market have several common denominators: They're priced better than comparable listings, they show like model homes and they have a full force of marketing, such as enticing Internet photos, behind them.
"You can't speculate on your price right now. You need to price it aggressively from the beginning or you're going to sit on the market," said Janice Mattson, a listing agent with the Pat Hiban Group of Keller Williams Realty.
JoAnn Moncure, the listing agent on the Rodgers Forge townhouse in Baltimore County, said the home had numerous updates and a desirable location going for it. Granite counters gleamed in the kitchen; new fixtures in the bathroom sparkled; white trim set off a sophisticated brown shade in the dining room. The home sold for $319,000, just $900 under the asking price, in five days.
The owner "fixed it up as if she'd live in the house the next 20 years," Moncure said. "The owner and I worked closely to get every last detail of it looking terrific, to rearrange furniture and remove clutter. It showed beautifully, and it was priced correctly. If you don't meet those two criteria, you can bank on a long, long time on the market."
When pricing a home, agents say they look at homes comparable in features, size and amenities. If the listing is just as good, some say, price it just under. But even if it could fetch more than a comparable house, it pays to price it the same as the similar house, not above, agents say. Others say they pay attention only to the active listings, compare features, and price accordingly.
Pricing right - not so high that it doesn't sell but not low-balling either - is perhaps even more crucial in a slow market when homes that don't sell right away tend to sit for extended periods, agents said.
"If it doesn't go in the first week to 10 days, you're in for a ride," said Jake Boone, a real estate broker with Hill and Co. in Baltimore.
Mattson said she sold a contemporary, 22-year-old, three-bedroom house in Columbia in seven days after putting it on the market in early October. She said she worked with the sellers for months first, directing them to paint all the rooms, install a new dishwasher, replace a skylight, lay new flooring, add new tile to the master bath and restain the cedar shingle exterior. Mattson also believed a listing slightly below $400,000 - a psychological barrier for some buyers - would bring in offers. Her sellers listed the home for $399,900.
Two similar offers came in, both under the asking price, and the buyer selected the one that could close sooner, for $392,500.
"They got to where they were perceived as a good value and, boom, it went immediately," Mattson said. "When the market was going crazy, you didn't have to do anything for the house and you could sell it for top dollar. Now, you need to do everything on your to-do list, and you still need to price it below the competition."
She also warns against "chasing the market down" - starting too high, then watching owners slash prices on similar homes and being forced to slash yours as well, which leads buyers to believe that still more price cuts are ahead.
Even in a market where the buyer has the advantage, bidding wars are popping up when homes are priced competitively and show exceptionally well - which can mean anything from replacing worn carpeting to regrouting and recaulking in the bathroom, said Charlotte Savoy, an agent with the Pat Hiban Group.
Over the fall, she sold an updated townhouse in downtown Catonsville for $265,000 in seven days and a detached house in the River Hill neighborhood of Columbia for $640,000 in nine days. Both got three offers under the asking price, and then buyers began competing. In the end, the sellers got the list price.
A buyer's perception of good value sometimes has little to do with the actual condition of the house.
Boone, the Hill and Co. broker, listed a three-story, semidetached brick house on West Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill that had been largely neglected over the half-century that its previous owners had lived there. It had tiny, dark spaces, broken floor joists, rotting rafters, a shoddy patchwork of a roof and the remains of an old kitchen left over in a small upstairs apartment.
"It had great bones, but it was in need of a lot of work, top to bottom," Boone said. "Other comparable homes in Bolton Hill were selling in the mid-$500,000 to $600,000 range, so we backed out of it what we estimated would be the cost to make the repairs, which put us around the $400,000 mark."
For buyers Ken and Jennifer Wilkinson, the price was too good to pass up.
The couple, who had relocated from New York and favored older homes, had been looking for months in neighborhoods such as in Bolton Hill, Federal Hill and Butchers Hill. But the houses either had been remodeled in a way that didn't suit them or were priced too high and still in need of extensive work.
Three days after the West Lafayette Avenue house hit the market, "We walked in on a Friday morning and bought the house on Friday afternoon," said Ken Wilkinson, who has renovated old homes before. "It had a good feel about it. When you've been doing this so long, you can walk in and say, 'Yeah, I can make this work.'"