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Didn't know the house was for sale and it's already sold?

Some properties seem to sell at lightning speed without sprouting for-sale signs and open-house balloons.

Take that Cape Cod in Lutherville that settled two weeks ago. The house wasn't on the regional Multiple Listing Service until it was sold. Anyone waiting for an open house would have been too late, because the first sign that went up said "Sold."

"We had a contract before we had a sign," said Jill Jahries. She and her husband Peter were the sellers.

"My worry was that if we let this go on the market, somebody is going to take it," said Leabe Commisso. She and her husband, Rocco, were the buyers.

Behind the scenes, the agents for both couples had been matchmaking, a practice that regularly goes on before houses turn up in the listings, and benefits parties who can act quickly.

Agents say such sales are less common than they were during the market frenzy of a few years ago. But they are hoping that this season's daffodils may be a harbinger of zest in the housing market. Baltimore-area home sales jumped by 21 percent in February, the biggest January-February jump in at least eight years. At the same time, the median house price fell 2.5 percent in February.

Shortly after he got the contract to sell the Lutherville property, Tom Atwood described the house during a regular weekly meeting of agents in the Long & Foster Real Estate's Federal Hill office, telling them the house was priced within the range of similar ones nearby, was renovated and was in move-in condition. The sellers were buying another house.

His colleague, Judy Grauer, thought the Commissos, her clients, would love it. They did. The Jahries got the quick, sure sale, and the Commissos got the property for about $4,500 below what it would have listed for.

"All good agents, they have a network of agents -- not only in their office, but other agents," said Atwood.

If he can't match up a buyer and seller from within his own client base, that network is his next stop.

"First, I am going to market it to my buyers, then my team and then other people in my office. Then, I am going down my short list," he said.

In doing so, he has reached dozens of potential buyers and still has not held an open house.

Such transactions sometimes take place when sellers want only serious buyers in their houses, in highly sought-after locations, with houses that are architecturally distinctive or for privacy, when agents are representing celebrity buyers or sellers.

But agents say they also occur with properties that have what specific buyers want -- typically, excellent condition, nice appearance, fair price -- with buyers who have told agents that they're ready to purchase a place that meets certain criteria, with motivated sellers and those who hope to sell with less marketing. Such transactions also occur in private deals among neighbors or friends.

Agents also say sellers and their agents should discuss and agree on a marketing plan. It should consider many factors, including pricing, nearby sales, buyer traffic in the community at that time. The plan should also take into account that buyers who want to see a home before an open house may not pick the most convenient time. Whether there's a known buyer in the wings at that moment is a matter of luck, and some homes benefit from wide exposure.

A house sold before it is formally listed may turn up on the region's computerized home listing service as listed and sold simultaneously or listed and under contract at the same time, or as a deal taking place soon after the home is listed.

The houses sell through word-of-mouth, in transactions nurtured by sellers who have asked neighbors if they have friends who would like to move into the community, through agents who know who wants to sell and who wants to buy, and at open houses held only for brokers.

Jay Kramer, an agent in the Roland Park-Cross Keys office of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, said he was recently involved in three such transactions in Roland Park and Homeland; each house sold for more than $1 million, over the asking price and before a public open house.

For one of them, he arrived early at the brokers-only showing with an offer from his clients in hand.

"They will talk in an endorsing way among themselves. It's not that they are trying to be selective to just a few, but they are calling agents they know will have buyers who are interested in that neighborhood or that price range," said Sarah Sinnickson, president of Coldwell-Banker Residential Brokerage in Greater Baltimore.

Agents who network extensively to create a niche of sales in certain communities make a point of knowing early about other agents' listings and properties there: who is likely to want to sell soon, who is getting divorced, whose family may be outgrowing its house, who has fallen out of love with their house or neighbors, who is likely to downsize, who is looking for a view, who has their eyes on that street, who wants to be in that school district and who wants a first-floor bedroom.

"I call it the Rolodex in my head," said Cindy Conklin, a longtime agent with Yerman Witman Gaines & Garceau Realty and who specializes in the Inner Harbor and surrounding neighborhoods.

"People say, 'Please let me know what's coming on the market,' " Conklin said.

No signs advertised a Ruxton shell of a home in need of extensive work, but no sign was needed. It piqued significant interest the moment it hit the listings.

Jim and Kathleen Carroll went to see the house, which was offered in a foreclosure sale, at 11 on a January night, after getting an e-mail and phone call from their real estate agent saying it had just turned up in the listing service.

Jim Carroll is an architect, and the couple had been searching for 18 months for either a buildable lot or a house to renovate.

"We were looking at this property in the dark," he said.

They e-mailed their offer at 2:30 a.m. to their agent, Ashley Richardson of Coldwell Banker's Greenspring Valley office, who placed it before the seller's agent at ReMax First Choice in Essex earlier than most people arrive at work -- and was told it was the second offer on the house. In no time, there were five bids. Their final offer, $475,000, some $200,000 over the asking price, was accepted.

"When you know what you want, you have to move on it. If you want it later, it might not be there," Jim Carroll said.

Sometimes a neighborhood grapevine can sell a property.

In Sherwood Forest, a community of about 340 houses on the Severn River outside Annapolis, houses often change hands that way.

A "listing" may consist of a for-sale note on the bulletin board on the back porch of the community store/post office. Retirees Doris and Bud Carter just put one up for $1.35 million because they want to move this summer from their house with panoramic views of the water.

Over the decades, marketing plans have expanded to include real estate agents, community mailings and e-mails to neighbors (the Carters' neighbors bought their house within an hour of the sellers' neighborhood e-mail), but the old-fashioned notices often work.

"They just post your little postcard up there. A lot of times people do mailings. They will mail out to the total membership. Just that way, people walk in and buy," Doris Carter said.

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