Here we are, just before the spring real estate season when it seems like “For Sale” signs become the most common lawn ornament or condo window decoration. Television shows like “House Hunters,” “Property Brothers,” “Love it or List It,” and their like make the process of buying or selling a property seem mostly a breeze, filled with afternoons sipping cocktails at the Tiki Bar while you make one of the most important decisions of your life. Selling, and certainly buying a new home should be an occasion for celebration, but you might not be doing too much of that unless you understand the basics of either process and have them well under control.
With help from some knowledgeable sources like the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors (NVAR), the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and some respected local experts, here’s a bit of a primer on buying or selling a property. We’re going for the basics here with a few comments about our local market. We will give you some resources for more information before we sign off. Ready? Here we go!
Let’s start with our sellers, since for the most part, they have the most work to do to get the job done. Let’s assume that you are working with an agent. Hopefully, you asked all the right questions before signing an agreement to sell. Don’t be shy. It’s OK to “interview” several agents and ask for references. Ask to make contact with their last two or three clients — not just the ones that they offer up as testimonials. What’s the average variation between the initial listing price and the final sales price? The answer here may spare you some disappointments and provide some indication about your real estate agent’s skills at pricing your property and negotiation the best price.
Now what? Put on your thickest skin, open your wallet just a tad, listen to that agent, and before you even have that first showing:
Be realistic about your asking price. “Don’t be too aggressive,” cautioned real estate agent Jennifer Boyce of Long and Foster in Burke. Anita Lasansky, CRB, managing broker-vice president Long and Foster Reston North Hills-Herndon, agrees with that advice, and adds that sellers around the Wiehle Metro station in Reston shouldn’t expect a big bump in sales price just because of Metro’s arrival. Lasansky has seen sellers factor in 5-10 percent increases on that basis, but “it just hasn’t had that effect,” she said. Getting a pre-appraisal or advice from a lender can help in setting the best realistic sales price, since most buyers will need a mortgage.
Think about getting a pre-sale home inspection. This could cost a bit. Think at least $500, depending on the size and age of the property. The buyer will have an inspection done, but being proactive could help locate potential problems that might stall, or even end a sale. Even if you don’t go for the professional inspection, take a look around and get on with those repairs or more affordable upgrades you’ve been meaning to tackle. While you’re at it, locate those warranties and manuals — something that really impresses those buyers, while last-minute searches could pose a problem at closing.
Clean and get organized. Neutralize as much as possible, put away the toys and pet paraphernalia, and all the other stuff that is part of our comfortable living. Pay special attention to closets and bathrooms, and no, don’t use the spare bedroom as the storage catch-all. If there isn’t space inside the house, consider the smallest space at a storage facility for the the extra boxes, furniture, gadgets and whatnots while your property is on the market.
First impressions. Check your curb appeal, from the condition of lawn and landscape to the front entryway. Trim those bushes. Edge that grass. Put down some new mulch, and clean up those oil spots on the driveway. Inside might await an affordable Taj Mahal, but if your buyers won’t cross the threshold because of what they see on the outside … Even adding a pot of bright flowers, a seasonal wreath, and maybe a new doormat can help.
Photos. Let the professionals handle this one. Most buyers today do their scouting online. Lots of quality photos attract the most visitors. Equally, photos that don’t show off each room to advantage, or contain pets wandering by, the piled-high laundry basket, or a reflection of the photographer can put your property on the “don’t want to see that one” list.
YOUR REAL ESTATE AGENT can give you a more comprehensive checklist and do a walk-through before an open house or to prepare for showings, but here are some of the “musts” as advised by some of our area experts:
Double check for clutter, and clean, clean, clean. A thorough cleaning by a professional service is much recommended. Don’t forget the windows and the carpets.
Do the “Sniff Test.” This one is critical for homes with pets or smokers. Refrigerators, garbage disposals, trash cans and carpets can be odoriferous stumbling blocks to a good showing. Give your home a thorough airing out before show time, especially in the kitchen.
Double check for small repair items like sticking doors, burned out light bulbs, loose knobs.
Stage it – Consider a professional “stager” or at least give each space a neutral, de-cluttered living “story” that helps buyers visualize themselves right at home. To highlight upgrades or bring attention to items/features in a room, you might add an attractive picture frame with a few well written and formatted sentences on classy writing paper. Of course, a little light music and a plate of yummy cookies make everyone feel welcome.
Put away small valuables, jewelry and medications.
Don’t hang around – and take Fido or Fifi with you if possible. If not, confine pets to crates or one room and be sure to warn agents in advance. Be sure you have left contact information in case of questions or issues.
Make your property accessible – If potential buyers can only see your property from 10 a.m. until noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, prepare for a long wait before a successful closing. Selling a home is often a numbers game. As disruptive as it can be, the more people who look, the better chance of a sale.
FOR BUYERS. Just as with the sellers, buyers should shop around for a trusted real estate partner. Again, ask those questions, get those referrals and be sure that your agent understands your needs and expectations.
The best starting place is making sure that you know what you are looking for. Single family house with an enormous backyard or a “zero lot?” A condo in an urban setting with Metro access, or a more resort feel with access to walking/biking trails or other amenities? The National Association of Realtors suggests developing a “Home/Neighborhood Wish List,” prioritizing from “must have” to “it would be nice if …” and reviewing the list after a few viewings to see if your thoughts have changed.
Some of the basics as advised by the NVAR and NAR and some of their area experts:
Get pre-qualified. Better yet, get pre-approved by a lender before you start looking. That way you will know what you can afford, be ready to make an offer and be a more attractive buyer since the seller knows you can make good on that offer. In many markets within Northern Virginia, buyers still out number inventory, so pre-approval can help set your offer apart. Megan Bailey of Bailey Fine Properties says, “Buyers must be pre-approved before going out to look at homes with me. … Taking someone to look at homes out of their price range … sets the client up for disappointment.”
Be ready to move – sounds simple, but buyers have lost out on deals because they weren’t ready. Worse yet, they may put their “Earnest Money Deposit” at risk if they can’t go through with a sale as contracted.
Think about resale. This may sound counter intuitive at this point, but especially for first-time buyers with an average of 10 years in the home, it’s good to think ahead and consider what the area and the home might be like when it’s time to move on.
Keep repair, maintenance and running costs in mind. Even a brand-new home may require some work or customizing to suit your lifestyle, so consider those costs. You may have the approval for that attractive “McMansion” but are you prepared for the electric bills, mowing that acre, and the property taxes on top of the monthly mortgage? Ask the seller for details on utility costs and other maintenance that the property requires, i.e. pool upkeep.
Don’t go “house-blind,” when you are so taken with the house that you might ignore factors that will ultimately make for a poor buying decision. Visit the property several times, inside and out, at various times of the day and on different days of the week to get a real feel for the neighborhood. It may seem like your peaceful oasis at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, but it could turn into the scene of the local playground by 4 in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s the only cut through for traffic heading to a major commuter route. Maybe you didn’t notice on that first visit that the neighbor three doors down seems to be operating a kennel in their backyard, or that the next street over is a major commercial zone? Track travel distance for more than your work commune. What about your favorite stores and activities? Take a ride through the entire neighborhood and even its surroundings to see if you like what you will be seeing for a long time to come.
Research. Your agent can direct you to resources where you can check out local schools. Even if you don’t have school-aged children, it’s something to think about for re-sale down the road or any students you might be adding to the family.
For those buyers considering a condo or property with an HOA (Home Owners Association) there are even more questions to ask and things to be considered. These can get pretty specific and detailed, so your best bet is to ask that agent.
Now, about the local market. Checking the data from RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI), an arm of the local MLS system, Fairfax County had the most closed sales in 2015, up 14.6 percent from the previous year. Alexandria, Fairfax City, Arlington and Falls Church round out the top five markets in the area for closed sales last year. The figures for January 2016 show an uptick in sales volume, but a slight decrease of 2.5 percent in median sales price across the Metro region. Average days on the market in January was 44 days, an increase from last year, but analysts say much of that number can be attributed to the effects of the blizzard.
The best news for sellers was that the homes sold in January averaged 96 percent of their asking price. Maybe even more pleasing for sellers to hear is that RBI forecasts inventory growth in 2016 will likely turn negative at some point.
Buyers be prepared. This could lead to those multiple-offer wars we have seen in the past.
Sellers be cautioned. That doesn’t mean your best strategy is to over-price your property.
“A properly priced property in good condition is still the fastest mover,” are the words to the wise from Anita Lasansky CRB, managing broker-VP, Long and Foster Reston North Hills-Herndon with her more than 40 years of local experience.
Whether you are the potential buyer or the seller, there are plenty of resources out there to get you started.
For the financial and statistically inclined researchers, check out RealEstate Business Intelligence at www.RBintel.com or the data supplied by George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis at www.cra.gmu.edu.
The National Association of Realtors and the Northern Association of Realtors websites both offer helpful information and guidance for buyers and sellers at www.realtor.org and www.nvar.com.
Most of the real estate inventory sites also include sections on how to gather neighbourhood information, as well as details on the sales history of a particular property, condo and association fee information, taxes, and lots more than just the pretty pictures. www.realtor.com, www.zillow.com, and www.trulia.com are just a few to explore.
“I let sellers know that they need to expect that some of their privacy will be compromised … their home needs to be in showing condition every day before they leave, clean kitchen, beds made, everything put away, pets secured and comfortable, and that the home smells clean and fresh. I always suggest they visit model homes to see examples of what buyers fall in love with and why.”
— Megan Bailey, Bailey Fine Properties, Megan@baileyfinep...
“Some of my absolutes … for buyers, please be careful what you say. There could be a recording device in the house. Not unusual anymore with today’s security technology. For example, don’t look at pictures and say that their children look creepy. Yes, I have had this happen, but luckily it wasn’t recorded. Sellers, put away medications and jewelry. It’s rare, but prescription drugs are the number one item that ‘goes missing’ during open houses or showings.”
— Smita Lal, Long and Foster Reston North Hills-Herndon
“Recently had a listing that needed a bit of updating. The seller was fine with spending some money to get their home in selling condition, but balked at my suggestion to replace the fluorescent lighting in the kitchen. Four months later, the seller finally agreed to spend the $1,000 to replace the light. We ratified a contract five days after the work was done. Moral of the story: If you are hiring a pro to help you buy or sell a home, listen to their advice. They do this for a living, not once every 5 - 10 years. By the way, lighting is super important. Current and bright, please.”
— Andy Krumholz, Keller Williams Realty, Utopian Homes
“I always tell my sellers, ‘To be clear, I will give you a list of customized items to prepare your home. It will be in order of importance. You may not agree with the list, and I understand that, but I assure you, the more you complete, the fewer days on the market, and of course at the right price.’ So far I haven’t missed.”
—- Lisa Carlisle, Long and Foster Reston North Hills-Herndon