If you are fortunate enough to have been able to buy a house, odds are, at some point, you’ll inevitably have to or want to sell it. The latest metrics from 2013, according to the National Association of House Builders, point to it being sold 13 years later. With that in mind, here is some advice on what you can do to maximize the value of your home sale.
Step 0 – Are you ready for this?
Hopefully you expertly followed my advice on how to buy a house and this process will end up being financially rewarding. There are countless reasons for selling a home, but distress sales should be avoided.
The remainder of the post is going to assume you will make a profit or at least break-even during this process. If you are underwater, stop here. You shouldn’t be selling. Or maybe you’ve changed jobs and you need to move? Hopefully your company has a “relocation” package for you. No? Consider renting it until the market returns (if that’s possible). Whatever the case may be, there is little reason to sell if you’re going to lose money. Explore all potential options first. This could be its own separate topic. The gist is: buy low, sell high / you don’t lose money until you sell.
Step 1 – Understanding your situation
Selling a house can fall into, basically, one of these two buckets:
- Sale of second house (vacation home, rental property, bequeathed, etc)
- Sale of primary residence
The first case is much more straight-forward and I have recently sold a rental property, so I am very familiar with this. I’ll talk more about this shortly. For the second case, the main thing I would stress is: find your new home first, do not attempt to sell first and “find later”. This is one of the worst things you can do. Think about it. Say you find a buyer for your house, and you’re scheduled to close, but it’s contingent upon you finding a new home. You’ve needlessly put a time crunch on your side. You run the risk of: a) not getting a good deal on your new home, b) settling for something you don’t want, and / or c) potentially distressing your pending sale (what if you can’t find a home in time)? The only time this makes sense is if you are simply going to rent. Then I suppose it’s fine. However, I would, again, strongly, strongly, suggest to have your new property closed on before even beginning to consider selling. If you ensure that you have a new residence in hand before selling, then both of these scenarios are essentially the same. I’m going to use that assumption for the rest of this post.
Before moving on, let’s discuss some more reasons to move before you sell because I really do think it’s very important. I, as a buyer, would prefer to see either a vacant or staged home, but this, of course, depends on the person. However, my rationale towards this is: you don’t want prospective buyers to see that you have cats (and cat pee) or dogs (and dog pee) or tattered furniture or…you get the point. You can do your best to make your house look nice, but you’re limited. You live there. Do you really want to make sure the toilet is clean every time you show the property? Do you really want to drop everything you’re doing and leave while your property is being shown? You have much more flexibility if you’re already moved out. But, it really depends. Use common sense for your unique situation. If this isn’t an option, that’s fine, you can work around it, it’s just harder. My point is: if you’re moved out, your options are vastly expanded. That’s a good thing. Try to go for this if you can.
Rental property note
One small note on rental properties that I only recently found out about…and was kind of a game changer. The IRS has a rule that if you sell a rental property that you have used previously as a primary residence, you are able to exempt up to $250,000 in capital gains if you rent it for up to 3 years. Or put another way (what the IRS says): you need to have owned, as your primary residence, the property for 2 of the last 5 years. Example: You bought a house for $100k, you sold it for $200k, you pay no taxes on that $100k gain. Note that it doesn’t have to be rented out, but the IRS allows you to rent out your property for up to 3 years before selling it (if it went past that, I suppose you could just move back in for two years; not an option for me).
Here’s a personal anecdote. I bought a property I had been eyeing for months, got a good deal on it. However, that sword cuts two ways: because the market wasn’t that great, it wasn’t a great time to sell. Selling in that environment wasn’t ideal. So I decided to rent my previous property out instead. Then I found out this IRS rule. The market came back…and…I informed my tenants I was not interested in renewing the lease and sold the house. It worked out for me pretty well. Your mileage may vary, but again: buy low, sell high. This IRS rule is a pretty good way of getting a chance for that to play out if you aren’t too keen on selling immediately after buying a new house.
Step 2 – To Realtor or…Not?
This is a critical question. One that has thousands of dollars on the line. And I’m going to spend a lot of words on it. I have my personal feelings on this and I’ll discuss that shortly, but first let’s lay out what variables are in play here:
- Market temperature
- How much work you’re willing to contribute yourself
That’s it. These are the only two variables I see that determine: speed of transaction, sales price, net profit. Let’s break them down further.
This simply refers to supply and demand of the real estate market in your area. But…what if you have no idea? Well, the Internet is a wonderful thing. Vast amounts of information are at your fingertips. You can find this out yourself, but…it boils down to how much work you’re willing to do yourself. A majority of people just hire a Realtor. However you can simply peruse the following websites to find what the market is doing: zillow.com, redfin.com, trulia.com. If you’re selling a house, you must have bought a house. Start by looking at the value of your house today. Has it gone up? Stayed the same? Lost value? Start tracking houses that resemble your own. What are they listed for? What do they end up selling for? How long were they are on the market? Redfin has all of this data. You don’t need a Realtor to gauge market temperature any longer. Do it yourself.
There are really only three kinds of “temperature” for real estate:
- Buyer’s Market
- Seller’s Market
Stable is probably the easiest as you should have comps that are fairly uniform over large periods of time. You don’t need a Realtor for this. Just look at the data. Buyer’s Market means either inventory is high and / or buyer demand is low, which ends up dropping prices (or you know, the entire banking system almost collapses…). If the market is a Buyer’s Market…should you even be selling? If it’s a Seller’s Market, demand should be high enough where you’ll get a lot of leads / showings. You definitely don’t need a Realtor in this use case…which is the kind of market you should be selling in!
How much work you’re willing to contribute
You might be starting to think that I think empowering yourself to do as much as you can is the best course of action. You’d be right. I didn’t use a Realtor. I sold my own house. But that’s jumping the gun at this point. Let’s first break down what a Realtor does:
- Research recent comparable sales; analyzes current market temperature; creates listing
- What you can do: As mentioned above. Use redfin.com, find this yourself. All the data is there. You can sort by any number of metrics and find sales that go back a week, a month, a year, three years, whatever. Zillow’s home owner features (say you own the house, answer some questions) even go farther…they do this for you, you tweak some things, they’ll generate a report for you. For free. Free. Or…worst case, pay an appraiser out of your own pocket. It will cost a few hundred dollars, but Realtors will cost thousands. Your call. They’ll tell you how much your house is worth if you can’t figure it out. And give me a break with creating a listing. Worst case: copy and paste what another comparable listing that sold and tweak some things. That’s what I did.
- Creates materials to sell your home
- What you can do: Guys, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we live in the 21st century. The Internet is a thing. No one reads the paper any longer. You don’t need to go to Kinkos. You can do this all digitally. Nobody needs to have printed documents, or special custom signs, or other promotional materials. Worst case: do it yourself. Fire up Microsoft Word, there’s templates online, make it yourself. You will find that internet traffic is more than enough to market your house. MLS is all you need for “marketing” to be honest. But we’ll talk about that in a minute.
- Shows your home for you; schedules your home to be shown
- What you can do: Here’s a secret. Selling agent Realtors don’t do squat. They will rarely show your house. Buyer’s agents do that. All they use is a tool called CSS (Centralized Showing Service) or some other variant and schedule for it to be shown. Here’s the website. I’ll tell you how you can get access to this later. But…wait, what about that special door thingamabob that let’s someone in through a card reader? You mean this? Yeah, you can get that without a Realtor. Again, I’ll show you how in a moment, but here’s what I did: I bought a PIN combination door lock. Put it on your door, there’s a key inside, Realtors put the key back when they leave. Realtors hate this, because they have to text you for the combination (boo-hoo; one guy basically cussed me out, cry me a river). For security purposes, I always changed the code every 24 hours, but you could very simply just put the code in CSS if you so desired. The point: there’s different options here. Again, you can do this yourself.
- Negotiates sales price and terms
- What you can do: So, let me get this straight. What’s more efficient: 1) Two Realtors talking to their respective buyer and seller and then playing telephone back and forth for opening bids and counter offers (at least four parties involved)…or 2) The buyer’s agent (or agent-less buyer) talking directly to you? You’re telling me that agents have this mysterious haggling power that you don’t? You can’t figure out what the market will support based on recent comps / what you’d willing to sell it for? Give me a break. This is NOTHING that a Realtor provides here. It’s YOUR DECISION. What if you have multiple bidders? You REALLY think that your agent is going to provide a service for this? You don’t think they have other clients? You think they’re going to immediately inform you of offers? Again, give me a break. Path of least overhead: do it yourself. Less layers = faster output. For terms: make sure buyer is paying reasonable due diligence / earnest money (this depends on your state; but again, look it up; worst case: hire a real estate attorney to guide you through this; again…much, much, MUCH cheaper than a Realtor), make sure there aren’t special items in the contract that are suspicious (again, if you’re worried, don’t sign a contract without having a 3rd party look over it first). However, my best advice is to simply look at the contract you signed when you bought the house. Does it deviate from your contract? This isn’t rocket science people! You can do this yourself.
- Drafts up contract
- What you can do: Nothing. You don’t have to. The buyer’s agent will do this for you. What about if you both don’t have agents? OK, now I would consider hiring a real estate attorney to draft this up for you. Both of you simply meet, agree on terms, and an attorney will draft it up. In addition, they’ll help you with title search. This should cost less than a grand. Again: MUCH CHEAPER THAN A REALTOR.
- Allows buyer access to property for due diligence inspections
- What you can do: Really? Haven’t we already covered this above?
- Goes to closing with you and takes all of your money
- What you can do: Don’t hire a freaking Realtor. They. Are. Not. Providing. You. A. Service. That. You. Can’t. Do. Yourself.
Did I lay it on a little too thick there? Sorry. I hate Realtors (well, to be honest, I liked my buyer’s agent). Let me revise: I hate seller’s agents. They’re worthless. They are akin to a travel agent. Do it yourself. DO IT YOUR FREAKING SELF!
Let’s say you’re selling a home worth $200k. Let’s say you negotiated, I don’t know, 2.8% commission for your parasitic seller’s agent. Did your agent contribute over FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS of value to the sale of your home? Seriously. Did they? DID THEY REALLY? Because that’s how much you just gave them (not even mentioning the buyer’s agent!). Why not…pay yourself, by doing it yourself.
The only reason why Realtors aren’t extinct or a niche thing like the aforementioned travel agent is a combination of: lack of public empowerment (I hope this post helps to inspire just one person to try and a sell a house themselves), the innate behavior of human beings to freeze when things appear scary (I don’t feel like learning this; someone else can do it), and the power of Realtors’ closed network called MLS (Multiple Listing Service). Only Realtors have access to this. It’s basically an inventory of all houses on the market for your area. Soon, very soon, I will show you a trick on getting access to this yourself.
The three ways to sell a house
With an agent, by yourself, or…with a discount broker (a hybrid of both). Like it or not, agents, still own the real estate market. I did try to sell my house myself; pure For Sale By Owner (FSBO). You’ve probably heard that lame realtor line basically to the tune of, “trust us, if you try to sell your house FSBO, you’ll sell it for less, or it will take a long time, that’s why you need a Realtor“. They’re right…on one thing. When I first put my house up for sale just FSBO…I got no leads. No good ones anyway. The leads I did get were investors trying to low-ball me. I imagine if I had waited it out, I probably would have done OK, but I was interested in a timely sale. The problem with FSBO is that people aren’t looking for them. Buyers commonly just defer to their Realtor to find them properties. There’s a trust factor with Realtors that the industry has conditioned into the general population. That you need an agent to buy a house. I’m sorry, but when you buy a car, do you negotiate with a 3rd party before purchasing? You take a car to a mechanic to tell you if it’s working. You have a house appraisal done to make sure it’s fine. What’s the difference? Again, what is a Realtor doing for you that you can’t do yourself? Just because the purchase price is higher? Please! Thankfully, there’s a third option.
Goldilocks’ “just right” solution. Basically you’re employing a Realtor that doesn’t do any Realtor stuff for you. They have access to the MLS network, but they charge you far, far less than a traditional agent for access. It’s essentially a loop-hole into the system. They’re also referred to as “flat fee MLS listing agents” or buzzwords of that nature. You really have to do research into this yourself. Find someone in your local area with good reviews (again, bless the Internet) and a history of sales and you should be OK. These are normally small-businesses sole-proprietors / small teams that make money by simply getting you on MLS.
They don’t do anything else for you. They don’t draft a contract, negotiate, talk with any parties, or anything a normal Realtor would do for you. They just list the property in MLS and are the first point of contact for any other agents / interested parties (mine just forwarded email to me and I did the rest; scheduling showings, negotiating, etc). These brokers, technically agents, will be able to provide you with things like the Supra door key system, CSS, promotional materials, and things of that nature. But find one that allows them as optional. I just used my own door lock and put up a FSBO sign in the yard. Less than $30 for that. Broker pricing depends on the area I would imagine, but something under $500 is a good thing to shoot for (just be careful; read the fine print, there’s a “listing fee” and a “closing fee”; make sure you know what you pay at closing, mine was $195 to list and $195 at closing – not paid if it doesn’t sell).
OK, that’s about it. I know that’s a LOT of prep, but that’s where you should spend your time. Prep. Selling a house is all about research. Do it well. Do it right. Do it yourself.
Step 3 – Repairs, staging, and listing
I did my best to educate you on how much you don’t need a Realtor. It’s up to you to conclude if that works for you. I’m not here to judge, but I strongly believe foregoing the services of a Realtor is the right way to go. However, not everyone has the initiative to do things themselves. That’s fine, just understand you’re paying a premium by waiving that right. Regardless if you’re using an agent or going it alone, you still need to get your house ready for sale. Let’s break it down.
If you’re selling a house, there’s a good chance you know a lot about it. You should know what’s wrong with it. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of items to consider:
- Age / condition of roof
- Age / condition of siding
- Age / condition of HVAC
- Condition of lawn / trees / shrubbery
- Known plumbing leaks, electric issues, damage to interior
- Age / condition of appliances
- Condition / color of interior paint
- Condition / type of flooring
You have to balance expected return of value. Is completely redoing your kitchen and bathrooms a good idea? It depends, but probably not. You’re not going to recoup the money you put into it. Does buying a new HVAC even if it’s 10+ years old, but functional make sense? No. It doesn’t. Does it make sense to repaint your interior if you have…let’s say…interesting colors? Yes. There’s different thoughts on the matter, but I”m of the camp that says if you have more neutral colors, you have less of a chance of turning off potential buyers. Does your carpet have holes in it or in bad shape? It definitely makes sense to fix obvious things like this. General advice: If there’s visible damage fix it, if something is functional, but old…let it be. The only advantage to replacing something that’s not broken is that you can say it’s NEW in the listing.
Your house is either: lived in, vacant, or staged with furniture. I discussed this previously and consider a vacant house to be your best bet. Staging costs money. I’m not a proponent of spending money you don’t have to.
Once the house is in selling condition, it’s time to list. Here are the items you’ll need:
- Pictures of the house: Depends on your area; but 25 pictures is a good minimum to shoot for.
- Listing description: Highlight items that have been improved; either your Realtor will help you write this or just read other properties for examples.
- I like exclamation points mixed with factual information and a little bit of fluffy BS.
- Listing time: I would recommend, especially in hot markets, to list either Friday morning or late Thursday. This gives you the weekend to get a burst in activity; with the end goal being an offer on the table (or multiple offers). You can also schedule an Open House on Sat or Sun.
- Listing price: This was covered in previous steps, but repairs or improvements may have changed this. Again, use comps that match the state of your property. In Stable markets, this should be fairly straightforward. In Seller’s Markets, I would honestly suggest you conservatively price it; there’s a good chance you’ll receive multiple offers / generate a bidding war this way. For all cases, look for sales in your exact neighborhood.
One small note, especially for those that are either FSBO or using a discount broker. Depending on your state, you will have different disclosure laws. My state requires me to list anything and everything functionally wrong with the property. If I know about a foundation issue, I’m required to disclose it. If I know about some functional defect, I’m required to disclose it. Your state law may be different, but the best advice is to be upfront. If the buyer can see it during the showing, there’s nothing to gain by hiding it. It will be seen or it’ll come out during inspection. Avoid future problems and either disclose it…or just fix it before listing.
Step 4 – Showing the property
Not much to this. You either have a Realtor and they do this, or you speak with people that want to see the property.
Once it’s shown, you will generally hear back from the person that saw it one way or another. If you don’t, simply ask for some feedback. What did they like? What did they not? Are they considering submitting an offer?
Step 5 – Waiting for offers or going back to Step 3
Either you get an offer, or offers, or you go back to the drawing board. Hopefully you received feedback to what people liked or didn’t like. You mean need to make some repairs, update something, or simply drop the price.
Step 6 – Negotiating
Congratulations. You got an offer on your home. The following scenarios can happen at this stage:
- You received an offer at your asking price.
- What to do: If the terms offered by the agent (the assumption is the buyer is using an agent; almost guaranteed – if not, consult some FSBO help here, you probably need a real estate attorney to draft up a contract) are OK…well, you’re done. Unless you would like to wait for more offers. Just don’t dilly-dally here too long. Especially if the market isn’t that great.
- You received an offer below your asking price.
- What to do: Depends on how long the house has been on the market, whether the sale will be at a loss, etc. You are free to counteroffer at this point. You should counteroffer.
- You received an offer above your asking price.
- What to do: This is what you want (if you correctly priced your home at least)! One warning: Make sure it’s not a crazy offer. If the house doesn’t appraise, things can get hairy. Example: You think the house is worth $150, and comps support that, but buyer offers $220. It probably won’t appraise unless it’s an all-cash sale.
- You received multiple offers!
- What to do: This is what you should strive for. If you priced the house appropriately (the kiss of death to me is pricing too high; it makes this scenario less likely to happen) and the market is OK, this has a good chance of happening, especially at lower house prices. The GREAT benefit here is that you can inform all parties that there are multiple offers on the property (you don’t even have to say how many). Odds are, if an offer is on the table, the buyers really, really like it. Think about how you felt if you put an offer on a house. Most likely you did not want to lose. Well, as a seller, you understand this. You’re in an advantageous position. Get the parties to get into a bidding war!
General comments: Buyers expect an answer in a timely manner. If you just listed it though, you might want to wait 24 hours for other offers. The more offers you have, the more flexibility you have. The offer with the best price isn’t always the best offer. Terms matter. If someone offers the same price, but one is only putting down 3% versus someone who is all-cash or bringing 20%+ at closing. You have a higher likelihood of having no issues at closing. Don’t discount financing!
Personal note: I was able to get 3 buyers into a bidding war. One dropped off immediately, but the other two countered multiple times. At the end of it, I got almost 10% more over my asking price. It was so much more than I expected, I was actually really scared it would not appraise…but it did (my mantra is everybody wants their money…it will appraise, things will work out). Did I make a lot of repairs? Yes. I replaced a lot of stuff that needed to be replaced. Did I go crazy? No. There’s a balance to everything. Thankfully, my efforts yielded the highest sale price in my neighborhood…ever. I’m really proud of that. And I’m especially proud of that because I sold it myself. It’s a great feeling. You can do it if you put the work in! Nobody knows your house more than you do.
Step 7 – Closing the deal
From the chaos of step 6 will emerge a winner. You have a signed contract and now the buyer has a set amount of time (30 days is pretty standard) to obtain financing and check the place out (normally lenders require appraisal and / or inspection). You don’t do anything but let them in. I would strongly urge never to be present at these things. I would strongly suggest you never even meet the actual buyer. There’s no upside. There is absolutely no upside to ever meeting the buyer. Use your imagination on things that could go wrong versus what could go right. Here’s something that will never happen: “Hey! It’s so nice to meet you! Wow, you’re so awesome…can I change the contract and give you more money?”. Unlikely. Hell, I never even met the buyer’s agent before getting to closing. Everything was done through text, email, and the occasional phone conversation.
What will happen here is…a problem is found (there will be problems, inspectors will find “problems”, they have to…it’s their job) or you proceed to closing. But let’s assume there’s problems. My advice is to not fix anything. You should have fixed all of the major functional concerns in Step 3. Anything else is either a major problem (which is going to require going back to Step 6 and renegotiating) or there’s small things: a door doesn’t close properly, a sink doesn’t drain well, some widget doesn’t work right, etc. Get them to get an estimate for repairs. If you think it’s not reasonable, get your own estimate and negotiate. If their estimate sounds reasonable, just agree to pay. If you have the balls, this far along in the process, you could just say “no” and roll the dice, but technically they could still back out (unlikely), but I don’t know how you’ll feel, but once you get this far, you’ll be mentally exhausted. Throw them a small bone, they’ll be happy, you’ll be happy, and the finish line will be in sight. I think I paid $1k towards their closing costs as part of negotiating repairs.
Step 8 – Closing Time
You, the buyer, and the agents (if you have one) will meet at a predetermined time and place, typically at an attorneys office. You will sign paperwork, then they’ll sign paperwork. You may not even meet the buyer if you plan it properly (I would advise it; again, there’s no upside); you can simply arrive early and sign your documents.
I ended up meeting my buyer, exchanging pleasantries for about 3 minutes, asked them if they had any questions, dropped off the keys, some of the appliances manuals, and the paint swatches we used…and left. The attorney said I could stay and wait for them to sign their pieces or just come back later. I got a call to pick up the proceeds from the sale (don’t wire-transfer…it’s too risky, wire transfer fraud is a real thing, you can lose all of your money…get a check, take it to the bank immediately…never use a wire transfer) and that was that.
Step 9 – Post sale
Depending on what you sold, there are some things to note. If you sold a rental property, and you’re interested in obtaining a different property, there are tax advantages to buying another one immediately. It’s called a “like-kind exchange“. I didn’t do this, so I can’t comment on it that much, but this is a good way of deferring any capital gains on your sale if you’re interested in continuing to stay in the rental space.
For everything else, you should receive a 1099-S come tax time. As previously mentioned, if you sold the property within 3 years after it being your primary residence, you are able to avoid paying taxes on up to $250k in gains! I’m in this position…and…just barely! I was right on the 3 year mark. I may revise this part once I actually file my taxes.
But…pfff! Come on! Enough about taxes! You just sold a house! Congratulations! I hope something in the wall of text above was helpful!
I hope I didn’t come off as too preachy or too judgmental about my views on Realtors. I’m sorry, I tend to do that. There are good Realtors out there. They can provide you excellent service and earn their money. I respect buyer’s agents a lot. They do a lot of work. They find properties to show, they take you there, they tell you about it, they come with you on inspections, they keep you informed. Good ones are basically available 24/7. I personally believe there’s never a reason to not use a buyer’s agent (unless you can find a FSBO and negotiate the price much lower than what it would be with agents, but it’s rare…most sellers get greedy and want all the “savings” for themselves…but I digress…). But…for all the reasons I mentioned above, I don’t like seller’s agents. I don’t believe they are worth what they are paid.
I’ll end it with a personal story. I rented my previous primary residence for ~3 years. I never wanted to be a landlord, but the market sucked at the time. I would have sold the house for less than I bought it. That was unacceptable to me. My mortgage was in fine standing, I had plenty of equity, I just decided to wait until the market rebounded. It did. In 3 years, the price rebounded almost 30%. I got the property back from my tenant and immediately started making repairs myself / contracted out. I replaced exterior siding, repainted the entire house, put down new carpet and vinyl flooring, bought new appliances, and replaced a water heater (it broke a few days before it was to be listed!). These were all things I knew I could do myself. I knew they had to be done. I didn’t need a Realtor to tell me this. Where I was concerned was…marketing. I never really thought I could do this myself. I thought I needed an agent. I actually reached out to my buyer’s agent to help me sell it. And what he told me, was a complete paradigm shift in thinking. In so many words, he said something like:
You want me to be completely honest with you? You don’t need an agent to sell your house. The market is on fire, inventory is low, your house is a starter house and you will have plenty of offers. If not, you will have investors. Don’t put a lot of money into it, just list it on a Friday, offer 2.4% in commission to an agent, and you’ll be fine. Trust me.
I was shocked. A REALTOR told me this! Granted, I believe the primary reason was that the agency had a minimum selling price they adhered to, and just didn’t find it worth it to sell my house. But regardless, this was a huge motivational boost for me to try to sell it myself. The thing was: none of this was news to me. I knew inventory was low. I knew the market was hot. I could easily see this from Zillow and Redfin. It’s just a whole different animal to hear it from a professional. I was always considering it as an option, selling myself, but never had the guts to try it. So for that, I am eternally grateful for this advice. The main point of this entire post is to pass that along. YOU. CAN. DO. IT!