What to do when your home is languishing on the area’s cooling real estate market


(Valero Doval/For The Washington Post)
August 8

Depending on where you live in the Washington area, you’re either seeing homes sell within days or languish on the market for weeks or months.

The hot sellers’ market has slowed in some neighborhoods to a balanced market, with buyers feeling less pressure to make an instant offer. For the seventh time in the past seven months, RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of MRIS, the Rockville-based multiple listing service, says home sales in the region have declined compared to the previous year.

Although 5,003 homes were sold in June in the D.C. housing market, that number is 4.5 percent less than sales in June 2013.

“There’s lots of activity in the market right now but buyers are also more confident that more homes will come on the market,” says Ron Sitrin, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate in Washington. “You have to think back to the way the year started, with low inventory and a harsh winter that exacerbated the lack of homes for sale because sellers waited for the weather to get better to put their homes on the market. Now the spring rush is behind us and the lack of inventory is less pronounced.”

Ida Kelley, a homeowner in Alexandria, listed her home for sale in mid-April and has waited in frustration for buyers to make an offer. Kelley, who has already relocated to Orange County, Calif., says that despite excellent marketing by Deborah Manarin, an agent at McEnearney Associates in Arlington, few prospective buyers have even visited the home. The property, in Alexandria’s Marlboro Estates community, was initially listed for sale at $885,000. Similar homes in the community have not sold in spite of the excellent location in a good school district, near commuter routes and shops, Kelley says. She recently dropped the price to $850,000 after an interim price reduction to $875,000 didn’t bring in a buyer.

“It’s as if the buyers just disappeared,” says Kelley. “We don’t know what to do.”

Manarin says that the market in Alexandria cooled this spring, even before the typical slowdown of summer, with homeowners happy to receive one offer instead of the multiple offers of spring 2013.

“We’ve exhausted the pool of ‘gotta move today’ buyers,” says Manarin. “People who really needed to move have already done it, and now buyers just don’t feel as pushed to make an offer. For instance, I had buyers very interested in one of my other listings who didn’t make an offer. The sellers dropped the price by $20,000 and I let their buyers’ agent know about it, but the response was that they’re still looking.”

Clearly, though, some homes do sell, and many of them sell quickly. The difference between those that sell and those that don’t is often the condition of the property, says Robyn Burdett, an associate broker with Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax.

“The homes that look great and have lots of great photos are the ones that sell,” says Burdett. “Buyers now want a move-in-ready place. They don’t have the time, the money or the ability to fix up a home.”

Most homes in the city and close-in suburbs continue to sell quickly as long as they’re priced to be competitive, says Donna Evers, broker/owner of Evers & Co. Real Estate in Washington.

“Right now, though, the condition of your property has to be perfect,” says Evers. “I’ve never seen more resistance than I see right now from buyers to do anything. No one has one square inch of extra time to get contractors into the house and deal with home renovations. Sellers really need to fix up their homes before they put them on the market.”

D.J. Rea, owner of an end-unit home in the new Chancellor’s Row development in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, says his home has been professionally staged and photographed yet has lingered on the market since late April.

“A sprinkler pipe burst in January, so the house had to be taken down to the studs and the subflooring before it was rebuilt,” says Rea. “My Realtor and I are completely perplexed that no one has even looked at the place. We dropped the price to $759,900, which we think is fair because a nearby inner unit that has fewer optional features and no front porch recently sold for $749,900 and a smaller brand-new unit sold for $783,000. My house has $100,000 in options with a high-end kitchen and master bath and a whole-house stereo system.”

The ‘HGTV effect’

Burdett says sellers need to recognize the “HGTV effect” that has led buyers to have high expectations of what a home will look like and to understand what it takes to renovate a home, too.

“I tell sellers to put themselves in buyers’ shoes and think about what a buyer would want to see,” says Burdett. “The biggest problem for sellers is that they only get one first chance to make an impression to say to buyers ‘I’m here, notice me.’ You can drop the price or re-list the home, but buyers will know that your home didn’t sell when it first came on the market.”

Burdett says professional photos, as many as possible, are crucial to selling your home

“I’m amazed by the poor quality of photos that agents put online, with dishes in the sink, laundry on the bed or even just having one picture, which makes you kind of skeptical about the rest of the house,” she says. “I’m screening homes online to show buyers just like buyers screen homes themselves on the Internet, so if your home doesn’t look good there, you won’t be able to get anyone to see it in person.”

Catherine Alifrangis, who is selling her home in Herndon with the help of an agent, says the Web site for her home has a virtual tour for a room-by-room look at every detail.

“Buyers don’t have to see homes until they really like it now because they can see it online and find out if it meets every need,” says Alifrangis. “It’s nice for us as the sellers because we don’t have to be bothered by a lot of visitors. On the other hand, we didn’t know our basement would be photographed, so it doesn’t look as neat as I would have liked because we were still working on it when the photographer came by.”

Manarin says the HGTV effect has a positive influence on sellers because they really understand the importance of decluttering and having the home perfect as soon as it goes on the market.

“Buyers today want to close on Friday, move on Saturday, unpack on Sunday and go back to work on Monday,” she says. “Sellers need to understand that and have everything in excellent condition.”

Price appropriately

One strategy some sellers try is to reduce the price below market to account for the need for cosmetic improvements rather than do the work before putting their home on the market, says Burdett.

“The problem is buyers will say that they can only afford the lower price and they’ll ask the sellers to pay for the work on top of selling at a lower price,” says Burdett. “It’s much smarter to do to the work first. In the long run, it will cost you less than the price reduction.”

Alifrangis says her agent consulted with three other agents to help her decide to price her home at $1.375 million. It’s been on the market since late May with only one prospective buyer.

“My agent says that sales have slowed for homes above $1 million, and we also know that our house won’t be right for everyone because instead of a back yard, we have a patio and a stone waterfall feature,” says Alifrangis. “But with five bedrooms and five full baths, it’s a great house for someone who has a lot of guests, likes to entertain a lot or has older kids.”

Data-driven analysis

“Sellers need to work with an agent who will really look at the data so you can understand your neighborhood or subdivision,” says Sitrin. “Two weeks ago, there were 20,123 properties currently on the market in our region, and 43 percent of them were under contract. Your Realtor needs to dig into that data and find out what’s happened in your area in the past few months. How many homes are for sale there? How many are under contract? How many days did those homes stay on the market? That information can help you understand if your home is slow to sell or right in line with the rest of the neighborhood.”

Sitrin says that part of an agent’s job is to help sellers understand the probability of selling at a particular price point and how long it could take to sell at that price. Sometimes the nature of the market is that homes will sell in a week or less, and other times it’s reasonable to wait 30 or 40 days for homes to sell, he says.

“I track traffic on every Web site, so I know if a house had 3,000 ‘impressions’ and 200 detailed views,” says Burdett. “If that house doesn’t have any physical visitors after that, then we know there’s a problem with the condition, the price or the location.”

Manarin and Burdett also stress the importance of agents talking to each other for feedback on listings and to hear about how quickly other homes are selling.

Options for slow-to-sell homes

If your home isn’t selling, you need to try to understand why, says Sitrin.

“It could be the presentation or the staging or the photos that are keeping people from coming to see it after they see it online,” he says. “It could also be the price. You need to know if it’s sensible and matches the level of renovation and the rest of the neighborhood.”

Essentially, sellers are limited to either improving the condition of their home, working with an agent to make sure the photos, online presence and other marketing are appropriate, or lowering their home price to push buyers to make an offer.

“Buyers are more willing to compromise when the market is hotter and everyone wants the same house they want,” says Manarin. “When the market slows down a little, buyers are less willing to compromise on anything because they think they can find the perfect place if they just look a little longer.”

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

Tips for getting buyers for slow-selling homes

With buyers seeking perfection, here is what sellers can do to ensure their home looks good and is priced right.

1. Sellers should understand the “HGTV effect” — buyers are looking for perfection. Lowering the price and selling the house “as is” as may not be the best bet. “The problem is buyers will . . . ask the sellers to pay for the work on top of selling at a lower price,” says Robyn Burdett, an associate broker with Re/Max Allegiance in Fairfax. “It’s much smarter to do to the work first. In the long run, it will cost you less than the price reduction.”

2. Walk through the house pretending you’re a buyer. What problem areas stick out to you? “I tell sellers to put themselves in buyers’ shoes and think about what a buyer would want to see,” says Burdett.

3. Check your curb appeal. Paint your door or add some flowers to brighten it up.

4. Make sure your property has multiple professional photos that show it off in the best possible light. Make sure your real estate agent is marketing your property across as many Web sites as possible. “The homes that look great and have lots of great photos are the ones that sell,” says Burdett.

5. Be sure your home is readily available to prospective buyers — if they can’t see it, they won’t buy it.

6. Look at the price if your house is in good condition but still not selling. Consider lowering it, especially if your competition is priced below your home.

7. Declutter. Pare back the furniture and clear out closets. You don’t want the house to look too small. “Don’t have closets packed full,” said Jill Chodorov, an agent at Long & Foster Real Estate in Bethesda. “It tells buyers it’s too small for this family so, of course, it’s going to be too small for us.”

8. Try to have at least one room that’s over the top — an upgraded kitchen or a bathroom with high-tech features. If your budget won’t allow that, simply focus on the flooring. “If you want to maximize sales price, rip out carpet and expose wood floors,” Chodorov says. “The house should have a wow factor. People should walk in and say, ‘I want to live here.’ ”

9. Stage it to make it look like a model home, especially if the house is vacant or the decor is outdated.

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