A Humbling Lesson for Realtors' President

This Great Falls Colonial belonging to Thomas M. Stevens, president of the National Association of Realtors, has been on the market for about a year.
This Great Falls Colonial belonging to Thomas M. Stevens, president of the National Association of Realtors, has been on the market for about a year. (By Thomas M. Stevens)

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

He, of all people, should have known better.

The president of the National Association of Realtors, Thomas M. Stevens of Vienna, admits he didn't follow his agents' advice when the real estate market started to cool. That, he says, is why his old house in Great Falls has now been on the market for a year at the price of $1.45 million.

"What I should have done," confessed the senior vice president of NRT Inc., parent of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, "was listened to my agent and cut the price by $50,000 to $100,000 early on, and the property would have sold last October."

Or, even better, he said, "I should have listed it a month earlier," when the market was only just beginning to lose air.

Now Stevens, like so many other home sellers in the Washington area and around the nation, is waiting for a buyer in a market that has totally reversed course since a year ago. With two or three times the number of properties listed this year as last in some neighborhoods, agents are urging sellers to lower their expectations, put on their best face and offer incentives such as closing cost help.

Stevens does have a better excuse than most for not paying attention. He's been on the road most of the year as head of the 1.3 million-member real estate organization, the nation's largest trade group. And when he's at his current home in Vienna, "I've been downtown lobbying."

He and his wife, Lindy, were also preoccupied in the past few years with remodeling the home they now live in, a 100-year-old farmhouse called Windover House. They bought that property in 2001 for $1.3 million. It's now assessed at almost $2.8 million, a testament to the hot market.

The Great Falls Colonial that's for sale was the Stevenses' previous house on Woodleaf Lane, their first home after they married. They bought the two acres of land in 1979 for $49,500, and took out what now sounds like a high-interest construction loan. Stevens remembers how unnerving those days were: "Rates went all the way to 19 percent, and my wife said we would not be able to afford to buy. . . . But we grabbed a 12-and-a-half percent loan and we thought we had struck gold."

Stevens said that when he set the price for the four-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath Great Falls property, his agents, Gail and Terry Belt of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Vienna, warned him that he might be high. And they have continued to remind him about the shifting market.

"They sent the letter telling me the listing was approaching a year" and that the price needed another look, he said. "They're doing their job as agents. I'm not doing my job as a seller."

But, he noted, in his defense: "Who knew last September how long this down trend was going to continue," after so many years of climbing upward?

When asked how long sellers should expect a sale to take these days, Stevens said 40 to 60 days would be typical. And if a house hasn't moved by then, he said, "You need to adjust the price. . . . But I didn't do that. And my house is still on the market."

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