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Home sellers cope with houses in limbo

By Sandra Fleishman
Friday, January 21, 2011; 11:05 AM

Two months, which was about the typical marketing period in the Washington area during the third quarter last year, may not seem like that long to have your home up for sale. But when you look at it as 60 consecutive days of impeccably made beds, hidden toys and sinks wiped spotless, time drags on. Of course, some homes lingered on the market much longer, increasing the tension on sellers.

Average days on the market have actually improved considerably from when the bottom dropped out of the market, but they're nothing like they were in 2005, when contracts took less than a month and multiple bids were common.

With forecasters predicting that the area housing market could stay flat for six months, sellers need to be prepared to wait, agents say. "You can have a beautiful house, but in this market, if it's not seen as a really good deal, they won't bite," said Darrin Davis, broker/owner of Anacostia River Realty in the District.

"The ones that aren't selling have to re-stage their properties and look at their price," said Creig Northrop, whose Long & Foster team works in Howard, Montgomery, Frederick, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Waiting can be hard on a family emotionally - besides the simple challenge of keeping a house straightened up - particularly if the family is financially strapped. Sellers learn that the family's beloved dog or cat can turn off buyers. That it's not easy to motivate children to keep their rooms show-ready. And that agents may not always be as helpful as they had hoped.

Here's how four sellers have been coping with the wait.

Angie and Tony Howard, Fort Washington

During five months on the market, Angie and Tony Howard's spacious, eight-year-old Fort Washington home had 37 showings and plenty of compliments, their agent said. But it drew not one contract.

Frustrated and "stressed out," the couple decided to take the five-bedroom colonial off the market for the Christmas holidays and reevaluate their strategy with Bowie-based agent Chuck Ottley.

The Howards aren't totally burned out by how long it's taking to sell their house. But they can't figure out how to persuade buyers to stop holding out for foreclosure or short-sale prices on houses that aren't underwater, abandoned or rundown.

"The Howards' house was impeccably kept," Ottley said. "They'd done everything. It showed like a model."

Before listing it last July for a price in the mid-$300s, they decluttered, painted, rented a storage unit for a month, then boxed up unneeded items and stashed them in the two-car garage, continually keeping the house spotless.

Their son, who came home from college to consider grad schools, did his part. Though he owns "a million pairs of shoes," he keeps them "really neat, stored in boxes and labeled," said Angie. "He has a beautiful room."

After weeks went by, they dropped the price to just under $300,000. "We expected that would really make things happen," said Tony, but "we only got five people."

"It's been a lot of stress," he said.

They thought it would be more competitive. "Ours is move-in ready," Tony noted, and there would be no complications from foreclosure proceedings or a need to persuade lenders to approve a short sale.

"They're just disgusted with the market," said Ottley, their broker, who works for Sellstate Dominion Realty in Bowie.

Another unexpected problem has come from having a dog in the house, Tony said.

"I need the agents to call before they want to show the house. I don't like to keep the dog caged in the house all day, but if no one's going to be home, then we have to cage him before we leave the house." But agents don't always call.

Pets can be a particular challenge when trying to sell a home. "Sellers want to be mindful of other people's challenges with pets, whether it's from allergies, fear or a plain dislike of animals," said Ariana Loucas of Keller Williams Realty Centre in Columbia. Agents and home buyers alike may have such issues.

"To not turn off would-be lookers," she said, sellers should "take necessary steps to deodorize, vacuum and, if possible, keep instructions pertaining to pets simple for agents showing the home. Situation permitting, take Fido away from the home during the tour."

It "would be great if we could sell and buy" one of the new homes being advertised with so many giveaways, Angie Howard said. Tony sees the irony in their dilemma: They have to deal with low prices as sellers, but they're also hoping to take advantage of the market's low prices. "But it's a beautiful home and if we need to, we will just stay," Angie said.

Liz Dordal, Haymarket

Keeping her three-bedroom luxury townhome show-ready for five months hasn't been a problem for federal employee Liz Dordal. "I like things uncluttered. I'm a minimalist and a clean freak. Anyplace I've lived is show-ready."

But what really ticks her off, she said, is the attitude she sees from potential buyers and agents who've stopped by to see the seven-year-old unit she bought in the gated community in 2004.

"I wish that the real estate agents would stop treating people like they're desperate to sell their house. . . . People assume that you're in distress if you have a place for sale and that you'll take a lot less. I just look at them and say 'No, I'm not.' "

Dordal also wishes that agents would provide "a little more education" to buyers about how different sellers' situations can be, and be more attentive to courtesies in showing, like contacting her in advance of a showing so the security system can be disarmed and making sure her cat doesn't get trapped away from the litter box.

She's posted notes to remind agents to keep the basement door open for her cat and another note asking visitors to take off their shoes before entering to protect the carpets and Brazilian cherry floors. But they don't always cooperate.

Dordal's house, listed in the mid-$300s, is "a great property," according to agent Lilia DeWald of Weichert Realtors in Gainesville. "It backs to the 17th tee of the golf course, a premium lot."

About 40 shoppers have looked at the well-appointed townhome, but it hasn't attracted any offers. The market has made it "hard for her," said DeWald. Dordal "bought it at a fair price" seven years ago, when prices were going up, but "the problem is that now those prices have gone down."

While Dordal would like to move to a less-expensive community where friends have bought, she said she's coping pretty well. "I don't really care if it takes longer to sell," she said. "I'm not going to deal on the dollar amount. If someone offers me what I ask, then I'll move, and if not, I won't. . . . I actually love this neighborhood."

Scott Laisney, Kensington

Scott Laisney said he has learned several lessons about real estate agents and the market since his four-bedroom split-level didn't sell during 90 days on the market last summer and fall. He blames his agent for "not telling us what to expect" and for not recommending that the house be decluttered, repainted in a neutral color or given any kind of fresh look. The agent never suggested a price, going instead with what Laisney and his wife, Karen, thought would work, based on houses they had seen for sale nearby.

The 1958 brick house was listed at about $465,000 in July. The agent said the price "seemed a little high" but didn't recommend lowering it, Laisney said.

"The kitchen counters were all scratched, and we asked if we should fix that . . . and the Realtor said no, that people will see that it can be done. We asked about painting, and she said no."

After 60 days, a couple of showings and no offers, they dropped the price $10,000, but "it made no difference," Laisney said. So they took it off the market, consulted other agents and hired a stager.

"With no action at all, we realized, 'we're doing something wrong here,' " Laisney said. The family's goal is to re-list sometime soon, after they finish making suggested changes.

By early January, the Laisneys had repainted everything antique white with white trim, including the bright yellow kitchen that Laisney had just redone.

Bathrooms have been repainted and wallpaper stripped after one visitor reacted "in horror" to a pink bathroom.

The wallpaper in the bedrooms used by Morgan, 13, and Alex, 15 - depicting ballerinas and spaceships respectively, which they were planning to change anyway - is gone. There's no need to say one is a boy's room, and one is a girl's; buyers can visualize their own uses for the rooms, Laisney said.

His bigger focus now is to depersonalize the whole house so buyers will concentrate on its potential rather than on its current owners and uses. "Now everything is white, and nothing is up on the walls," he said.

To make the house look as spacious as possible, the family also hauled away "truckloads" of possessions that had piled up in their closets and big sub-basement over 14 years. They donated clothing and toys to a friend's orphanage in Africa and sold other items on Craigslist. They've staged the living room, replaced fixtures and shower doors, and resurfaced the cracked counters.

Having two teenagers adds a challenge to keeping the house show-ready, Laisney acknowledges.

"I was always trepidatious about opening the door to their rooms" during the first listing, he said. "When they take a shower, you never know whether they might pick up their towels."

The Laisneys also were surprised by negative reaction to the family's pets - Greta, a 65-pound German shepherd; Angel, a slightly bigger Belgian shepherd; and two cats. "I never expected that," said Laisney. "I always thought people who had animals were thought of as nice people."

They're optimistic about the second go-round on the market. While his children have become "fairly discouraged" because they had to keep their rooms neat for nothing, Laisney said he thinks they will be motivated the next time.

"Our kids are kind of excited about moving. So we've told them if your rooms are clean and it helps to sell the house, then that will get them where they want to be."

David and Debbie Hopkins, Waldorf

Before they bought their large, two-story house in Charles County two years ago, David and Debbie Hopkins lived very happily in "a beautiful little 900-square-foot house in LaPlata," said David Hopkins. But how the couple, their 15-year-old daughter, Paige, their three dogs and a hamster wound up in the 4,500-square-foot home is "a long story," Hopkins said.

His parents, both of whom have cancer, were going to move from California to live with them, so David and Debbie bought a house large enough to accommodate everyone comfortably. But his parents didn't make the move after all, and now David and Debbie have more house than they need.

A federal contractor and architect, Hopkins recognizes that he "took advantage of the difficult market to purchase" at a good price, "not thinking that we were going to be in this difficult position to sell when Mom and Dad said 'we're not coming.' But now we've got this ridiculously big house."

When they listed the house for sale almost a year ago, they weren't even living in all of the rooms.

They've staged the dining room but don't use it. "The house is fairly empty," said Hopkins. "We only live in two rooms besides the bedroom - the living room and the kitchen."

The basement that he'd planned to refinish for his parents is like a blueprint of what was to be. He outlined in blue tape where the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, closet and music room would go. The water and drainage lines are ready. But "it's 100 percent vacant," he said.

Upstairs, things are always kept neat, despite the hamster and three dogs - 100-pound Buck, 18-pound Joe (short for Josephine) and tiny Cosette, a Shitzapoo.

But there have only been two showings, and the only offer was too low, said agent Anthony Williams of Long & Foster in Mitchellville.

"We listed it with a realistic price," in the mid-$400s, said Hopkins, "and then turned around in October or so and dropped it about $45,000, which brought us right down to our bare minimum. To drop it again is going to put us upside-down" on the mortgage.

He's also realistic about how little power he has to entice the right buyers.

"If they come in and like it, they like it. But every buyer has his own idea of what he wants," said Hopkins." The first couple who walked through "weren't in the house for 45 seconds and they walked right out. . . .[The second couple] were in the house 20 minutes, and the next day we had an offer. . .but it was $65,000 less than what we had it listed for after we dropped the price, and I would have had to come to the table with money."

The family keeps the house ready, though, with a one-hour notice request to agents "to give us a few minutes to get everything situated and to get the dogs outside" or in a bedroom, Hopkins said.

His goal is to move to a townhouse, similar in size to his previous home. "The house that I really miss is the one we had in LaPlata," he said.

Hopkins is worried about how long the situation will go on and how he will be able to avoid the financial disaster of being underwater - and paying large utility bills - on the big house. Selling it is "on the list of things we're praying for, but we have bigger concerns," he notes, referring to their parents.

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