Home sellers cope with houses in limbo

Some home sellers have to wait months to find a buyer, keeping their homes in a perpetual state of 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."

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