We're smack in the middle of prime house-selling season. The National Association of Realtors predicts that 6.6 million existing homes will change hands this year.
But many markets around the country are cooling, and the inventories of homes for sale are rising. Compared to the hot real estate market of recent years, you can no longer automatically expect to sell a house quickly and for a high price.
However, sensible pricing and careful presentation can go a long way toward hastening a transaction. Follow these four tips, and you'll be on your way to selling your home for a good price this summer:
1. Find Out What Your House Is Worth
You can't charge the right price unless you know what that is. So do a little research:
* Go online. For a free Multiple Listing Service Home Market Check that shows what other residences like yours sold for recently in your area, visit the HomeInsight Web site. Or, check out Yahoo! Real Estate and click on "What's my home worth." Finally, visit Realtor.com, where you can browse more than 2.5 million residential listings and take advantage of several services that can help you to determine your home's value.
* Check local real estate listings. To get a more accurate sense of your home's worth, look at local real estate listings (often searchable by neighborhood, house size, and price on local realtors' Web sites) for a sense of what houses of similar size, condition, locations, and amenities are going for in your area. Large real estate brokerage firms tend to have the most sophisticated Web sites. Some of my favorite realtor sites include Coldwell Banker, Century 21, and Re/Max.
* Attend open-house showings. To get to know a market in a weekend, check open-house listings and attend these events to see what your neighbors are selling their homes for. How do their homes look compared to yours? How are they priced? Talk to the real estate agents hosting the events to find out which properties are moving and why. Asking these questions can help you get a quick handle on the market -- and let you know what you need to do to prepare your home for sale.
* Get a comparative-value analysis from a professional. You don't have to do this all yourself -- and candidly, you shouldn't. Get a referral for a real estate agent, and let them know that you're considering selling your home. Ask them to provide you with a detailed "comparative-value analysis" on your home. The analysis will include information about recent sales of homes similar to yours. Ask the agent for an analysis that includes the last year or more of sales for a complete picture, but the most recent transactions are the ones to use as your benchmark.
While you're at it, ask the agent to provide you with a listing of current homes like yours for sale and how long they've been on the market. Finally, request a marketing proposal stating at what price they'd list your house and what they'd do to help you sell it. There's usually no charge for this service, as this is the agent's chance to woo you as a client.
2. Make It Look Pretty and Smell Nice Before the Sale
* De-clutter the interior. Pare down before the move. Potential buyers want to see your house, not your possessions. A sparse interior containing just enough furniture to suggest each room's purpose and to provide a sense of scale is ideal. Clean out drawers, empty closets and attics, vacate the basement, and tidy the garage.
Consider renting an inexpensive self-storage unit for items you don't want in the house during a showing. And most importantly, lose the family photos. You want the visitor to think of the house as theirs, not yours.
# Give it a good cleaning or hire a cleaning service to do a thorough, one-time job. Make ceilings, walls, floors, carpets, windows, faucets, and fixtures look good -- dust, scrub, and polish until everything sparkles and smells clean.
# Paint, repair, replace. The fastest and cheapest thing you can do to help you sell your house is repaint. A fresh coat of paint inside and out can quickly make your house look and smell new. When in doubt, paint the outside a color common in the neighborhood and the inside white.
# If it's broke and obvious, fix it! Cracked windowpanes, sticking doors, dripping faucets, running toilets -- take care of them up front, so you don't have to explain them away later. If you don't want to do it yourself, make a "punch list" and hire a handyman service. Your investment will likely pay off many times over in a higher sale price -- and, most importantly, a house that sells.
# Create curb appeal. In the beginning, it always comes down this: How does the house look from the curb when the person drives up (assuming you aren't selling a condo in a building). Studies have shown that simply repainting a house is the best investment you can make when reselling. If your home has synthetic siding, a good power washing may be able to help it shine like new again. Dirty or weathered decks can benefit from the same treatment.
Next, compare your landscaping to others in your neighborhood. You don't have to have the cutest house on the block, but if your yard looks barren, plant some flowers (people love them) and a few bushes. Finally, new grass in the front can make an old yard look brand new (a fast and often cheap fix). Add new house numbers, a nice doorbell or knocker, and a plush new entry mat -- they all help to make a great first impression. Oh, and make sure the front door looks great and functions perfectly.
Clean out the garage, and remove children's toys from the yard. That goes for that creaky, rusty, long-abandoned swing set, too.
3. Research a Sales Method
There's more than one way to sell a house. Here are the three most popular choices:
* Commissioned real estate agents are the traditional and most successful option. According to the National Association of Realtors, a recent study shows that sellers assisted by an agent get a price for their home 16% higher than those selling on their own. They offer many services for a commission that's generally about 6 percent of your home's sales price -- but the fee is often negotiable. For more information, visit Realtor.com, which is owned and operated by the National Association of Realtors.
* Flat-fee brokers perform many of the same services for a fixed fee -- often less than a traditional agent's commission. For more information, check out FlatFeeListing.com.
* Selling it yourself allows you to potentially avoid broker fees and commissions altogether by doing your own marketing. However, there are costs and do-it-yourself work involved. ForSaleByOwner.com has more information.
4. Consider renting out your house instead of selling it.
O.K., now that you know what you need to do to sell your house, I'd like you to consider another option that will not just make you some money, it may make you rich. Don't sell your house now. Hang onto it and rent it out. That's right -- if you rent out your home for more than the cost of the mortgage payment, taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs, it'll provide you with some extra income each month.
Real estate investors call this "positive cash flow" or "passive income." That income is apt to increase over time, as your mortgage payment is likely fixed, but the rental's value tends to grow. Eventually, the mortgage is paid off, you own the home free and clear, and you still get to collect the rent -- and pocket almost all of it. Plus, the property will likely continue appreciate, even as it throws off cash. In a future column, I'll share some more ideas on how to make this work well for you.