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How We Sold Our House in 24 Hours

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It’s true. We’ve downsized, and it happened fast.

Our house was listed last month, late on a Tuesday evening. Early Wednesday morning, while packing to be out of town for a week, we started getting phone calls. By the time we left for the airport after noon, a half-dozen showings were scheduled.

Late in the afternoon, after touching down on the first leg of our flight, there was a text message from Rob, our Realtor: we had a near full-price offer from a well-qualified buyer!

The following morning, on the other side of the country, we signed the Purchase and Sale Agreement, electronically. And we closed without incident about 6 weeks later. That was last week.

Ours was no show home. Though most people found it attractive, it was small and simple and wasn’t the kind of place where you’d expect to find buyers queuing up. And though our state was not one of the many train wrecks during the real estate downturn, we were told it was still a buyer’s market. Financing would be difficult for many, and the rest could afford to be choosy.

Nevertheless we sold our house extremely quickly, and at a fair price that produced a sizable gain over 16 years of ownership. How did we do it? No doubt, some of our experience was good fortune — the right timing plus the right buyer. But what had we done to create the conditions for that good fortune?

Well, the story begins over 16 years ago when we bought into one of the most desirable neighborhoods in our area — a small township with little land remaining to be developed. The town sits on the outskirts of a major city, and is built on the edge of plateau with sheer cliffs — literally — on most sides. In the other direction, you reach the county line after a few miles. So this was a geographically constrained area of land. With the big city growing steadily in all directions, there continued to be solid demand for the limited number of properties in our town. Add to that the long overdue construction of new elementary, middle, and high schools several years ago, and the ingredients were in place to keep demand and property values going up over the long haul.

Essential Updates

The story resumes about 4 years ago, when our son left for college. We were faced, finally, with the proverbial “empty nest.” But it was a somewhat worn nest. There weren’t major issues, but we had allowed a number of maintenance projects to languish during the demanding years of full-time work and parenting. Our limited time and energy had gone into work and family first. But I had kept a growing list of house projects that would need attention some day….

Now it was time to get serious about catching up. My wife Caroline kicked things off by orchestrating a couple of significant projects that were beyond our own home repair skill set. We had the wood siding completely replaced on the most weathered side of the house by our experienced contractor friend Mark, and his crew. Then they used the good pieces remaining from that side to replace weathered pieces on the other 3 sides of the house. Finally they painted from the roof line down to the top of the first story, where we took over and finished the new paint job. In the end, we wound up with a like-new exterior, for a fraction of the cost of complete replacement.

Then Caroline moved on to our second most important project: renovating the kitchen. I’ll probably write more about our frugal approach to home renovation elsewhere. But suffice to say that for about $8K, instead of the usual tens of thousands of dollars, we got the essence of a completely updated, state-of-the-art kitchen, with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and beautiful tile floor.

The next summer my son was home from college and he worked through most of the rest of the items on my house to-do list, including painting a number of rooms, making updates to the bathrooms, and doing various repairs and projects outdoors to bring the rest of the property in line.

So now the house was in basically good repair and largely updated inside and out. It would have been a good buy at that point, but it probably wouldn’t have sold quickly. It still lacked some essential elements for buyer appeal and a quick sale. Fast forward a few more years to this past spring….

Choosing a Realtor

We knew this was the year to downsize. We were ready for a new location; Caroline would be retiring in the summer; my first book was done; the house was in good shape; and the real estate market was as strong as it had been in half a decade.

We felt if we didn’t get the house on the market by late spring, we’d be missing a golden opportunity. But we didn’t know how long it would take to sell. Having made the decision to downsize and possibly leave the area, we didn’t want to wait 6 months, 12 months, or worse before we could launch our new lifestyle. Our objective was to sell the house quickly, and at a fair price.

Ironically, even though I’m a do-it-yourselfer in most financial matters, I knew from the start that I’d want help with selling the house. The reasons were plentiful in my mind: I’m not an expert in real estate, I wasn’t particularly interested in it, and I had no desire to educate myself on the details of what would be an extremely rare transaction for us. Also, over the years, we’d seen any number of houses in our area start out for sale by owner then, after not selling, wind up in the hands of a Realtor anyway.

All I needed to do was put myself in the buyer’s shoes: why should a buyer go to the work and risk of pursuing the few homes being sold by owners, when they could get a Realtor to review hundreds of homes in the MLS and do all the legwork for free?

A Realtor is a sales and marketing professional. I’ve learned over my years in business how important those functions are. Unless you have a penchant for either, especially as they relate to real estate, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage to go it alone in the housing marketplace.

Yes, Realtors do get a juicy commission, 6% plus or minus, depending on the area, and the rate you negotiate. Occasionally they might make that without putting a whole lot of work in on a deal. But so what? It was very hard for me to quantify how that money would be “saved” by selling the house ourselves — especially if we got less for it because of a reduced pool of buyers. We were ready to move on in life, and weren’t going to split hairs over a few percentage points. Our investment portfolio routinely fluctuates as much as a typical Realtor’s commission.

The fact that we had a trusted friend in the business, one we had worked with successfully in a number of capacities over the years, made the decision all the easier. Rob had already walked the house earlier in the spring to give us a number of selling tips. So the decision to list with him was not something we had to debate at any great length. When he brought the Listing Agreement by and explained how the process would work, we felt all the more confident that we had made the right decision.

Staging the Show

I’ll confess my spirits dimmed a bit as I read through Rob’s extensive Home Selling Guide — a dozen pages on the mechanics of properly preparing our house for sale. It addressed repairs, cleaning, “neutralizing,” space management, atmosphere, staging, exterior, yard, driveway, front entry, living area, dining room, kitchen, laundry room, stairways, bedrooms, bathrooms, garage, and showing….

When I finally reached the last page, overwhelmed, I pitched a small, private fit. This felt like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Sure, it would be nice to have a picture-perfect property with great curb appeal, but it just hadn’t been worth the trouble or expense to us in our everyday life. So why do it now? It was so much work, for such a short period of time. Why did we need to do all that just to sell a nice house that was already in functional repair and had served us perfectly well for 16 years? Why not just lower the price a bit and tell buyers to “take it or leave it.” Bah humbug this staging stuff!

Once I’d vented, I began thinking like a buyer. We would soon enough be “buyers” again too — even if we were only renting — so it wasn’t very hard to understand their point of view. Real estate is not the seller’s market it once was. And buying a house is the largest financial transaction most people make — a multi-year commitment that affects everything about their physical and emotional quality of life.

What do you look for when making a major purchase? I bet you want value. I sure do. I want something that feels like it was meant for me, personally. It should meet all my requirements, exude that extra feeling of quality, and do all of that for a great price. I want the seller to go over the top for me. And I realized that every potential buyer coming in our front door to view the house would feel precisely the same way!

If we were serious about selling our house quickly for a fair price, then we were just going to have to get serious about this staging business, and demonstrate to buyers beyond any shadow of doubt that they would be getting a quality home perfect for them at a reasonable price.

And we did. To the best of our ability, we ticked off virtually every single item in the Selling Guide. We held a yard sale and rented a storage unit, reducing our household contents by about half. We diligently worked through each room, reducing clutter and packing away personal items. Given our time constraints, we had to bypass some of our usual frugality standards and pay for help to accomplish in weeks things that would have taken us months, alone. But we set our sights on the goal and got it all done.

We had one prominent room painted and then touched up throughout the house. We had the roof, siding, and trim cleaned so the house sparkled like new. (Using diluted bleach, not destructive pressure washing.) We resuscitated our decks with a beautiful honey-toned stain, recommended by our contractor friend, Mark. We resurfaced the front sidewalk and did some modest landscaping all around the house: adding mulch, a few shrubs, and several dozen annuals. Lastly we coaxed new grass up in the front and side yards.

Altogether we spent a little over $4,000. Other than some overpriced landscaping labor, owing to making a verbal agreement in a hurry, we got our money’s worth. The house was transformed from a functional property in good repair, to a “Honey, stop the car,” drop-dead gorgeous, curb appealing show-stopper. We were proud of the results and confident not only that the house would attract buyers, but that the right one would be getting a great deal and would be happy living there.

Listing and Pricing

Now came the last step, perfunctory for us, given all we had done to prepare, but critical to get right: listing the house. Many real estate listings are embarrassingly amateurish, with sketchy information and unappealing photos that do more harm than good. Sabotaging your one chance at making a good first impression is a huge mistake, especially for a transaction as large and critical as selling a house.

To create our listing, Rob came by on a sunny morning and spent several hours shooting photos. He took hundreds of shots inside and out using ladders and difficult positions high in the corners of rooms to get the most attractive possible presentation for the house and yard. He hiked down into the park across the street and got shots there. A deer wandered through, and he got that on camera too.

He then spent the rest of the day cherry-picking the best shots and writing and re-writing our listing. Taking the buyer’s perspective again, he highlighted many great features of the house that would appeal to various intended uses, some of which I had long since taken for granted. The dining room had a great view of the back yard. The sunroom was perfect for indoor picnics. You could hear the creek across the street from our master bedroom. The front porch was perfect for an occasional dinner. As a long-time resident of our neighborhood himself, he knew all the best features of the area and could portray it accurately and enticingly as no outsider possibly could.

When he was done with our listing, it was so good that we were having second thoughts about leaving! As far as I was concerned, he earned his commission that day.

The final question was how to price the house. There appear to be two extreme approaches to this delicate issue. Some buyers ask for all they dream of getting and more, pricing the house at what they “feel” it’s worth to themselves on an emotional level. But, in today’s world, that’s foolish. Even if you are lucky enough to find an ignorant or eager buyer at that high price, the deal is likely to be shot down by the bank’s appraiser. My understanding is that it’s very difficult to get any sort of deal done these days if it involves financing over the appraised value. At the other extreme, buyers defer to the Realtor, who picks a number loosely based on comparables or gut feeling, then moves on to the next listing without further thought.

We did it differently. As stated, our goal was to sell the house quickly, and at a fair price. Being financially independent, having long ago paid off our mortgage, we had no financial constraints or preconceived notions about what our house “should” be worth. We just wanted the market value, minus transaction costs.

Rob’s thinking was perfectly aligned with ours, and he suggested we have a private appraisal performed by the most respected and careful appraiser in our city. This we promptly did. It was well worth the few hundred dollars to know with some precision, from an independent third party, what price our house should actually sell for.

Our private appraisal came in at $240K. We priced the house a few percent higher, at a natural price point of $249K. This would show up in searches for $250K or below, and would allow some room for bargaining and contingencies.

The buyer knew we were asking a fair price and jumped on it with their quick and gracious offer of $245K. We accepted promptly, and the rest is history!

Comments

  1. Congratulations! I went through a similiar experience and it’s a lot of work. I think most would want to take the easier route but even if they’re willing to take a lower price, often that extra work and effort is needed just to be considered. So what are your plans? Will you be buying again? Stay flexible through renting? I rented for a while and hated it compared to a private home. Good luck!

    • Thanks Steve. Agreed, it seemed wise to put the work in so we’d get noticed. We don’t plan to buy again soon. We’ll be traveling and doing shorter-term rentals until we’re ready to settle down. Stay tuned!

  2. Congratulations and welcome to the ranks of the home-free!

    Reading how much effort went in to selling yours reminded me of our own efforts selling ours earlier this year.

    When people buy houses I doubt they have any idea how much work it will take unloading them when the time comes. We sure didn’t!

  3. I can’t wait to hear about the new kitchen for $8k! Please do a story on it. Our son, age 29, who just bought his first house convinced us we didn’t need to totally redo our kitchen (big bucks, and not things we valued) as the realtor wanted. This was based on how he and his fiance looked at many houses in their search. It just needs to look cared for and spiffed up because buyers are probably going to change it anyway. I’d love to hear what you did. We plan to be here for another 5 years or so, so we want any changes to work for both us and a buyer. Would your realtor be willing to share his Home Selling Guide? Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thanks Kathy, it is high on my list to write about how we renovated the kitchen and bathroom inexpensively. The essence was to replace the few high-visibility items and fix up the rest. I’d also like to write about some of the things we did over the years which we learned probably weren’t worth the money. P.S. You can request a copy of that seller’s guide here.

  4. I’m really surprised you listed your house when you were going to be out of town. Nowadays that first week is the most important (at least in my area); if you don’t have at least two offers in that first week you’ve done something horribly wrong. On the other hand, though, you have to plan to be out of your house on a moment’s notice for showings, so maybe leaving town was a good idea! Especially since it sounds like you were able to do the paperwork remotely.

    • Hi Steve. Yes, we might not have chosen to be out of town the first week, but we had a family obligation. As it turned out, there were at least a dozen showings while we were gone and we were very glad to miss all that activity at the house. We would have been running out constantly!

  5. Hi Darrow,
    Thank you for the great article. Congratulations on the quick sale. I have to say you are a Realtors dream seller! 🙂 Getting sellers to put themselves in a buyer’s shoes (put on their buyer’s hat when they are not yet buyers) can be an uphill battle. Funny though how when they do start looking to buy, the buyer hat comes on like they never had the seller’s hat on. 😉

    It is good to read some positive thoughts about our Realtor peers. There seems to be so much negative press out there about real estate sales associates.

    Also nowadays you can list your home and leave town. Technology provides for digital or electronic signatures so if you do leave it is helpful if you still have access to the internet and a browser. Either phone or computer will do. 😉

    We to are interested in your low budget kitchen remodel information. Our kitchen could use some help. Especially the cabinets and counter tops.

    So are you going to do the motorhome or travel trailer thing for awhile now?
    Happy trails, cowboy Mike

    • Thanks Mike, agreed all around! Yes, we are going to travel in our small RV, visiting towns where we are interested in living. We’ll camp and do short-term rentals until we’re ready to settle down. Adventure ahead!

      • That is just GREAT! If you need any input or recommendations just give me a shout. ‘Course most of my travels have been ahorseback. I have seen more of this country from the back of a horse or a foot than from a vehicle by far. Ahorseback in the back country of 14 states. 🙂

        If you get to Wyomin’ check out the little town of Dubois. https://www.facebook.com/DuboisWyChamberOfCommerce Be sure to visit the Big Horn Sheep Interpretive Center. The little town is not a bad place to hang yer hat fer awhile. To my recollection they do not yet have a stop light in town. 🙂 Plenty of places to camp. Its kinda in a banana belt between 2 mountain ranges, the Wind Rivers and the Absarokas. Winters are pretty mild. I lived there for quite a long spell.

        Happy trails Darrow. You have made my feet itchy for a Blue Highways trip back out west! http://books.google.com/books/about/Blue_Highways.html?id=lqN1DyLWwQsC

        • We spent a week in Lander last summer and drove through Dubois on the way to Yellowstone/Tetons. Indeed seemed like a nice place, so we’ll try to spend more time there on our next trip to that part of the world. Great you got to live there for a while. Thanks again Mike!

  6. Simon Halls says:

    Interesting article Darrow. Defintely agree that putting the work in in advance pays dividends as regards what you can expect to receive. Sounds like you got what you deserved and good luck to you.

  7. We had a similar experience. The only difference really was that we weren’t in a high demand area at all. Our house was an average home built in a starter neighborhood by only one builder that only had a handful of floor plans in a city that wasn’t even all that close of a suburb to a major city. We found a great realtor who seemed to be the only one selling houses quickly in our area. All the others would do the usual open houses and list the home for months if not a year+. We only had private showings with a minimum of 2 hours notice (we did have two young children). We were also able to do all the updates and maintenance our realtor recommended and he even paid for a stager and gave us advice on items we did not need to change/update, saving us even more money. Our house sold in two weeks at full listing price and we only had 5 showings. This was during the “downturn” of 2011! Even though we did not recoup all our money doing the updates (or the hard work), it was more valuable having the relief of selling our home at market and faster than anyone else in our neighborhood.

    • Thanks for the detailed report Flora. That confirms our experience. Seems if somebody is serious about selling their home quickly and at a fair price, it can be done. But it does take time, effort, and money. In our case too, we were ready to move on and it was a relief not to linger on the market.