Introduction An Introduction on How to Sell a House
Negotiation deadlocks, surprises in the inspection, buyers with crazy demands—from list to close, obstacles lace the road like landmines. Welcome to your first home sale! The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported that in 2018, only 64% of sellers were satisfied with the selling process. Given that you’ve got so much money on the line, you deserve satisfaction.
This one-stop shop for first-time home sellers is designed to help you get it. All of the advice in this guide is backed by top real estate agents across America. They’re the brilliant marketers, shrewd negotiators, and experts in getting the deal done and we’ve synthesized their recommendations into this clear and concise beginner’s walkthrough. The chapters in this guide include:
Our Top Agent Contributors
This guide is comprised of advice from America's top real estate agents, who sell homes faster and for more money.
Keller Williams Realty PartnersGet Introduced
- Single Family Homes Sold #1 of 465 agents
- Westchester Listings Sold #3 of 465 agents
- Homes Sold in Scotts Corner #3 of 465 agents
Mary Jo Santistevan
Berkshire Hathaway Home ServicesGet Introduced
- Homes Sold in Phoenix Top 1% of 24,074 agents
- Single Family Homes Sold Top 1% of 24,074 agents
- Condos Sold Top 1% of 24,074 agents
Keller WilliamsGet Introduced
- Homes Sold in Frederickson #2 of 2,598 agents
- Single Family Homes Sold #3 of 2,598 agents
- Sells for higher than average
Coldwell Banker Residential BrokerageGet Introduced
- Single Family Homes Sold Top 1% of 2,682 agents
- Worcester Listings Sold #10 of 2,682 agents
- Average Days on Market Top 28% of 2,682
Chapter 1 How to Figure Out What Your Home is Worth, What You’ll Make if You Sell, and When to Pull the Trigger
While selling a home is a common life event (NAR reports that 5.34 million homes sold in 2018 alone) the decision to take the plunge and sell might not come so easily. Are you sure you’re ready to sell?
“Sometimes we get people that are kind of on the fence,” says Mark Boyland, the #1 real estate agent for selling single-family homes in Westchester County, New York, as of this writing. “They’re thinking they need something bigger, smaller, move to a different area. They’re not really 100% sure if they’re ready to sell but sometimes they move forward with it anyway, and then kind of realize after the fact that they might have jumped the gun.”
It’s natural to face nerves and you should take your time with such a major decision. According to Dave Ramsey, a trusted voice on money, budgeting and debt, some signs that you’re 100% ready to sell include:
- You’ve done a gut check and feel emotionally prepared to leave this home and the memories it holds behind, negotiate with buyers over it like a business deal, and hear critiques on what needs fixed.
- You’re equity positive, meaning you’re sure you won’t owe more than the home is worth.
- You’re in a financial position to buy a home that better suits your needs.
Feel confident moving forward? OK then, let the real fun begin! There are 3 questions you need to answer before you sell your home:
- What’s your home worth, anyway?
- How much would you actually make if you sell?
- When should you list your home for sale?
To start the process off on the right foot, let’s find out how much money you’ll walk away with at the end of the day, when the best time to list in your area is, and how to handle a sale while you plan your next move.
How Much Will Your Home Sell For?
Today’s sellers have a median equity gain of $55,000, according to NAR’s 2018 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. You can do a little market research of your own to figure out a ballpark amount for your potential home sale proceeds.
Start with a free online home value estimate
Automated valuation models (AVMs) use algorithms and real estate market data to estimate your home’s value. You can plug your address into one of these free tools to get a rough idea for what your home is worth. Our Home Value Estimator is a great place to start.
We look at millions of transactions and ask specific questions about your property to give you the most educated guess about what your home is worth. Then, our Simple Sale price shows how much our network of buyers will offer for your house, which is usually 90-95% of your home’s market value. And to get you the best home value estimate, we’ll connect you with a top real estate agent who knows the market in your area.
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We’ll gather offers from our network of buyers and compare to what you can expect to make with a top real estate agent.
Something to watch out for: if an agent gives you an estimate way higher than the rest, that’s a red flag that they may just be trying to flatter you to get your business. Overpricing doesn’t do you any favors.
“Let's say your house is somewhere around $500k in value and your agent is noticing a lot of inventory between the $500k and $550k,” Boyland explains.
“But there's not as many houses for sale in the $450k to $500k range. So price it a little under $500k to capitalize on that stronger market.”
Don’t forget to subtract sale costs!
The amount of money your home sells for won’t be what you walk away with when all is said and done. Subtract fees, taxes, your remaining mortgage, and agent commissions from the estimated sale price to figure out your rough net proceeds. Here’s how to run some quick numbers:
- Start with the estimated sale price of your home.
- Subtract approximately 6% for the real estate agent commission. (This percentage may vary depending on where you live and which agent you work with.)
- Subtract the remaining mortgage that you owe on the property.
- Subtract any other fees that you owe such as taxes, utility costs, or HOA fees.
The amount left over is an approximation of how much you could walk away with once you sell your house.
Time your home sale just right
The local housing market in your area is a huge factor in how quickly your house will sell and how much it will sell for. Knowing the best time to sell your house in your neck of the woods and timing your listing just right will pay dividends. A top real estate agent will weigh the different market factors to determine the best time to list your house, but there are some ways to check it out on your own.
Use data to find the best time to sell in your area
Did you know that you could increase your profits by over 75% if you sell your home at the right time? HomeLight’s Best Time to Sell calculator analyzes your city’s real estate transaction data to determine which months are the best time to list your home and close on the sale––and when to avoid selling if you can help it.
Most real estate agents will tell you that spring is the best time to list your home but that’s not necessarily true for every real estate market. A more precise analysis of the home sales data shows that the best time to sell depends on where you live.
Conduct an inventory analysis on your local market
An inventory analysis is a review of the houses that are on the market in your area. Analyze the inventory of the local housing market to determine if it’s a buyer’s or seller’s market. This will give you a better idea of when to list your home.
Ask your real estate agent for a month’s supply of inventory chart, which shows how many months it would take to sell all of the comparable houses that are currently on the market at the current pace of sale. If they could sell within 5 to 7 months, it means the market is stable. If it’s over 7 months, it indicates a buyer’s market and if it’s under 5 months, it’s a seller’s market. The type of market you are in could not only affect how quickly your house would sell, but how much your house would sell for.
“In a buyer’s market, prices will get more and more competitive, meaning the value of your home could go down,” Boyland says. “Generally in a seller’s market, prices are kind of on the upswing.”
A top real estate agent can provide a detailed analysis of this information when you decide to list your home, but to get an idea on your own, take a look at sites with real estate listings such as Zillow, Redfin, or Realtor.com. If there’s a lot of comparable listings in your area, it may be a buyer’s market. If there aren’t that many comparable listings, it may indicate a seller’s market.
Figure out your timeline for selling
Selling a house takes a lot of attention, so weigh the amount of time and effort you will be able to commit before you decide to sell your house. Overall, the time it takes to sell a house depends on your situation, your house, and your local market. But, you can expect to dedicate 50 to 90 days (or two to four months) to sell your house from start to finish.
Should You Sell Your Home Before You Buy?
With all things in real estate, it depends. However, in most situations, it’s best to sell your house before buying a new house for one big reason: what if your house doesn’t sell and you already bought a new house?
“If [the seller] is in a position to qualify to purchase another home before they sell then that’s an option,” says Santistevan. “If they are not in a position to do that, or maybe it’s out of their comfort level, then they need to get the house on the market first before they move to the next step.”
So unless you are comfortable owning multiple homes at once, it’s best to avoid putting yourself in the position of paying two mortgages. Here are some ways to make sure you don’t end up owning two homes at the same time.
- Use a top real estate agent to successfully market your house and sell it quickly. Top agents sell homes faster than the average Joe, making it easier for you to move onto the next stage of your life.
- When buying a house, have your real estate agent write into your buying contract that your offer is contingent on the sale of your current house, meaning you will not be able to purchase another home until your current home sells.
- Only start looking for a new house once you have accepted an offer on your current house.
- Do a gut check before you throw your house on the market without careful thought—are you ready to leave this house behind?
- Get a ballpark figure of what your home’s worth using our Home Value Estimator.
- Ask top real estate agents in your city to perform a comparative market analysis for an accurate pricing picture.
- Determine your approximate home sale proceeds by taking your home’s worth and subtracting your agent’s commission, closing costs, taxes and any other fees from your price.
- Time your home sale based on market conditions to sell faster and for more money using the Best Time to Sell Calculator.
Chapter 2 What’s the Best Way to Sell a House? Weigh Your Options
You’re 100% ready to move forward, you know what your home is worth, and you’ve penciled in your listing date on the calendar. Now, you need to make another big decision: how do you plan to sell your home? Let’s walk through each one so you can make the most informed decision. Here are the three most common options that we’re talking about:
- Sell with the help of an agent
- Compare cash offers from instant buyers
- Go solo with the FSBO route
Option 1: Hire a Real Estate Agent
Yes, selling a house is stressful… but without an agent, it’s a logistical nightmare. Here are just some of a real estate agent’s core duties:
- Perform an analysis of the local real estate market to price your home at fair market value.
- Guide your home preparation efforts (repairs, decluttering, staging) so you don’t end up spending more money than you need to … Hello, math and strategy skills!
- Bring in the best professionals to stage and photograph your house, making it look like a million bucks (or at least whatever your list price is).
- Market your house across an array of social media and real estate platforms, not to mention the network of buyer’s agents they have on speed dial.
- Bring in buyers for showings and talk up your house like you never thought possible—they know what buyers love!
- Negotiate offers to get you the best price.
- Lastly (and probably most importantly), handle tons and tons of confusing paperwork.
It’s a full-time job.
“You know if I had a cut on my hand, I’m not going to try to stitch it up myself. I’m going to the doctor,” says Santistevan. “From a negotiating aspect, this is what we do. This is our profession,” she adds. “And also, from the liability aspects, there are certain state disclosures that need to be filled out. Your average homeowner doesn’t know that.”
The paperwork that accompanies a home sale is detailed and exhaustive and laws and regulations vary from state to state, making it even harder to master unless you’re working in it all day every day. A good real estate agent knows the process like the back of their hand and will make sure you walk away without any legal issues or regrets.
Which brings us to the next step to sell your house… you need to find a best-in-class real estate agent. There are over 2 million licensed real estate agents in the U.S., but only a handful are top-performers who can sell your house faster and for more money. So if your mom’s best friend’s cousin thinks it’d be fun to sell your house, send them packing. Unless, of course, they’ve got a proven track record of success with properties like yours.
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Option 2: Sell Your Home for Cash to an iBuyer
Most sellers go the conventional route of listing with a real estate agent the on the open market to get the most money for their house. But in some cases you just need a fast, certain transaction in reaction to a job transfer, divorce, financial hardship, or other life upheaval.
If you’re on a time crunch or hate the thought of opening up your house to strangers for showings, selling to an instant buyer (iBuyer) that can help you close in weeks or even days is an attractive option, even if it means taking a price cut.
Sound like you? Here’s what you should know: When you sell your home to an iBuyer, it’s a no-fuss, simple transaction. You skip the home prep, repairs, staging and showings and trade your house as-is for an all-cash offer—typically in exchange for less of payout or higher service fees. The reality is that iBuyers are running a business and the offer needs to make financial sense for them.
“If the house is just in really, really rough condition, a quick cash deal would make a lot of sense,” says Boyland.
It’s true that a fix-and-flipper could bail you out of months on the market spent attempting to sell a total gut-job. But cash offers could appeal to sellers with homes in good condition, too. The consistent demand for a simple transaction has made way for a batch of high-tech players like Opendoor, Offerpad, Redfin, and even Zillow to enter this space that don’t necessarily target tear-downs.
There’s also buy-and-hold investors that could see your house as the perfect rental pad if you’re in a popular market.
What does all this boil down to?
If you want to sell to your house for cash, you now have more potential buyers to choose from and the competition should theoretically improve the type of deal you can get.
To make this whole process easier, HomeLight’s Simple Sale platform collects all the available cash offers for your house in one place so you can compare the options among our list of pre-approved iBuyers and make an informed decision. With this tool you can also compare the benefits of a cash offer against an estimation of what you could fetch for your house the conventional way on the open market. Start now by reviewing your offers!
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Option 3: For Sale By Owner (FSBO)
When you list your home as FSBO (For Sale By Owner), you’re cutting out the real estate agent from the process. That means you alone must take on the responsibilities of the agent to drum up interest around your home (unless you have a buyer lined up already). You’ll have to price your home right, stage and prepare your home to sell, show your home to buyers, and negotiate with them to close the deal. Selling your own home is a lot of work, but like anything, it has its benefits and its drawbacks.
Quick Pros and Cons of FSBO
Pro: When you sell your home FSBO, you won’t have to pay an agent’s commission fees. Theoretically, this saves you some money when you sell your home.
Con: Trouble is, you’ll probably end up selling your home for less money. FSBOs typically sell at a significantly lower price (a median difference of $60,000) than homes listed with a real estate agent, according to NAR. All the work an agent does to prep, stage and market a home isn’t for nothing—it’s to bring in competitive offers. The price you’re able to fetch with a real estate agent’s help could cover the cost of commision… and then some.
Pro: You’re on your own schedule. You can take your time to find the perfect buyer without worrying about the length of your agent contract.
Con: Your emotions may put the sale in jeopardy. There’s a lot wrapped up in your home—how it looks, how it’s furnished, how it’s painted, all of these choices you made over the years add sentimental value to the property and make it harder to be objective. A buyers’ critiques of your home can be brutal and push you over the edge. Real estate agents know how to handle these complaints while highlighting a home’s best features. Plus, a real estate agent is an objective set of eyes to make fast decisions—which is the kick in the butt you’ll need to get your home sold fast.
Pro: You can list your house for the price you think it deserves. Real estate agents will advise you on the best asking price for your house, but if you think you can get more for it, you have total freedom. PS: When working with a real estate agent, they can’t list your house for any price that you haven’t agreed on.
Con: Your home will be harder to sell if it’s overpriced—if it sells at all. Buyers won’t pay thousands of extra dollars because your home of 30 years carries sentimental value. A real estate agent will price your home competitively based on cold, hard logic to bring in attractive offers. Overpricing sounds like a good idea… until you’re forced into price reductions down the line.
Real Talk: Here’s Why FSBOs Fail
In 2018, 91% of home sellers worked with a real estate agent to sell their home, which is consistent across all age groups. And, only 7% of home sales were marked as FSBO. At the end of the day, selling your house on your own is not the best option for most people. A FSBO sale may work for you if:
- You are in an extremely low inventory seller’s market and you know your house will sell immediately for whatever you price it at.
- You already have buyers in mind, whether they are friends, neighbors, or people eager to purchase a home. Even then, that’s a lot of paperwork to navigate on your own.
But it’s hard to deny the benefits of working with a good real estate agent. Top agents have massive local networks to spread the word about your listing, market knowledge out the wazoo, expert negotiation skills, and experience selling homes for the highest price. With so much money on the line, why wouldn’t you bring in a professional to help manage all the details?
How to Find the Best Real Estate Agent
The top 5% of real estate agents sell homes faster and for more money than the average agent, according to our data. HomeLight gathers real estate transaction data to identify these top performing real estate agents all over the country based on their actual transaction history.
Basically, we compare and contrast agents on how well they serve their clients and we look at how well they’ve served clients with your specific needs. Just enter the address of the house you’re selling, we’ll crunch the numbers and match you with two to three top agents who are objectively proven to sell homes in your area similar to yours faster and for more money than other agents in the same area.
How to Interview Your Agent Matches
After you receive your top agent recommendations, set up interviews with each one to find a professional you mesh with on a personal level. After all, you’ll end up spending a lot of time together… and you’re putting your home in their hands, so you need to trust them. Here are some things to remember when you interview real estate agents.
- Ask lots of questions. This is your chance to find out which agent is right for the job. Here are some common questions to ask in an agent interview:
- How many homes have you sold in this area in the past 6 months?
- Have you sold homes in this price range?
- Do you have a market and inventory analysis for my area?
- What is your marketing strategy for my home?
- What is the average days on market for the homes you list?
- Do you work with a team or will you be representing me on your own?
- Check their real estate license and client referrals. You need to work with an experienced real estate agent if you want to sell your house fast and for the most money possible. Ask to see your real estate agent’s license to make sure they are qualified. Then, read their client referrals and reviews to verify that they have success selling homes and are the best real estate agent to sell your house. A real estate agent that cannot provide their license or referrals should raise a red flag.
- Don’t sign a listing agreement until you’re ready. A listing agreement is the contract between a seller and a real estate agent that gives the agent the ability to market and sell the home. Once you sign a listing agreement, you will be bound by contract to work with that real estate agent.
Here are important things to watch out for in the listing agreement:
- The type of agreement and the real estate agent or brokerage. There are three different types of listing agreements: Open Agency, Exclusive Agency, and the most common—Exclusive Right to Sell. The Exclusive Right to Sell gives the real estate agent full control over the transaction. This gives them the rights to market the home, list the home on multiple listing services (MLS), and receive commission if the sale closes within the determined time frame.
- An expiration date beyond the scope of a normal home sale This determines at what point the contract will be void if the home doesn’t sell. Discuss this with your real estate agent beforehand to make sure the expiration date isn’t too far in advance, because you’ll be stuck in the contract until that date if your home doesn’t sell.According to the National Association of Realtors, a typical home stays on the market for 3 weeks. Plus, the longer your home is on the market, the less it’ll sell for because it’ll start to seem stale to buyers in the area. So, if the expiration date is more than a few months away, don’t sign the listing agreement until it’s changed.
- A list price you’re not comfortable with This is the asking price that your real estate agent will list your home for, so make sure you’re comfortable with it. The list price on the listing agreement isn’t the amount you’ll walk away with, though.The actual sale price might be more if there are multiple offers, or less if the home doesn’t sell right away. And although it’s included in the contract, it’s not set in stone. You and your agent can lower the list price of your home if it doesn’t spark any buyer interest.
- How much your agent will charge in commission The standard commission for a seller’s agent is 6% of the sale price, which the agent will split with the buyer’s agent. It’s technically negotiable, but good luck trying to find a real estate agent who will agree to less than 6%. Remember, a real estate agent can turn you away before you sign the listing agreement.
- The median clause that protects you in a deal gone wrong There aren’t any written terms to terminate the listing agreement until it expires or the house sells. However, you can ask your agent if they’d allow you to leave the contract if you’re unhappy with their services. Most real estate agents rely on referrals and reviews to bring in more clients, so an unhappy client is usually let out of the contract without any trouble.To avoid legal action, there’s a mediation clause that ensures you and your real estate agent will dispute any issues with a mediator. So, although there aren’t written terms that allow you to leave the agreement with your real estate agent, there are ways to handle the situation if it gets to that point.
- The protection period for your real estate agent The protection period could come back to bite you if the listing agreement expires and your house hasn’t sold. Once you part ways with your real estate agent, you are not allowed to sell your house to a buyer that your real estate originally found.If you do, the real estate agent is entitled to their full commission. So, don’t try to sneak around paying the agent commission at the end of the agreement, because they are legally protected to receive compensation where compensation is due.
- Weigh your options and decide how you plan to sell your home: the traditional and most common way with a real estate agent, to an investor for a quick sale, or all on your own (FSBO).
- Work with a HomeLight concierge to find the best real estate agents in your area to sell your home.
- Prepare interview questions for your agent matches and meet with them to figure out if they’re a good personality fit.
- Select the best real estate agent for you and sign the listing agreement.
Chapter 3 Get Your Home Ready for Its Big Market Debut
Now that you’ve hired the best real estate agent for the job, it’s show time. Stop thinking about the house as yours and start treating it like a product on display for the world to see. Buyers will examine every room, every surface, and every shelf with a magnifying glass, so you need to prepare for their judgment. Every house and real estate market is different, but top agents stand by certain rules of the game for getting your home ready for buyers. Let’s walk through the home prep process step by step so you:
- Only make fixes and repairs that matter to buyers
- Get every room looking clean, organized and decluttered
- Stage the home without spending a fortune
This chapter will set you up to successfully:
- Leverage all the work you’ve done to market the home in its best light
- Take magazine-quality photos for your real estate listings
- Spread the word about your home online
- Open up your house for showings
Make (Only 100% Necessary!) Repairs
Before you go into total demolition mode, consult with your real estate agent so you don’t waste time and money on needless projects.
“Many times, sellers get this bright idea and they start doing a bunch of things that they think need to be done to their home,” says Santistevan. “Sometimes they do more than necessary or they make wrong selections as far as finishes or cosmetic touches.”
Home repairs and updates add up fast—midrange kitchen remodels only recoup 59% of the cost, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2018 Cost vs. Value Report. Not all renovations, repairs or updates show a positive return on investment, and there’s no guarantee you’ll make back the money you spend. But if you leave must-fix items untouched, they will show up in a home inspection and send buyers running.
“Here’s a rule of thumb. Anything that is structural in nature or mechanical in nature should be fixed if they know that it’s a defect,” says Karen Russo, an agent who ranks in the top 1% in Worcester, Massachusetts. “If [a seller] is willing to do repairs on things, it’ll help it get sold faster.”
Got a heater on the fritz or a leaky pipe? Fix it before you bring in buyers. You’ll have to deal with it before the sale closes anyway. Talk to your real estate agent about getting a pre-inspection before you put your home on the market. It will tell you everything that’d show up in a buyer’s inspection (which will take place later in the selling process). A pre-inspection gives you the chance to make necessary repairs before buyers even walk through the door. But once you know about any defects, you have to disclose them to buyers in writing.
Declutter Room by Room: Toss, Donate, and Deep Clean
“I recommend two things to every one of my clients,” says Russo. “Declutter and have it sparkling spick-and-span clean at a minimum.”
Buyers need to be able to envision their own belongings in a home… and that’s hard to do with your sports memorabilia and family photos taking up every inch.
“The typical American home I think I read somewhere has something like 3,000 items in it,” Boyland recalls. “The best thing that a home seller can do in regards to that is start the process as early as possible… even before the house is listed. It’s going to benefit the sale because less stuff in your house is going to make it look bigger and cleaner and neater.”
To declutter your home, get several rolls of large heavy-duty garbage bags and three large bins marked “store,” “sell,” and “donate.” Get your personal items out of sight and toss them into the bags, donate them to your local Salvation Army or Goodwill, or put them in a storage unit until you can move them to your next residence.
This is a big task that can be physically and emotionally draining, especially if you’ve lived your house for the past 20 years. Take the opportunity to invite family and friends over to go through the years of memories stacked in the attic. Next, clean every room from floor to ceiling to make it feel brand new. Dust every surface, wipe down all the countertops, and deep clean like you would for company, times 100.
Tight on time (or energy)? Bring in professionals to make the process move faster. Search for a decluttering or cleaning service in your area on these websites:
- HomeAdvisor: provides tools and resources for home improvement projects, along with average project costs and prescreened local professionals
- Thumbtack: offers skilled professionals in over 1,000 services, including all of your home maintenance needs
- Porch: connects homeowners with local home improvement contractors for any of your improvement, maintenance, or repair projects
Read the reviews for the service and get a quote for the job, or ask your real estate agent if they recommend anyone in the area to help you out.
Stage Your Home to Create a Warm, Inviting Space
Home staging—the art of showing off a space in its best light with the right furniture, decor and accents—can decrease your time on market and help it sell for more money.
The living room and master bedroom are the most important rooms to stage, and with guidance from your real estate agent, staging doesn’t have to cost a fortune. If you’ve properly cleaned and decluttered, you’ve already done much of the required work.
For decorative touches, use items like statement art, mirrors, and unused vases to liven up a sterile space. Remove any bulky, worn La-Z-Boys; couches from your college days; or coffee tables that have taken a beating over the years.
If you have high-quality furniture already in the house, arrange it in a way that creates an open flow from room to room. Make sure that the furniture in the room shows buyers how a space could be used, but doesn’t make the area look smaller.
If your agent recommends it, hire a stager who will bring in furniture and design pieces to show all your home has to offer. Professional help can be especially useful if you’ve already moved out and your home is vacant. An empty house is the most difficult for buyers to take in.
Always remember: buyers need to be able to picture themselves living there. Proper staging helps create that image for buyers.
4 Quick and Easy DIY Projects to Attract Buyers
You’re Not Done Yet! After you’ve made repairs, cleaned, decluttered and staged… you could call it good. But, if you want to attract even more buyers, there are a handful of simple upgrades that will make your house stand out. Here are some quick and easy projects that buyers (and your wallet) will love:
1. Add a fresh coat of neutral paint in every room
This is an easy way to give your home’s interior a facelift. Science says a fresh coat of nice, neutral beige will do the trick. Do it yourself for $380-$790 per room or hire a reputable professional to save time.
2. Clean up and refinish floors
Whether they love it or hate it, buyers will always comment on a home’s flooring. Instead of spending thousands of dollars to add new floors, simply do a once-over with a scrubbing mop, refinishing product or carpet cleaner… or hire a professional to do so. A little elbow grease can make floors look brand new, which will leave a big impression on buyers.
If you have carpeting in your home, deep clean it with a professional-grade vacuum. Rent one at Home Depot or Lowe’s for as little as $29.99 for a 24 hour period. Or call Stanley Steemer to professionally clean the carpeting in your whole house starting at around $100 (price varies by square footage). For tile or laminate flooring, sweep and mop the floors with a soft microfiber cloth or sponge. Use a combination of water and vinegar for a quick DIY cleaner. On laminate, use less water than you would on tile. Or, purchase a cleaning solution made for laminate and tile flooring (this Bona kit is a great option). On hardwood floors, refinishing products make a noticeable difference. Purchase Bona or Rejuvenate restoring solutions for $20 or less.
If you think your floors need a professional’s care to get back to their prime, you could find yourself paying up to $4 per square foot, which will come close to $1,000 for an average sized room. So, start with a budget-friendly refinishing product first and see if that does the trick.
3. Spruce up your home’s curb appeal
Did you know that giving your curb appeal a little TLC can boost your property value by up to 12%? First impressions are crucial. When a buyer arrives at your house, the first thing they will see is the front yard and entryway. The good news is that sprucing up your curb appeal can be a quick project. We’ll argue you can achieve a curb appeal makeover with just one weekend of hard work. All you need to do is:
- Trim up foliage and pull any weeds
- Clean up debris
- Pressure wash the exterior/wipe down siding
- Add a few curb appeal boosters, like a decorative bench, colorful mailbox or flower planters
“A lot of times when an agent is opening the lockbox, the buyer is standing in the entryway kind of looking at things,” Santistevan says. “So you want to make sure that there are no cobwebs hanging from the carriage light or the ceilings.”
4. Bring in natural light
Buyers look for homes that are bright, airy, and open. Here are some ways to create a bright space, even if your house is small and compartmentalized:
- Wash windows on the inside and the outside
- Replace old window treatments
- Switch out dim light bulbs with brighter ones
Take High-Quality Real Estate Photos for the Listing
The next step is to photograph your home in all its glory. This is where your hard work decluttering, cleaning, and staging pays off.
Gladys Blum, the #1 seller’s agent in Salem, Oregon, says that professional, high-quality pictures are critical for every room.
“I’ve seen beautiful homes that just don’t get any attention because they’re not photographed right,” she says. “I mean, if you do dinky little pictures of unorganized rooms, you won’t have a second look.”
No matter how fancy your smartphone is—this is a DSLR, tripod, professional photographer or bust kind of situation, all at no additional cost to you. You’re paying your agent to market your home, and that includes stellar photography. You can count on them to hire one of the top-notch photographers in their Rolodex to get the job done right. Your listing photos are the centerpiece of your listing.
As Santistevan points out, “everyone starts their [home] search online,” and your photos will be the single biggest reason buyers shopping on the web either drop everything to book a tour, or cross your address off the list. While the magazine-worthy images draw buyers in, your agent’s creative listing description should highlight your home’s best features, name drop swanky appliances, mention unique architectural details, and tell the story of your home.
With that, you’ll have the makings of a professional-quality property listing your agent can blast all over the most popular real estate websites and social media channels.
Spread the Word About Your Home with Marketing
Next, it’s time to launch a comprehensive marketing plan to give your home the widest possible exposure. Your agent will develop a well-rounded strategy to reach buyers at multiple touch points—in person and on the web. You can count on your agent to:
- Upload Photos to the MLS: Get your property description and photos uploaded to the multiple listing service to officially make your listing active. Your home listing on the MLS will automatically syndicate to the most popular real estate websites such as Zillow, Trulia, realtor.com, and Redfin to capture the attention of online home shoppers.
- Spread the Word on Social Media: Share your listing across social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest with stunning photos, compelling copy, and strategic hashtags and location tags. “All of those sites really give us good coverage,” says Blum.
- Host Virtual Tours: Create 3-D tours to give buyers a realistic feel for the property with virtual walkthroughs.
- Make the Rounds with Other Agents: Network with buyer’s agents in the area to bring home hunters looking in your neighborhood and price point to the table.
- Put Out Signs: Stick that oh-so-recognizable for-sale sign in the front yard to capture the attention of passersby.
- Host Open Houses: Determine whether your home sale would benefit from an open house (most of the time, you can sell your home without one, according to HomeLight’s nationwide survey of top real estate agents).
- Sell! Sell! Sell! Advertise your home the old-fashioned way across print media, including newspapers, magazines and local flyers, to reach more buyers.
In summary, you want to hit buyers from every possible angle with a 360-degree marketing approach. You never know who’s going to be the one to make that offer you can’t refuse—the casual online browser clicking through listings on their laptop one evening, or the couple taking a Sunday drive who notice the big sign in your front yard.
Got questions about how your agent plans to market your home? Ask them anything!
Go over the marketing plan for your home with your agent from the beginning. If you feel uncomfortable about any aspect of their marketing strategy (let’s say, you don’t want pictures of your home’s interior on Facebook), have a conversation about alternative ideas before you set the plan into motion.
Show Off the House to Interested Buyers
As much as an exhaustive real estate marketing plan can drum up interest around your home, buyers want to see it in person (with their very own eyes!) before making any kind of commitment. That’s where house showings come in.
Buyers interested in touring your home will ask their agent to book a tour through your agent, so you don’t have to manage any communication or scheduling with buyers directly. A good real estate agent will help manage the showings with your schedule. You do, however, need to be flexible and prepared to skedaddle on a whim.
Some showings pop up without much warning, so if you’re still living in the house, be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice so your agent can show the house. (Under no circumstances should you stay in the house during a tour). Here are some ways to make that process less frantic:
- Coordinate Schedules: Plan to be out of the house on certain evenings every week so that your agent can book tours accordingly. Pro tip: Make Tuesdays and Thursdays eat-out nights and let your real estate agent know that you’ll be gone until 8 p.m. on those evenings. If little league is every Saturday morning, share this with your real estate agent, too.
- Share your schedule: Whether it’s on a Google Calendar or paper notepad—with your agent to reduce back-and-forth communication throughout your day.
- Plan Ahead: Have a game plan to help prepare for last-minute showings—start with this emergency clean-up checklist.
- Get a pre-inspection done, if your agent recommends it.
- Don’t go crazy with major renovations before you put your home on the market. Only make repairs that will come up in a home inspection (mechanical and structural issues).
- Declutter your house and remove personal items from sight that would distract buyers. Use four simple piles: sell, donate, toss, or store away. For help, consult our decluttering guide for the messy.
- Vigorously clean every room until it smells fresh and sparkles. Don’t miss a single spot with our exhaustive cleaning checklist.
- Stage your home to help buyers visualize living there with guidance from your real estate agent on furniture placement and decor touches.
- Never cut corners on your listing photos. Professional photography that shows your home in its best light is 100% necessary for a successful sale.
- Pass the baton to your real estate agent to market your home all over the internet using the MLS, top real estate listing websites, social media and virtual tours. Don’t forget about the old-fashioned (but still effective) local flyers and for-sale sign in the yard.
- Be available for your agent and share your schedule with them so you can make yourself scarce for showings.
Chapter 4 Lock in a Buyer, Negotiate Your Terms, and Start the Closing Process
And the offers start rolling in… or at least they should if you’ve put in the legwork to properly clean, stage and market your home like crazy at the right price. All of the sweat and money you’ve poured into your home sale so far will be worth it once you have the first round of competitive offers in front of you.
But then, the real games begin. NAR reports that 24% of home sales get delayed during closing. The biggest issues that can throw a wrench in your sale are related to buyer financing, the home inspection, the appraisal, your title/deed, and contract contingencies.
The entire process is confusing––and there’s tons of paperwork that your real estate agent will manage on your behalf. Let’s go through each step so you don’t get lost in the offers and negotiations phase. In this chapter, we’ll cover how to:
- Make a counter offer and choose wisely among multiple offers
- Submit the offer into escrow once your house goes under contract
- Resolve any issues related to the title or deed
- Get through the home inspection and appraisal
- Set a closing date and start planning for your move
Review Your Offers to Pick the Best One
It could happen the day your home hits the market, or 30 days down the road after dozens of showings. Whatever the case, you’ll rejoice the moment your agent calls and says, “We’ve got an offer!” If you’re lucky, you’ll get more than one buyer chomping at the bit for your home and trigger a bidding war.
“If multiple offers come in, then we send [the seller] a spreadsheet so they can see what the differences are in the offers and what the nets are back to them,” says Shawn Maxey, who ranks in the top 3 highest-performing real estate agents in Frederickson, Washington.
Your real estate agent will help you weigh the strength of an offer and walk you through which offer (if there are multiple on the table) you should choose, step by step:
- Consider your offers. If you receive multiple offers, you’ve got options (and leverage). You may be thinking, “Well, that’s easy, I’ll go with whoever bids the highest!” But money is just one part of the equation, so ask your agent to help you read the fine print.The highest offer on the table may come with risks that make your contract vulnerable to delays and termination. One buyer’s offer, for example, could be contingent on finances or the sale of their current home, which means they can walk away from the contract if they aren’t approved for a mortgage or if they can’t sell their current house.Your real estate agent will help you sort through the details, but in the end, it’s your decision.
- Submit a counter offer. If you feel that the offer(s) you’ve received are too low, you can choose to counter back with a price you’re comfortable with. Keep in mind, this puts the ball back in the buyers’ court.So, if they don’t like your counter offer, they can choose to walk away. To put your best foot forward in a counter offer, keep your emotions in check and revisit your motivations for selling in the first place.
- Accept an offer. Once you feel that you’ve received the best offer for your home, accept it! This will get the ball rolling on the sale process.
- If you don’t receive any offers… go back to the drawing board. It’s always a possibility that your home will sit on the market without any offers. This could be because you priced the home too high, you didn’t market it well enough, or simply because it’s not a good market for selling.Whatever the case, discuss the next move with your real estate agent.
Submit the Offer You Accepted Into Escrow
Once you’ve accepted an offer, sign the offer agreement and submit it to the escrow and title company. The escrow company or title company (depending on the area you’re in) acts as the third party to gather documents and payments between you and the buyer.
Once your house is in escrow, the title report for the house confirms the legal owner of the home (which should be you). It’s common for title issues to hold up a sale, even if you’re unaware of the issue beforehand. Title and deed issues make up 11% of the contractual problems in delayed settlements.
“We order a preliminary title right away,” says Maxey. “There’s some things that come up on the title that could take us a couple months to clear up. If we’re able to give the buyer that expectation, it’s just a smoother process.”
If there are any issues with the title report, it could hold up your sale, so you’ll want to get them sorted out as soon as possible. Word of advice: it could help to have a real estate attorney in your corner throughout the title check to resolve any:
- Liens or judgements
- Trust complications
- Lender balances
- Property Taxes
Along with your title report, the escrow company will provide a big ol’ packet of documents to look through including a grant deed, state specific forms, property information statement, and more. Review these documents with your real estate agent and real estate attorney to make sure there aren’t any issues that you’ll need to correct before the sale goes through.
Get Ready for the Home Inspection and Negotiate on Repairs
The buyers will order the home inspection on your house within 10 days of putting the contract into escrow. In accordance with the state’s standards, the home inspector will come to your house to identify any health, safety, or major mechanical issues and write up a report on their findings.
A typical home inspection takes a few hours for an average sized house. Then the report takes about 3-4 days to complete. The home inspector will go through the interior and exterior of the house to record any broken, defected, or hazardous issues with the house and the area surrounding the house.
Buckle up, because the home inspection is the first big hurdle of the closing process (issues found during the inspection cause 16% of closing delays). Your contract will likely be contingent on the home inspection, which means the buyers can walk away if the inspection goes awry. No home is perfect, so you can expect to receive a laundry list of issues in the inspection report, most of which will be minor.
Buyers are mainly concerned with any problems that could pose a health or safety risk. So it’s only if the home inspector finds any of these seven big issues in your home that you should prepare for some tough negotiations:
- Water Damage
- Structural Issues
- Roof Damage
- Electrical Issues
- Plumbing Problems
- Insect or Pest Infestations
- HVAC Issues
It’s up to the buyers to request any repairs based on the inspection report. You’ll consult with your agent on their requests to weigh your options:
- Fix the issue before the sale closes. You can bring in your own professionals to fix the problem before completing the sale. While this route could delay the closing date, it will allow you to hire professionals that you trust and resolve the issue your way.
- Give the buyers a credit to fix the issues themselves. Essentially, you can throw money at the problem by giving the buyers a repair credit at closing. Simply write them a check, and the problem disappears! This is a great option if you’re trying to keep the sale moving forward on a tight timeline, though you may find yourself paying more in credits than the actual cost to repair the problem.
- Reject buyer repair requests. If you got a pre-inspection before listing your house, you probably priced the house lower with these issues in mind. If the price reflects your home’s condition and the work that needs to be done, you don’t have to give buyers anything else. However, rejecting repair requests allows buyers the opportunity to back out of the sale if the contract was contingent on the home inspection.
Prepare Your Home for the Appraisal
Once you’ve completed the home inspection and settled the repair requests, the buyer’s mortgage lender will order an appraisal on the house. The appraisal essentially determines the value of the home, and verifies that the buyer isn’t paying more for the house than it’s worth.
The buyer’s lender will order the appraisal and (don’t worry) the buyer will foot the bill. Here’s what you should do to avoid any issues with the appraisal:
- Prep your home like you would for a showing. Appraisers are licensed and certified to pinpoint a home’s fair market value, but that doesn’t mean they are completely objective. After all, they’re still human, and their single opinion holds a lot of weight.You want your home looking its very best when the appraiser comes through, so spend an afternoon sprucing up the yard, deep clean and declutter, and even consider small gestures like leaving out cookies. It sounds crazy, but you want to make a good impression!
- Go to the appraisal. No one knows your house better than you. You can provide information to the appraiser that they might not have known otherwise, such as improvements that you’ve made, or local amenities that could increase the value of the home. If you can’t show up for the appraisal, make sure your real estate agent is there.
- Provide a list of comparable homes, upgrades, and other offers. Show the appraiser all of the facts that you used to price your home. This will also help them get the details right in their paperwork so there are no errors in their final report. If you received multiple offers, show them that there was market demand for your house.
- Conduct an appeal. If the home appraises for less than the amount you and the buyer agreed upon, you can conduct an appeal or rebuttal. This process will use facts and figures to show the appraiser and mortgage lender that the house is worth more than they concluded.
- And if that still doesn’t work… ask the buyer to switch lenders. This is a real shot in the dark but will bring in a new appraisal with a new lending company.
Pay Off Hanging Debts on the Property
While the buyer is working out the details with their mortgage lender, you may find yourself in a bit of a “dark period,” as Maxey calls it.
“It’s a little quieter for them because everybody’s working on all the documentation for the loan and the waiting for the appraisal report to come in,” he says.
“So there are things moving along with the process. But the seller sometimes feel like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Nobody’s contacting me, nobody’s asking me for anything.’ So, we just let them know that it’s sort of a dark period for a week to two weeks where there’s not a lot of people calling and requesting things from you guys,” Maxey explains.
You need to settle any outstanding payments on the home, so now’s a good time to:
- Get up to date on any unpaid property taxes
- Settle HOA fees
- Pay utilities balances
- Finalize work orders
Complete Necessary Repairs
Once you’ve settled the title issues, gone through the home inspection, and received the results from your appraisal, you’ve made it through the hard part.
“We feel like the chance of the sale falling apart at that point are pretty minimum,” says Maxey.
It’s at this period during the sale when you need to hire professionals to complete any repairs you agreed to following the home inspection. Keep all the paperwork and receipts related to the work on your home so that you can show the buyers that your record of the repairs lines up with their requests.
Start Making Plans to Move Out By Closing
With your home sale fully underway, you should have a close date established and on the horizon, so don’t wait around twiddling your thumbs… start packing! This is a time-consuming process that always takes longer than you think it will, so get organized and start preparing for your move right away.
“I’ve had sellers that have underestimated the moving process. They’re like, ‘We’re going to take three or four days off before the closing to pack everything up and get out,” says Boyland. “And they’re calling me in a panic and saying, ‘We still have three rooms we have to go through and we’re supposed to be closing in two days. And I don’t know how we’re going to do it.’ Sometimes I’ve been in situations I’ve actually gone over and helped them.”
To make your move easier, get a head start with the following task list:
- Start collecting moving supplies, beginning with the basics: boxes, bins, packing paper, tape, trash bags and markers for labeling.
- Create a plan of attack to organize and pare down your stuff to simplify your move.
- Collect quotes from movers and schedule a moving truck as soon as possible.
Once you’ve sealed the deal and made preparations for your big move, the next step is the final (and most exciting!) one… closing on your home sale.
- If you get multiple offers on your home, work with your real estate agent to pick the best one by weighing the offer amount, any contingencies, and how the buyer is financing the home.
- If the buyer makes any repair requests after the inspection, your options are to make the repair, offer a credit or walk away.
- If the appraisal comes in low, you do have options. You can request another appraisal, appeal the appraisal, or ask the buyer to choose a different lender.
- Many sellers experience a "dark" period of communication when the buyer is collecting documents and working with their lender. It's during this quiet time that you can do required repairs and start making plans for your move.
- Give yourself plenty of time to move out. Start packing and planning before you close, so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.
Chapter 5 You’re Almost There! Take Your Final Steps to Closing With Confidence
You’ve made it to closing, and that is a big milestone to celebrate!
But before you pop the bubbly, there’s a giant to-do list and stack of paperwork standing between you and the finish line. Every state is different and requires its own special forms and documentation, so check with your real estate agent about what paperwork you’ll need to have ready to close your home sale.
For the property to officially change hands, you’ll sign your house to the new owners and turn over all the items that go with the house. There’s no room for error as you:
- Review and sign the final closing documents.
- Gather up any paperwork related to the house such as warranties and manuals.
- Put keys, codes and garage door openers in a safe, accessible place for the buyers.
- Prepare to move out no later than your closing date.
- Receive your home sale proceeds!
Get the House (and Yourself) Ready for Final Goodbyes
Once you and the buyers agree on a closing date, you’ve set a hard move-out deadline. Unless you make special arrangements in the contract to stay in the house after closing, you need to be totally out by that date or you’ll be in violation of the contract. So, make sure everything on this list is done before the close date:
- Move out. Make sure everything is out of your house and into your new house or transferred to a storage unit. Double check closets, cabinets, and crawl spaces. Once you hand over the keys, anything that’s left inside will be owned by the buyers.
- Clean your house one last time. Once the house is empty, deep clean the whole house so the new owners walk into a space that feels fresh and new.
- Turn off shut-off valves. Avoid possible flooding or fires before the sale closes by shutting the water and gas off.
- Leave all extra keys and garage door openers on the kitchen counter. Put them in plain sight so the new owners find them.
- Change your address and forward your mail. If anything gets delivered to your house once the new owners are moved in, you may never get it back. Make sure you forward all of your mail ahead of time.
- Notify creditors, subscriptions, family, and friends of your new address. Call your credit card companies and your bank to give them your new address. Say goodbye to neighbors and make sure your friends and family don’t show up at your old house on Thanksgiving!
- Gather appliance manuals and warranty information for the new owners. Leave them in or on top of the appliances for the new owners to see.
Consider the Benefits of Hiring a Real Estate Attorney
In some states, a real estate attorney is required for closing. Your real estate agent will tell you if you’re required to have a real estate attorney present and can point you in the direction of trusted attorneys.
Remember: real estate attorneys are different than regular attorneys. So, just because your cousin is an attorney, that doesn’t mean they’re the best person to assist you in your home sale.
Even if you aren’t required by state law to have a real estate attorney present at closing, it’s still a good idea to have one in your corner to review every document before you sign it. A closing attorney will protect you and your assets and make sure there aren’t any errors in the paperwork that could take you to the cleaners. There’s a lot of money on the line––so a couple thousand dollars for a legal bodyguard is often worth it.
Pull out Your Lucky Pen for the Final Documents
On closing day, discuss with your real estate agent whether you should be present or not. In some states, you can sign documents ahead of time or give them to your attorney to sign on your behalf. According to Russo, in Massachusetts, most sellers don’t even attend the closing.
“The closing is nothing more than the buyer sitting down with their attorney and signing a whole bunch of documents and doing a little bit of the transaction on the checks,” she says. “So, 9 times out of 10, the sellers will sign it ahead of time.”
If you are attending the closing, you’ll need to bring the following items to the table in order to complete the sale:
- Photo ID for yourself and any other owner
- The deed of your home
- Main keys and codes
- Documentation of repairs that you’ve made per the buyer’s requests
- A pen
Check with your real estate agent beforehand to make sure you have everything you’ll need, as each state and situation is different. Your real estate agent will have other documentation necessary to complete the sale.
Although it depends on your location and your situation, here are some things that they are likely to bring to the closing table:
- Your mortgage and loan payoff information
- Escrow account information
- Closing Disclosure (if you agreed to pay for any of the buyer’s lender fees)
- Settlement statement (aka closing statement)
- Inspection agreements
- Property tax information
Your real estate agent can answer any questions you may have about who will be at the closing table and what you will sign because… all together now… it depends.
“Every state might have something that’s required in order for you to be able to transfer the property out of your name into somebody else’s name,” says Russo. Your real estate agent will know what’s required to guide you through this process.
Receive your Home Sale Proceeds (Cha-Ching!)
Once you and the buyer have signed the final settlement agreements, you can collect your proceeds from the escrow company.
“Typically once the loan funds and records, they can pick up a check. Most of the time the check will be ready that day at escrow,” says Maxey, who works with clients on Pacific time. “If they decide to get wired funds and it’s past 2:00 p.m. pacific time, the wire cut off time is 5:00 p.m. eastern time and all the wires go by Eastern time zone.”
“This is important for sellers to know because if they’re wiring funds and it’s past 2:00 p.m. on Friday, they’re not going to get the funds until Monday,” he says.
The following items could be deducted from the proceeds of your home sale:
- Your remaining mortgage balance
- Agent commissions (typically 6% of the sale price)
- Property taxes and other unpaid bills
- Title Fees
- Escrow/Attorney fees
Once you’ve closed the sale…
You’ve signed everything. Now what?! There are still a few things left to do. Go through this post-sale checklist:
- Transfer utilities.
- Cancel homeowners insurance once you’ve transferred the title of your home.
- Keep the paperwork in a safe place.
- Celebrate! You’ve successfully sold your home!
- Unless you make special arrangements in the contract, you have to be 100% moved out of your house by the close date you set with the buyer. Make sure you and the buyer are on the same page about timing and plan your move accordingly.
- Some states require sellers to have a real estate attorney at closing to oversee the transaction and make sure signing goes smoothly.
- As the seller, you might not even be present at the closing table. The buyer takes on most of the paperwork and once you’ve done your part, it’s up to them to seal the deal.
- Don't let the home sale distract from all the details of moving—as you approach closing, remember to forward your mail, inform banks and credit cards of your new address, and cancel (or transfer) your homeowners insurance.
- Make sure the buyers have easy access to the different keys and codes to the house—you’ll be grateful you took care of it ahead of time.