Moving for the Military? Your Guide to Selling a House Under PCS Pressure

Raise your weary hand if this military move sounds like you: You’ve only just settled into a well-regarded community and a house you love when you receive cross-country PCS (Permanent Change of Station) orders.

Cue stress and frustration as your family scrambles to adjust and you face a daunting realization: On top of everything else, you’ll need to sell this house on deadline.

Even if you have the luxury of a few months to report to the new station, the timeline doesn’t leave much wiggle room in the typical 70 days it takes to sell a house from list to close.

Complicating matters is that your spouse didn’t return from a deployment in time to help with packing, clean up, or crunching the finances. Add kids and a pet into the chaos and you’re in over your head.

This type of scenario plays out annually for an estimated 420,000 to 500,000 military families, who will move every two to three years on average.

With this guide, our goal is to help you craft a real estate plan to avoid much of the anxiety and unknowns of selling the house under the strain and urgency of a PCS.

A man in a home office working on selling a house for the military.
Source: (sirtravelalot / Shutterstock)

Make a decision: How will you sell this house?

After the hard orders appear, your mind races. You attempt to organize all of the house chores to prepare for photos and showings.

Slow. It. Down. Before you whip yourself into a frenzy packing and calling up your friend Joe who happens to be a part-time Realtor, take a hard look at your options for selling this home.

In 2019, most sellers (89%) sold their home with the help of a real estate agent. But you’re not “most sellers.”

Most sellers don’t have a date circled on a set of orders determining when they need to be at their next duty station. Most sellers aren’t dizzy from the déjà vu of moving at least once every three years.

You need to fast-track the typical home-selling experience, and you need someone who understands your unique needs as a military home-seller.

So, take a step back to evaluate your next move, which might be:

Hire an agent with a military-friendly skill set

One option is to funnel your nervous PCS energy into finding an experienced professional who will listen to your biggest worries and create an action plan you can trust.

The best time to contact a Realtor can be anywhere from three to six months before your house goes on the market. Chances are you’re already in that window and shouldn’t wait any longer to hire someone.

As plenty of local Realtors would gladly accept your business, you’ll need to discern who’s the right person for the job. We recommend focusing on the following attributes:

Sells homes faster than average

When hiring an agent, military sellers should focus on a key stat in the agent’s track record: days on market (DOM).

Every city has an average days on market which refers to how quickly properties go from active to under contract (i.e., how long it takes for properties to attract an offer).

Don’t be afraid to ask your agent: What’s your typical DOM, and how does it compare to the area average?

You can find the average days on market for your city with a quick glance at your city’s page. If the agent’s DOM is lower than what’s typical for your city, that’s a good sign that they have a strong network and solid marketing chops to find a buyer quickly.

If not, consider it a red flag.

Keep in mind, days on market is not the total time it takes to sell a home. You also have to factor in the closing period, which can take around 45 additional days.

Special designations, like military-relocation specialist

Military members regularly seek recommendations from neighbors and friends for superstar agents, and referrals are a strong start.

But back to that unique situation you’re in: Moving for a PCS, which carries specific logistical and emotional challenges.

You will benefit from an agent who’s all in on this task and who’s familiar with your circumstances. In that sense, an agent with a special designation like Military Relocation Professional (MRP) can grant peace of mind.

The MRP is a certification the National Association of Realtors created to educate agents about specific real estate challenges military clients encounter.

There’s a good chance an agent with MRP behind their name is either a veteran or military spouse, which heightens their knowledge of everyday military life, including tricky global time zone differences and last-minute schedule changes.

The Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) reports military families will likely move, on average, three times more often than non-military families.

Veteran and military spouse agents sympathize with the heartache and disappointment that surfaces when a move is unexpected or unwanted. On the flip side, they’ll also understand your excitement and eagerness to leave a military town that wasn’t the assignment of your dreams.

Even if your agent is not directly military-affiliated, he or she has worked through the MRP program and chosen to specialize in this group of sellers to make sure they’re connecting with their needs, which are often different from the needs of civilians.

Overwhelmed by where to start your agent search?

An agent who sells homes at lightning speed, but also understands the ins and outs of PCS? It may feel like you’re looking for a “unicorn” of a Realtor.

We can help narrow down your search by matching you with three qualified agents in your area who aren’t just racking up transactions but have experience tailored to your military needs (and the Realtor designations you’re looking for).

Simply input your address, tell us a bit about your priorities and preferences, and you’ll have a few great options sent your way in minutes.

Our internal home consultants are here to listen to your needs and hand-match you with the best local agent if that’s what it takes.

Cash used to buy a military house.
Source: (Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock)

Speed things up with a cash buyer.

Let’s say you do the math on the traditional selling timeline, factor in the hassles of staging the home and keeping it presentable for showings, and realize you just don’t have the time or energy for this whole dog and pony show, period.

There is another option. You could opt to sell your house off market — for cash. In this scenario, sellers are normally offered far more flexibility with timelines and faster closing dates, which comes in handy when unexpected orders, especially OCONUS, (outside the contiguous United States) arrive with minimal prep time in advance.

Selling for cash? Sounds a bit fishy

Cash buyers aren’t all one and the same. Some will purchase your home with the intention of renting it out. Others will renovate and flip it to turn a profit. High-tech players — called iBuyers — have cropped up in recent years.

Unlike flippers, iBuyers purchase homes in fairly good condition at a high volume, turn them around quickly, and aim to offer a seamless home-selling experience online with easy-to-use digital platforms.

Depending on your home’s condition, price point, and location, your home will be a more desirable purchase to certain cash buyers over others.

Most real estate buyers have a specific “buy box” they use with parameters as to which types of properties are most valuable to them. That means what your home is “worth” will vary, even among buyers who can pay all-cash. But almost all cash buyers prefer to purchase homes off-market and because they don’t need financing (or an appraisal to appease the lender), can offer a streamlined experience for sellers.

Access hundreds of pre-approved buyers nationwide

Through our Simple Sale platform, HomeLight partners with hundreds of cash buyers across the country — from local real estate investors who purchase 1-2 properties per year, to institutional funds buying hundreds of homes each month. With a platform like this, you can request a cash offer on your home and we’ll introduce you to the highest bidder.

HomeLight’s Simple Sale helps military sellers get a good idea of what a cash buyer would be inclined to offer, without the obligation to accept. With this type of sale, there’s a couple of convenience factors that are hard to come by in other selling circumstances. There’s no need for costly marketing, and short closing timelines are common.

In addition, we’ll compare your cash offer side-by-side with an estimation of what you could likely fetch on the open market. With this information in hand, you’re less likely to sell for cash and then feel those pangs of regret. You’ll have made the decision knowing the full picture, and you won’t have to worry about scams. All of our real estate buyers are pre-vetted.

Considering FSBO? Know the risks.

No matter how you slice it, it costs money to sell a house. The list of fees you’ll pay is quite extensive. This fact alone causes many sellers to consider going FSBO (for sale by owner) to avoid paying agent commissions. However, the reality is only 8% of total sellers end up going this route because it’s frankly so much to take on alone.

With a FSBO, the owner is expected to manage all marketing, legal, and administrative functions. The complexity and the timeliness of the transaction are overwhelming to the inexperienced seller, especially for those, such as military sellers, who need extra attention paid to crucial details.

Military mementos in a house being sold.
Source: (sad444 / Shutterstock)

4 crucial tips for military home sellers

As you get ready to sell, follow some of the advice from real estate agent Chris Norton, a decorated veteran, and top-producer in Trenton, New Jersey. He sells homes 49% quicker than the average Trenton, New Jersey, agent, and his client list often includes active duty members and veterans.

Because he is a retired Army Reservist, Norton has personal experience with a vast variety of unknowns that come with military life and the challenges military sellers encounter. He’s been known to go the extra mile for his military clients, including a recent incident when he contacted local police about the need for a property checkup because his client is located several hours away.

He has offered the following advice to military sellers:

1. Remember OPSEC (Operations Security)

Military members sometimes find it challenging to remove any traces of military life from their homes for marketing purposes. An entire office or basement are common places for precious military awards, memorabilia, and other items with significant emotional value.

Norton reminds his sellers of the importance of OPSEC to maintain location and home address security, not only for his clients but for those who may be featured in group pictures.

Storing military-related items during the declutter and clean-up phase of preparing for the home sale is the perfect time to make the changes. You’ll want to remove sensitive items well before you schedule any photography.

2. Market your transferable VA Loan Terms

Mortgage rates won’t be as affordable as they are now forever. Norton urges his sellers to offer the option of transferring their favorable VA loan terms within the property’s marketing plan. 

“The rate on it is transferable,” says Norton.

“So right now that’s not really attractive, but in two years, it may be. In three years, it may be a big deal. If you have a VA loan and you’ve gotten it in the last 12 months, you know, that can be a very valuable marketing tool for you down the line.”

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, “20% of recent home buyers were veterans and 3% were active-duty service members,” which translates to a significant opportunity for a military seller to tap into a pool of eager like-minded buyers.

Anyone can assume the VA loan, not just a military member. The buyer will have to be reviewed by the original lender to verify their finances, but as the seller, you’ll want to obtain a release of liability from the lender to maintain your strong credit standing. Or, you’ll be on the hook for late payments or the consequence of a default on a mortgage.

Military sellers offering a VA loan assumption should also consider their future home purchase entitlements. If the buyer is a veteran or active duty, you’ll want to ask them to sign a Substitution of Entitlement, which frees up your remaining VA loan eligibility. If you don’t complete this step, your entitlement stays tied to the property until the loan terms wrap.

3. Meet the VA’s minimum property requirements

Active duty and veteran buyers are likely to take advantage of their VA loan benefit, which requires an authorized appraisal. Prepare your home to sell to them by meeting the VA’s Minimum Property Requirements (MRPs). 

Most regulations stem from a health and safety standpoint, including properly functioning HVAC and water and sewage systems. Some sellers find it helpful to invest in the services of a professional home inspector with experience managing MPR expectations before putting the house on the market.

Before starting a home improvement project beyond the standard MRPs, discuss with your agent the payoffs of the update or upgrade. Their knowledge of the local real estate market provides insight into which projects resonate most with buyers and which are not worthy of the time and money.

4. Know your military-friendly tax breaks

As a way to incentivize and reward homeownership, U.S. tax rules are set up so that most people won’t have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of their primary residence. Generally homeowners will be eligible to exclude up to $250,000 in gain ($500,000 if married and filing jointly).

But to qualify for the exclusion, civilian sellers will have to show that 1) they owned the property for at least two years and 2) they’ve lived in the property for at least two of the preceding five years to establish minimum occupancy and ownership standards.

Servicemembers who relocate to a new duty station may find it difficult to meet these ownership and use tests — so the IRS has created special tax rules for military sellers.

According to the IRS Armed Forces’ Tax Guide, military members who fail to qualify for the ownership and use tests due to a permanent change in station can still exclude gain, but the cap on that gain may be reduced. In addition, they can suspend the 5-year test period in order to meet the use test. There are restrictions: one property at a time is eligible, and there is an overall 10-year limit.

Norton encourages military members to consult with a real estate attorney or financial advisor to lawfully take advantage of these tax relief scenarios and others, including the possibility that your state waives property taxes in the case of a veteran with a disability rating.

Do note, there is the option to deduct PCS moving expenses from your federal income tax returns. However, most of the expenses are covered in authorized military allowances if you choose to use them, which most service members do. For clarification, here’s what Military OneSource says about PCS deductions:

“Many moving expenses are fully or partially covered by military allowances. You cannot claim any expenses paid for by the military, whether paid directly or reimbursed. For example, you cannot deduct mileage and lodging that was reimbursed under the military’s Monetary Allowance in Lieu of Transportation, typically called mileage, or the PCS Per Diem rates.”

What to do if your home won’t sell in time

Sometimes, regardless of a well-crafted selling strategy, a property just doesn’t connect with the right buyer in time. Your agent will understand your long term real estate needs and offer multiple solutions for a house that doesn’t sell on your ideal terms:

Become a military landlord.

Plenty of service members are also rental business owners. They’ve consciously purchased rental properties as an additional income stream, or they exist as part of their overall retirement investments.

But many military sellers have fallen into the rental game because market conditions weren’t favorable, and they didn’t want to sell on less than optimal terms. Or, they’ve received a last-minute direction that they will later boomerang to the same duty station where their property is located.

As military landlord life progresses, the option to offer your tenants a rent-to-own situation may prove beneficial. A rent to own agreement provides the tenant an investment into their future property while creating an alternative selling solution for the homeowner.

Consider a Geo-Bach move.

Military members who leave families behind at a duty station to move onto another are affectionately referred to as Geo-Bachelors or Geo-Bachelorettes. This situation can occur when a house fails to sell, but frequently, quality of life factors such as school disruptions, a spouse’s career, or an exceptionally undesirable gaining location are the reasons for a temporary separation.

Military families struggle weighing the pros and cons of a Geo-Bach move and the solutions are as varied as the families involved. Some consider the fact that the house won’t sell an insurmountable financial burden. Meaning, the costs of preparing the home for renters and adding a second house payment, (whether mortgage or rent) are out of reach, especially if the non-military spouse cannot transfer their job to the new location.

Other families feel that no matter the challenge, a whole family unit is the highest priority. Months-long deployments without family members are the norm and out of the servicemember’s control. Any chance to keep the family together is important even if it proves challenging on multiple levels.

MilitaryOne Source is a free resource created by the Department of Defense to support families while encountering the demands of a military lifestyle. Families can access the site to take advantage of counseling services of all types or to simply seek advice about a temporary relocation.

Leave your house behind, but in your agent’s care.

It’s not uncommon for a military seller to have the confidence in their agent to continue the sale in their absence, from a distance. You’ve likely bonded with your agent over the difficult sale and would like to keep the continuity until closing day.

This situation requires constant communication and clear expectations as to any additional responsibilities your agent may pick up in your absence. For example, monitoring the house regularly and noting upkeep and safety needs.

Technology has taken real estate transactions to a new level and in-person transactions are not necessarily a requirement. Your agent should be well versed in several virtual platforms that foster a long distance sale. E-signatures and online notaries, when available, are just the beginning of the list of useful tech choices.

Source: (Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock)

You can do this, and help is out there  

Avoiding a stressful PCS is a top priority for military sellers, especially first-timers. You have real-world responsibilities to your family and military colleagues that simply cannot be put on hold while sorting the logistics of a PCS move.

Thankfully, there are real estate experts who understand the ins and outs of your unique situation, and you have lots of benefits to claim as a result of you or your spouse’s service to this country.

Take advantage of whatever offerings you’re granted, ask for help when you need it, and you’ll be well on your way to selling a home with confidence.

That way, you can focus on everything this next chapter of life — in a new location — has to offer.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be an adventure.

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