EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 15, 2008

Focus: Selling in a buyer's market takes patience, preparation

By Bill Kirk

In the past, real estate was all about location. These days, it's also about price and presentation, say local real estate professionals.

Priced right, the home will move, said Joan Fitzgibbons, of Carlson/GMAC Real Estate in Andover. The key is finding the right price point.

In recent years, "if you overpriced a listing, you'd wait and the market would catch up to you," Fitzgibbons said. "Today, if you overprice, you don't ever catch up to the market. You have to price it to sell — even if it's below the market value for today. You have to price it for tomorrow."

The idea is to appeal to buyers who may be tempted to wait for prices to fall farther.

"There are buyers, but they're doing a lot of looking, a lot of thinking and a lot of waiting," Fitzgibbons said. "If you compare this market to 2003 and 2004, it's a great buyer's market."

Blaise Coco of Coco, Early & Associates, of Lawrence, Methuen, Windham and Salem, N.H., said his office is fielding dozens of calls a day from prospective buyers interested in looking at listed homes. Buyers recognize a good deal when they see one. Coco recently got three offers on one house listed around $220,000.

But there are still a lot of houses for sale. So sellers have to become more creative about how they present their homes, said Paul Consoli of Ben Consoli Realtors of Bradford.

"The search for real estate is a visual search," Consoli said. "The house must show as well as it possibly can."

Consoli works with sellers to "stage" their homes so they look their best in photographs on his Web site.

"Our job is to help customers think about presentation, to look at it like a buyer might look at it," he said.

"Whatever attribute we think will attract someone is what we focus on. So when we take the photo, do not put clothes on the floor or stuff on the counter or magnets on the refrigerator. The photo needs to catch your eye — it takes finesse and creativity."

Help from the pros

Some sellers hire professional photographers to shoot their homes. Others take it a step further, hiring a home-staging professional to present home in the best light both for photographs and showings.

Coco said his 11-year-old firm is using professional home stagers for the first time.

"They'll come in, go through the house, change some of the paint colors on the wall, store clutter in the basement, that sort of thing," Coco said. "It's a real neat tactic, and it works — it makes the customer feel at home."

Jeanne Conroy Monaco of Staged to Perfection in Boxford has set up homes throughout the region.

Rob and Marisa Becker had a home in Boxford on the market for two years when they contacted her.

"Jeanne came by, did a walk-through, and she was bubbling with ideas," said Rob Becker, who grew up in the house but had to sell it after his mother moved to an assisted-living facility.

Within a day or two, Monaco had transformed the vacant Cape Cod-style home into a place that looked lived-in, warm and inviting.

"We came in after she had staged the home and I didn't recognize the house," Becker said. "All of a sudden I said, 'I want to buy this house.'"

Even the old tiled bathroom looked better thanks to some subtle changes using fabric and color schemes.

"We do not impress easily," noted Marisa Becker. "And we were impressed."

So were buyers — after a price reduction brought them back. Broker Kathy De Lorenzo of Del Realty in Danvers got two bids in two days.

"Lowering the price enticed people," said Rob Becker. "But there was a lot more interest since the staging. That kept the price where it belonged."

Fitzgibbons, of Carlson/GMAC in Andover, said many sellers have enough equity in their homes that they can afford to cut the price, even take a small loss compared to what they would have made a couple of years ago.

One recent closing, for example, involved a couple selling their Haverhill home for $300,000 in order to move into a $500,000 house in North Andover. Even though they sold for less than they probably could have when the market was stronger, they had enough equity in the house that they were able to come away from the sale with money to put toward the more expensive home and still afford their new mortgage.

"The strategy in those cases (is to) underprice where you have equity, take a small loss, and move up to bigger property," she said.

Ready to show

Chris Doherty, of Howe & Doherty Realtors in Andover, said sellers have to be more flexible in a buyer's market when it comes to showing their home.

"Selling your home is probably one of the biggest invasions of privacy a person goes through," said Doherty. "But you have to be prepared at all reasonable times for someone to see your home. So you have to be living in your home in a different manner than at any other time. You need to be in peak readiness — prepared for a showing in 15 minutes to a half an hour."

In addition, he recommends to some sellers that they do a pre-marketing home inspection, which can identify and head off any unforeseen problems that might surprise potential buyers when they do their own inspection.

"It shows that you're being up front about your property," he said.

Coco, for one, sees signs of renewed interest among buyers.

Calls to Coco, Early & Associates began picking up about two months ago, he said, and he now gets 40 to 50 calls a day from people interested in buying a home.

Recently he hosted a brokers' open house at the Emerald Pines on Pine Tree Lane in Methuen, a golf-course development with 75 single-family homes, condos and townhouses selling for $550,000 to $1 million.

"It was mobbed," Coco said, with 60 to 70 agents showing up to see the project developed by the Robert Nazarian family.

"What that tells us is that they (the brokers) have buyers who are looking and want to know what's on the shelf," Coco said.

Tips for selling in today's market

r Consider hiring a professional photographer and home-stager to make your house look its best in marketing material and during open houses.

r Do the home-staging before putting the house on the market — the first 30 days a house is on the market is critical.

r Price it right. Compare it to other, similar properties, do a market analysis, listen to a qualified real estate agent or Realtor.

r Put a fresh coat of paint inside and out as needed.

r Remove clutter.

r Weed the garden and mulch flower beds.

r Consider taking a loss if you've got equity.

r Make sure the Web presentation puts the best foot forward — when writing a description of the property for the listing, use whimsy and humor; tell a story.

r Consider a pre-marketing home inspection to identify and fix problems potential buyers might find.

r If you are living in your home, keep it in a high state of readiness so that it could be prepared for a showing within 15 minutes to a half-hour.

Source: Local real estate agents.