Home Economics: Early spring means it's time to get for-sale homes ready for their debut

Jeremy and Shannon Wallace, center, do a walkthrough with their broker Kristal Eichar, far right. (Shawn Rocco / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT)

Spring arrived very early this year, bringing what traditionally is - even through the downturn that has been with us since 2006-07 - the best time to buy and sell real estate.

Issues of tight credit linger, and median home prices continue to decline, though more slowly. Yet there appear to be enough positive indicators to push once-reluctant sellers into the market.

Among those pluses: record-low fixed interest rates for mortgages and the highest affordability levels since record-keeping began in the 1970s. Plus, in the last six months of 2011, the number of homes listed for sale in the eight-county Philadelphia region dropped 21 percent, from 52,600 to 41,700, said Kevin Gillen, of Econsult Corp. in Philadelphia. That is the lowest number since January 2007, about nine months before the housing boom collapsed locally.

If this makes you more eager to sell than anxious about trying, it is time for real estate theater. The house is the star. The cast includes agents and brokers, home inspectors, title people, mortgage companies, lenders, underwriters, and, obviously, buyers.

What is your role as seller, and how big is your part?

That varies, said Diane Williams of Weichert Realtors in Blue Bell: Some sellers' personalities make them very "hands-on"; others consider the agent "the professional with great experience - 'you handle the transaction, I am too busy to worry about the day-to-day.' "

Some sellers proofread entries in the multiple-listing service and brochures about their properties "with a microscope," Williams said. Others won't even bother to look at their listing.

Paul Leiser of Avalon Real Estate at the Shore said he believes the Internet has "empowered both sellers and buyers with more data than they have ever had access to before."

While "we are dealing with more informed involvement on the part of both the buyers and sellers, it still requires the Realtor to analyze all that data and summarize it in a way that provides useful information that can be utilized," Leiser said.

Confrontation can be minimized, he said, if an agent keeps the seller informed every step of the way.

"Sellers get particularly 'brainy' in terms of the value of their home, but the reality is that they may not be aware of all recent comparable sales, or been inside those comparables, to really pinpoint value," said Mark Wade of Prudential Fox & Roach in Center City.

These days, said Art Herling of Long & Foster Real Estate in Blue Bell, houses are sold twice: once when the sales agreement is signed, and the second time during negotiation over the home inspection.

"Communication with the seller during the process is always important," he said.

Broker Craig Lerch Jr. of Lerch & Associates in Abington said sellers needed to know that there were two "wars that you need to win: the beauty pageant and the price war."

"Once both are in line, the house should sell," he said.

Sellers seem open to what he and his agents suggest, Lerch said. First is to have the house professionally staged, rather than have an agent tell them how to do it.

Sellers are "changing colors that are too bold by having them repainted," he said. Some are having their houses tested for radon, inspected, and even appraised before they hit the market.

"A savvy and engaged seller looks at comparable sales with an open mind, rather than a 'This is what I want or need' approach," said Joanne Davidow of Prudential Fox & Roach in Center City.

"A seller who thinks he or she knows it all may be left with an unsold house and a disappointing outcome," she said. "They often move on to the next agent and sometimes the next, but at the end of the day, the house sells for less."

Sellers should make their houses available for showings, said John Duffy of Duffy Real Estate on the Main Line. The seller should not, however, enter into conversation with the potential buyer or his or her agent, or the appraiser or home inspector, "for any reason."

Noelle Barbone of Weichert Realtors in Media said a seller's presence at a showing not only makes buyers uncomfortable, "but makes it hard for them to visualize what it would be like living there."

Cherry Hill-based home inspector Harris Gross said sellers "interpose themselves" in one of every 50 inspections.

Sometimes, the seller perceives the inspection as a reflection of their maintenance habits or "they are there to defend each point raised during the inspection with the goal of saying their home has no defects and the issues raised are without basis," Gross said.

"I typically try to tactfully discourage this type of seller behavior when these situations arise," he said.

Sellers seem to be intervening a bit more in this market because they're aware of the competition - and recognize that it might be a while before another prospective buyer shows up, said Kristin Keller, of Key Building Inspections in Kimberton.

Having the seller present can make the buyer feel "awkward and intimidated about asking questions, Keller said. "The objective of the home inspection is for the buyer to understand the condition of their purchase. It's an education process."

Still, said Marilou Buffum of Prudential Fox & Roach in Chestnut Hill, she understands the emotional reaction of sellers who "have lived in and love their house."

"Our job as their agents is to advise and to educate them as to the present climate and conditions," Buffum said. "We cannot make decisions for our clients. We only advise and represent."


Contact Alan J. Heavens

at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @alheavens.