The spring real estate market is approaching, and this year there is no federal tax credit to get wary buyers off the fence.
A recent survey of 3,500 U.S. homeowners and renters conducted for the National Association of Realtors by Harris Interactive found that 60 percent of those who would like to own a house worry about job security and creditworthiness.
That said, some area real estate agents say they think the market may be rebounding because prospective buyers fear interest rates are permanently back on the upward trajectory and they need to get in the game.
B. John Duffy, president of Duffy Real Estate on the Main Line, said that sense "may have been fueled by the slight rise in mortgage interest rates," now 4.74 percent from a record low 4.17 percent in November.
In a market where financial motivation is canceled out by financial apprehension, the state of each house for sale becomes even more important to getting a deal done.
Buyers are still looking for "perfection, with comfort," said John B. Badalamenti, an associate broker at Prudential Fox & Roach Realtors in Wayne.
"As a result of the staging craze, buyers have become a bit spoiled," Badalamenti said. "Homes are almost being put on the market as museum pieces. You can bounce a dime off a bed."
Said Carol Sabatelli, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Media: "Right now, you need to pull every trick out of your hat in order to even get a showing."
Staging has become big business and is often recommended for hard-to-sell houses and potentially easy ones alike.
"It is rare to find a home that does not need some suggestions for showing," said Diane Williams, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Spring House. "In fact, I find that sellers ask about it because they are familiar with the TV shows or articles on staging."
When she goes to a listing appointment, Williams - who has a real estate designation qualifying her as an expert in staging - can quickly tell whether the house needs tweaking or major changes. If only minor touches are required, she gives the homeowners "suggestions to make the house more showable."
And, of course, it should be "Q-tip clean," as Williams' staging course recommended.
After-showing feedback is important, too, even though many sellers do not want to hear buyers' opinions.
"Gone are the days when buyers were willing to settle for anything," said Cheryl Miller, of Long & Foster Real Estate in Blue Bell.
"The Wizard of Oz has had the curtain pulled back."
In other words, those housing-boom days when people would sign deposit checks at the front door are long over.
Sellers who have let things slip may have a lot of work to do before their house can be considered ready for the market.
Deferred maintenance "is almost a death sentence" for a listing these days, Badalamenti said. "Things like nail pops and settlement cracks, while often easily repaired, are not being tolerated."
Because, buyers surmise, if there are nail pops, there must be something wrong with the rest of the house.
Home inspectors typically enter the process after an agreement of sale is signed, examining nooks and crannies under the watchful eyes of agents for both anxious sellers and edgy buyers.
Harris Gross of Engineers for Inspection in Cherry Hill said reactions to what he finds "depends on the personality, pocketbook, and skill set - what can the buyer fix."
Generally speaking, Gross said, "I'd say water leaks from plumbing or the roof are something I've found buyers consider important to them, as well as structural issues, depending on the extent and severity."
Termite damage is high on the list, partly because the full extent may not be completely visible, he said. "I've seen some nightmares."
Radon can be a concern, too. About 50 percent of his clients tested for radon last year, Gross said, although buyers of less expensive homes typically do not.
The availability of so many newly constructed houses has made selling older homes tougher, many agents said.
As an agent, "I must point out to a seller that they will get a more favorable response by sprucing up and freshening, if not redoing, tired kitchens, baths, floors, and paint," said Joanne Davidow, vice president of Prudential Fox & Roach in Center City.
"This approach is not always possible or practical" she said, "so keeping the price lower than the new properties is another way to go."