Getting your home to sell for top dollar can be a lot of work for everyone involved. If you want to take the headache out of home selling, it helps tremendously to be extremely organized, to have a plan, and to start early.
How early should you begin preparing to sell your home?
The more “lead time” you have, the better, as there are things to be done on multiple fronts. If you are a highly seasoned mover, with a number of relocations under your belt, the odds are good that you don’t have excess clutter and buying, selling, and moving are just a process you have down. For everyone else, for whom moving every 10 years or more is the situation, the tasks ahead may seem almost insurmountable. For most of us, a year is really not too soon.
Six months to two years before you put your home on the market
- It’s never too early to de-clutter the storage spaces (closets, garage, a basement, storage shed) for items that haven’t been used in years, no longer fit, are out of style, or otherwise fall into the category of “I should have gotten rid of that years ago”.
- Start a file or group of files for home selling. Start to organize your list of repairs and alterations and improvements to your home, as all of these will be relevant for disclosures. If you have permits and finals for work done, it is good to get copies of them put into the file with your list of work that’s been done. Some sellers believe that if they have fixed something, it does not need to be disclosed, but that’s not the case. The history of the property also includes past issues, how addressed, and of course any current issues.
- If you have the disclosures and inspections from when you purchased the home, it would be useful to have them handy.
- Are the county records for your home accurate? If not, reach out to the county tax assessor’s office to see what must be done to get them corrected. (Wrong info will confuse home buyers and can potentially cause problems.)
- Create a list of things that need touch up paint, stain removal, replacements or repairs and start to tackle them. Make sure that ordinary maintenance, such as cleaning out the gutters and replacing batteries in smoke detectors, stays on course.
- Look for safety hazards such as concrete walkways or sidewalks that may have tripping hazards. If you live in the City of San Jose, you are supposed to get permits and finals for work on sidewalks – and the city can be slow in approving your request. Beginning this months in advance or more is a good idea.
- Are you in or near a hilly area such as Almaden, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, or Saratoga? Find out if you have moisture in your crawlspace and do your best to make sure that the grading around your house is sloped to carry any water away from it. Get your downspouts extended so that the water flows several feet away from your structure. This is very important to protect the foundation of your home.
- Check all of the locks for your house and garage and make sure that you have keys for each one. When you sell your property, a key for each lock will be required (per the California Association of Realtors contract). Got an abandoned lock? Either remove it or get a key to make it functioning again. To make it easy on yourself, I suggest labeling each key and put one set of everything aside for your future buyer, as sometimes when a home gets packed up the rarely use key goes into a mystery storage box.
Within six months or so of when you’d like to sell
By this point, you have probably done 90% of your decluttering or more. For most people, that is the biggest task. What’s still in your home and easy to reach are things you will need and use for the upcoming half year only.
You should have your records assembled with any old reports or disclosures, a list of repairs you’ve done, a list of items which have been renovated or replaced, any additions, any permits, and so on.
Wonky items that you have “lived with” are all now in good working order, whether it’s a doorbell, a rusty mail box, a loose fence board, torn vent screens, or whatever the issues might be in your home. Touch up paint has been done, mossy patio areas cleaned, hardware is ready to be seen. Your sidewalks and walkways should not have trip hazards.
And you have keys for every lock, bar none.
Hire an excellent listing agent
Next it’s time to pay attention to the real estate market and find a Realtor who will help you net the most from your home sale. Hiring a real estate agent now, rather than 2 weeks before your home should go on the market, will enable you to get guidance that may make you money – at no additional cost. Your listing agent will help you to understand the probable buyer’s value, provide input on whether you’d net more money by making your home lighter (additional lamps, sun tunnels, pulling curtains back and other tactics), other staging advice, pinpointing the timing on when your house or condo should go on the market, and that’s just the beginning. He or she will give you a personalized list of suggestions on what to do, will walk you through the disclosure paperwork (which can be daunting), and tell you what to expect every step of the way. Hiring a great real estate agent early on will help you to cut through a lot of the confusion that causes stress.
If you haven’t gotten through the list of what should be done six months before selling, your listing agent also can put you in touch with tradespeople to assist you with decluttering, home fixes, etc. It will be more stressful and more expensive if you wait, so I’m not suggesting this approach, but it can be a safety net.
What to look for, and how to find a good listing agent?
Hiring a great Realtor will make the whole process streamlined and less stressful than going it alone, and statistics indicate that sellers net more money that way, too.
How do you find people to interview?
There are many ways to find who’s licensed to sell homes in California, but how to narrow it to a small handful of people you’d like to interview? (I recommend 3-4 max.)
Often the best way to find Realtors to interview is by word of mouth from happy past clients who have worked with them in the past. Sometimes neighbors familiar with a Realtor can attest to his or her integrity, market knowledge, or helpfulness. Referrals from lenders, agents in other markets, or others can also be worthwhile info to collect. These can all be a great starting point.
Who has good visibility in your area, either signs in the yard or data online?
Sometimes you’ll find a great agent by looking at online sites where Realtors are reviewed positively.
Criteria in hiring
This is advice I would give to my family and friends who live in other states (so I cannot help them there).
- First, consider the criteria you want in a superior listing agent. Approximately 85% of new real estate licensees will be out of the business within 5 years – it’s a lot tougher to make a living at this industry than it seems on the outside. New agents do not know what they don’t know! Please find someone experienced so that he or she is not learning on you (although I have to note that most of us do learn something new on each transaction). I would suggest that experience should include both numbers of transactions and years in the business. The market can turn on a dime, so having a Realtor who’s worked in all types of market conditions is a plus.
- Other criteria I would suggest is additional education above and beyond the minimum requirements for getting the license. If he or she has professional designations, those are proof of that extra education – but it’s not the only way to have it. Agents can also attend realty seminars or take courses on specific topics (property management, listing skills, negotiation, ethics, finance, real estate law, staging, marketing, language skills for sales, etc.). Real estate conferences abound, and they are another way that your potential listing agent can stay on top of the industry changes and sharpen skills.
- Communication skills are key, as sales hinge on them. Does your potential agent provide clear information, and is it sufficiently detailed to fully answer the question at hand? Will he or she be able to convey all the benefits of your home to the buying public? Is she or he reasonably responsive? Is the communication clear both verbally and in writing? (Check out the fliers for that person’s past listings. Is the communication there compelling? How about the old listings – is the description strong?
- Detail oriented – Can your potential agent explain the real estate contract and disclosures to you in a way that you understand? These are key documents and include plenty of “fine points” or nuances which have significant implications. The contract and disclosures are your ultimate communication in putting together a sale. Some sales people are so focused on selling that it’s hard for them to slow down and get knee deep with the details of the paperwork. The paperwork is far too important to gloss over, though, so I strongly suggest looking for signs on your potential agent’s ability to get down to the details.
- Availability – work with a full time real estate agent who is busy, but not so busy that you won’t get the time and service you need with selling your biggest financial asset. Do ask about time off (everyone needs some), what happens if the Realtor get sick or has a vacation planned.
- Proximity: your listing agent does NOT have to specialize in your subdivision, but it’s helpful to have someone within 5 or 10 miles so that it’s not too hard to “service the listing” (go to the home and take care of things there as needed). A buyer’s agent really needs familiarity with the neighborhoods the buyers may be considering, as there are sometimes hidden positives and negatives that would take a buyer a long time to uncover. With listings, though, agents can study up on a neighborhood and its benefits fairly quickly, particularly if it’s in the same county where that Realtor is already fairly experienced.
- Marketing plan which you can review before hiring. What will your potential listing agent do, what services provided, to get you top dollar for your home? Make sure you know what you are paying for upfront. Make sure that professional photography is part of what you can expect. After pricing, the photos are the most important part of marketing a home.
- What is the brokerage fee, and how will it be shared with the buyer’s agent? Lower isn’t always better if the result is fewer showings and lower numbers of offers.
- Ask about the contract terms. How long is the listing contract’s term? Is there a cancellation clause if you are unhappy with the way things go? Some agents have 1 year contracts, most are probably closer to 6 months. (I put an “easy exit” clause in all of my listing agreements, and I think that’s unusual.)
- Check reviews on Yelp, Zillow, Google, or other sites. See what past clients have to say.
- Integrity. The importance of honesty cannot be overstated. This is particularly true if there’s bad news – you need and want the truth, and not some soft-peddled version of it so that you can make a good decision. At times your Realtor may need to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” rather than bluffing. Sometimes, despite best efforts to get the pricing right, the market shifts right beneath your feet and then sellers have to get ahead of a changing market. “Yes, I know that when we looked at the data 3 weeks ago, this price looked right. We aren’t sure if it’s the stock market or last week’s earthquake which caused buyers to simply stop buying.” Your agent may need to say “Mr. or Mrs. seller, the buyer’s agent tells me that his clients did not like XYZ about your property”. Or harder, “Mr. or Mrs. Seller, I understand that you are not happy that…, however the you did agree to that in the contract. Let me see what I can do.” You are best served by someone who will have the integrity to tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear.
- Make sure you are comfortable with him or her. If you are uncomfortable, or uneasy, at the beginning it will probably be awful at the end. This is someone you will work closely with.
Once your Realtor is on board and hired, he or she will work closely with you on the final details of what needs to be done, the disclosure paperwork, the pre-sale inspections, pin pointing the pricing (over pricing is the # 1 reason why homes do not sell as fast as should be expected, and that can cause the biggest headaches of them all!) and other tasks so that when the sign goes in the front yard and the home buying public is invited in, you’re ready. An important question you will review with your agent is whether or not to stay in the home when it is being marketed and under contract.
Moving out and staging, or staying and scheduling the showings
In many cases now, the properties that sell for top dollar for the home’s condition are vacant and staged when sold. If that’s something you are open to doing, you’ll need to factor in a few things, such as the cost of staging, where you will live after vacating, and insurance costs. Regarding insurance, some companies will consider a staged home occupied, others will not. Some allow 30 days after you move out, some 60. Please talk with your insurance agent about getting coverage that may be a little different after you move out.
Moving out and staging removes one frequently heard buyer fear in overly packed homes: will the sellers actually be able to get out on time? If the sellers are already moved out, buyers have the option of a faster close of escrow, which sellers will welcome.
What is nice about moving out and staging is that you won’t be in a day to day pressure situation with keeping the home immaculate for showings, or having your day to day lives disrupted with people coming through. As sellers, you want to allow easy access for showings rather than to discourage them, so being gone makes that possible to the extreme.
Additionally, one of our biggest concerns with showings and open houses is the potential loss of personal property, including medicines, jewelry, documents, etc. If you and your stuff are gone, that is one less headache.
Moving out and having the home shown with staging furniture and accessories may seem like a splurge and the ultimate way to avoid home selling headaches, but often it will bring a higher purchase price, too. Every micro market is a little different, so talk with your listing agent about whether this strategy makes sense for you.
If you stay in the home, you will want to strategize with your agent how best to manage showings. Sometimes I’ve been able to pair up the first day on the MLS with a client’s vacation so that the house is basically unused for a week or so, and the seller is not disturbed much before it goes pending. You and he or she can establish showing hours (such as 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. with 1 or 2 hours notice) so that most buyers can get in easily enough that they don’t eliminate your house from the list of properties to view.
There are many more decisions about managing the foot traffic during the marketing period, but no matter which approach you take, it should go smoother and have fewer headaches if you have hired a good, organized Realtor to help you lay out the plan ahead of time.
Planning to sell your Silicon Valley home in the next year? Please reach out to me. I’d welcome the opportunity to chat with you.
Related reading for home sellers:
Home seller tips (list of articles related to selling a property in Santa Clara County)