Tough PathSelling a home is always stressful, no matter the reason.  But some circumstances are tougher than others, and perhaps the worst is selling a house or home after the death of a loved one or in the face of declining health, particularly with serious or terminal illness, specifically if the sick individual is living at the home which must be sold.  Today we’ll discuss that situation.

How can you sell a property if the owner usually cannot leave for buyer showings and cannot really keep the home in top condition?

It is of course not ideal to have the property being listed, marketed and sold not show well and if the seller cannot step out when home buyers visit.  But there are strategies which may help.  The goal is to sell the home quickly, which normally will also cause the price to be as high as possible (given everything).

First, before the home is ever actively marketed:

  1. Enlist family, friends, neighbors, and any helpful souls with the task of packing up most items that will need to go when the property does sell.  Any items not needed for the next 3-4 months should be boxed up.  This is also a good time to donate or throw away items that will not be needed in the future.  Even if someone must be paid to do this work, it’s imperative to declutter. (There are firms that specialize in assisting with downsizing.)
  2. Once items are boxed, they should go to either a pod (do NOT leave it on the driveway or otherwise “on site”), a Door-to-Door Storage company or to some sort of storage facility.  It is tempting to simply put everything in the garage, but that’s just kicking the can down the road, and it will make buyer inspections difficult, if not impossible, and that could cause the home sale to be more difficult, the sale price to be lower and the possibility of renegotiations to rise as surprises may be discovered once the items are finally out of the way.
  3. Bring in a cleaning crew to scrub the place thoroughly.  Have the carpets washed, the windows cleaned, and the bathrooms and kitchen, especially, shine.
  4. Hire a stager to help rearrange furniture and decor so that the home shows as well as possible.  Make sure to utilize the services of someone sensitive to the elderly or infirm.
  5. Then, just like with any other sale, have the presale inspections done and schedule the marketing photos to be taken.

The listing photographs: the most important “open house” of all

Once the home is clean and show ready, the listing photographs can be taken and marketing pieces prepared.   It is extremely important that the photographs be the best possible representation of this property.  In many cases, someone will need to prepare each room for the photos and then return the room to its normal state.  For instance, if there are aids at the toilet and bathtub, they do not need to be in the images! Remove them for the 3 minutes it takes to shoot the photo,  then replace them.  Ditto that with bedside commodes…. If they are left in place, buyers will remember it as “the commode house”.  Really.

In sum: please, consider that the photos are the most important “open house” – and take the job of making the photos great a top priority.

What about agent previews, broker open houses, buyer tours and public open houses?

If the home owner who is not well is up to it, it may be possible to allow real estate agents in to preview the home, either independently or as part of an office or realty board tour.  If not, comments can be made in the MLS to the agent community explaining the showing restrictions.

How to work the showings to potential buyers depends entirely on the condition of the home owner.  If the property is priced aggressively, which will likely be the wisest course of action, the home should be set to sell fast and hopefully with multiple offers.  Even so, buyers have to see it to buy it.  A schedule could look something like this (varies tremendously by circumstance):

  • Tuesday: home on the multiple listing, but no showings until Thursday at the soonest
  • Wednesday or Thursday morning: have the cleaner in one more time – make sure that the home is clean and odor free
  • Thursday & Friday: showings by appoinment between 4 and 6pm (since some people cannot get there until after work) – owner at home
  • Saturday & Sunday: open house both days 2-4pm with home owner gone (assuming this is possible) – really means seller leaves at 1:30 and returns at 4:30
  • Monday: showings by appointment only
  • Tuesday: offers due at 10am to the listing agent (and will be reviewed with the seller in the early afternoon)

For this strategy to work, the pricing must be not just realistic, but appealing.  When someone is ill, the last thing you want is the house on the market for 6 months.  It’s exhausting for healthy people but a true nightmare for those who aren’t in good shape. Plus – the longer it takes to sell, usually the lower the eventual sales price.

As with all home sales, once the property is under contract or pending, there will be more visits for inspections, appraisal for the buyer’s loan, and the final walk through.  The sale is not complete until the escrow is closed and the deed recorded, so during this time it’s important to maintain the home, keep it fairly accessible for the reasonable sorts of visits that buyers need to do, and be responsive to questions and concerns.

Most escrows (the “sale pending” time frame) are about 30 days.  In our current seller’s market in the San Jose area, it is often possible to get a little bit of a lease or rent back after closing so that the seller can move once the transaction is completed.  For most buyers, a 30 to 60 day rent back is possible, but not more because the buyer’s lender will consider the property a non-owner occupied home if it goes beyond 60 days.  Also know that if there’s a rent back, and the seller stays after closing, most buyers will charge rent at their cost per day and there will be a security deposit.  In many cases, then, it is best to plan to be out 30 days after the offer is accepted (often about 2-3 weeks after all of the buyer’s contingencies are removed).

A word about dementia, mental capacity and home selling

Sometimes there are complications thrown in with the already complicated mix, such as dementia (from any cause: strokes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and others).  This is a very difficult and touchy subject: capacity for signing and understanding the implications of real estate contracts.  I wrote about this a couple of years ago, on this blog.  If you have a loved one who’s confused, or you think may be confused, please read this article of mine on capacity.  And please speak with an attorney who may assist you in the delicate but important task of getting help with selling. My article on mental capacity & real estate contracts can be found at this link:

Finding a good attorney to help

Depending on many factors, you or your loved one may benefit tremendously by having the capable assistance of a good attorney, perhaps either a real estate attorney or an eldercare specialist lawyer.  This is one area where an ounce of prevention truly can be more than a pound of cure.  Talk to your Realtor.  If things are complicated by family dynamics, health problems, confusion or other things, the help of an excellent legal professional may be able to shorten the sale process and get everyone on the same page, safely, faster.

Realtors are not all the same, so find a really good real estate professional too

It probably goes without saying to most of my smart and savvy readers, but just in case, let’s be direct: real estate agents, like lawyers, teachers, engineers, college professors, doctors, and everyone else, are NOT equal to one another.  They may have the same license (or in some cases be at the same brokerage) but they are not the same, whether we’re talking experience, education, skills, demeanor, patience, responsiveness, compassion, listening skills, insight, marketing ability and so much more.  When working with a friend or family member who is sick, especially, it is more important than every to hire someone who will treat each person involved with dignity, respect and kindness, and not view that seller as a number or just another cog in the wheel of the business plan.

As for me – I decided to write this piece because I love working with seniors and those who are facing health challenges and I have had a lot of experience working with sellers who were battling cancer and other serious medical problems.  One of my designations is the Seniors Real Estate Specialist (represents 2 days with of classwork, but probably just as importantly, that seniors and elderly clients are a priority).  I  have a lot of experience with elderly relatives and their moves, often under pressure due to declining health or illness.   Additionally, I have a background as a volunteer hospital chaplain when my kids were small (at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose).   I was drawn to this work of “mostly listening” because I have spent about 7 or 8 weeks of my life as a patient in hospitals for various things (scoliosis surgery at Kaiser in Oakland at age 13 – hospitalized for 3 weeks, the onset of my then mysterious arthritis at age 20 in Italy – 3 weeks there too, a myomectomy in my late 20s, plus the happy births of my 2 kids by c-section at Good Sam – and I think I’m forgetting something!).    In other words, I really do understand what it’s like to be a patient, and I think that helps me when I assist those selling with special medical challenges.

If you would like to chat with me about help selling a home here in Silicon Valley while managing your or a loved one’s sickness, please do call or email me.  I offer a no-obligation consultation, and I’m happy to provide you with a copy of my book on home selling as my gift too.  You will find that I am not pushy, I work to be your trusted resource and guide as you go through the stressful process of home selling or helping someone else in this difficult chore.