One of the most eye-opening business ventures I ever took was to sell real estate. I met the most interesting people in the most intimate of places – their homes. To them, their homes were castles, even when they were more (ahem) hovel than mansion.
Here’s an example of the mansion/hovel experience: One evening I went on a house hunt with friends who were looking for their first home. We viewed several properties that I found for them. The last house was one they discovered during a drive so earlier I’d set up an appointment with the listing agent.
After a few steps inside I whispered, “Stop! Let’s put our shoes back on before we go any further – my socks are wet!” This was NOT my friends’ dream home, but the place was such a disaster that curiosity pulled us into every room.
The house reeked of cooking grease and assorted body odors. There must have been a sale on green paint because all walls were covered with a moldy shade (maybe it wasn’t paint!). And talk about dim – no light fixture held more than a 40-watt bulb.
The homeowner was a voracious knitter because our first sight in the living room was a mountain of wool and a rainbow of sweaters draped over every couch and surface. One large lump was either a wool-covered coffee table or a sleeping dog.
The “trophy room” was the kitchen, which the three of us scanned in silence: the stovetop was covered with charred food, black and hardened into volcanic structures. And I’ve never seen so many dirty dishes piled window-high in the sink and across the counters. My friends stifled giggles behind their hands, refusing my eye contact and raised eyebrows.
The homeowner popped her head into the kitchen: “Any questions for me?” she asked.
“No, I think we’re good. But didn’t your agent mention we were coming tonight?” I asked.
She nodded yes, looking perplexed by my question. We had to leave before the giggling turned into full-on hysteria.
See? One person’s castle is another person’s . . . dump.
Beauty is in the eye of the potato?
Every buyer enters your home with critical eyes. While the average homeowner is proud to present a clean, well-maintained property, there are exceptions and I saw plenty of them.
My husband Paul, also an agent, listed a young couple’s home. We anticipated dozens of buyers and browsers to visit our inaugural open house. After setting up our yard signs, we walked inside to find a sink of dirty dishes topped off by a leaking tap. A quick walkthrough yielded a half-eaten pizza on the counter, an unmade bed and several burned out light bulbs in the basement.
The owners headed out the door as the first punctual prospects walked in. “Wait!” I called out. There was no time to ask why they left such a mess, or why they’d filled a bowl with potatoes and placed it as a centerpiece on the dining room table. There was only time to slip on a friendly smile (and hope I’d remembered my deodorant.)
The owners arrived home moments after the open house ended and asked, “How many offers did you write?” We explained that our marketing would be more effective if they tidied up a little more and did a few quick-fix projects. We arrived at least 30 minutes early before subsequent showings and once washed the dishes ourselves.
The home sold, but I wish I’d asked about those potatoes that were still on the table when we presented the offer.
Bury, Don’t Freeze!
A co-worker in our office told us about a home he showed twice to a woman. The woman returned to the basement but this time she opened the freezer, since it was included in the purchase price.
Our agent friend was upstairs with the homeowner. That’s when they heard a loud shriek and the freezer lid slam, followed by hysterical laughter. When they raced downstairs, our friend found out why the woman had shrieked: the freezer was empty except for the twisted frozen bodies of a cat and dog! The owner explained how both of his elderly pets had died during the winter and that he was waiting until spring, to bury them at his cottage when the ground thawed.
There’s only a brief window to make an impression on purchasers – always make it a great one, preferably one with shrieks of joy, not surprise!
The Royal Flush
During another showing, the homeowner had recently renovated his bathroom. The result was beautiful – coordinating tiles and wallpaper, granite countertops and tropical greenery. But. He’d overlooked the toilet during renovations.
That toilet was all our buyer could see. Instead of focusing on the updated décor, he kept flushing and muttering “damned noisy toilet!” That damned noisy toilet resulted in no sale. The owner refused to change it and the purchaser refused to start “mucking around with plumbing,” even if WE paid for the work out of our commission. We’ll always remember the toilet that “flushed” our deal!
KFC Meets Feng Shui
“Subject to parent’s approval” was our least favorite clause when writing an offer on a home. Why? Because it’s tough to appease the opinions of several personalities, all with different ages and tastes and varied levels of real estate savvy.
We’d spend countless hours showing the property and writing a contract with the buyer only to cancel the deal because a parent didn’t agree.
Once we sold a home to a couple subject to the man’s father’s approval. The father wasn’t available to view the home until the next day. When the three of them arrived, the father immediately pulled out a small cloth bag from his pocket. Then we followed him to the outside steps where he gave that bag a shake and dumped the contents onto the landing. Chicken bones scattered and created an interesting design.
The older man looked at his son and shook his head. “No good,” he said.
Huh? The purchaser looked at us, shrugged, and said “sorry” before quickly slipping on his leavin’ loafers. My husband wanted to yell out, “Next time we spend an afternoon selling you a home, bring your chicken bones with you!”
Back to the Castle Syndrome
We listed the house of a sweet elderly couple who bought a condo and had to say good-bye to their family home. They loved their castle – they’d raised their children in it and proudly maintained their house and yard through the years.
When Paul and I showed up for their first open house, we were anxious for them to leave so we could welcome keen buyers. Both of them were dressed nicely and I watched him kneel to tie his wife’s shoelaces.
“Aw, cute,” I thought, “helping with her shoes . . . and now they’re ready to go.” Nope. They sat there and looked up at me.
Paul chimed in: “So where are you off to for the next two hours? Looks like a beautiful day to–”
“Going?” he said. “Nowhere. We’re staying here in case you have any questions.”
Gulp. Paul politely explained that it’s always better if homeowners aren’t present during an open house. That way, buyers feel free to voice their concerns and aren’t afraid to insult the nearby owners.
“If people can speak freely,” Paul continued, “we can better overcome their objections and we often get an offer the same day.”
No logical explanation worked. Our sweet old couple didn’t budge from their couch for the next two hours. Spoiler alert: no offers that afternoon.
On another day, a family of new Canadians arrived for a scheduled showing. When the tour was over, our helpful homeowner followed them to the front door. “What do you think of my house?” he asked.
“It’s very nice, but we’re looking for one with a dining room.”
“DINING ROOM! From where you come from you eat on dirt floors and HERE you want a dining room?”
Again, no offer that day.
We did eventually sell their “castle” and everyone was happy. How much did we enjoy working with this old couple? Enough to name our next cats after them!
Don’t Nickel and Dime
After holding our first open house, we generated interest from a motivated family. Besides a wonderful full-price offer, all they asked for were two old kitchen appliances and a carved coat hook in the front hallway.
When our homeowners scanned the offer together, the woman grabbed a pen from my hand, ready to accept. She and her partner were both ecstatic . . . until the woman spotted the coat hook.
“What? Our coat hook? There’s no way I’m gonna part with that!” she announced, slamming down the pen. I looked at Paul and he looked at me. Is this really happening?
Based on her reaction, we assumed this was a pricey antique or a relic passed down over four generations. Nope. It was a tchotchke they picked up for $35 at a garage sale the previous summer.
Paul kept his voice friendly: “Let’s talk about this. You want to risk a counteroffer over . . . [he paused for effect] a $35 ornament?” Paul and I routinely worked much harder on our contracts and negotiated details that were truly significant – price, possession dates, renovations and more.
“But if the purchasers are having a smidgen of second thoughts,” I added, “and we return with a counter offer, you realize they can walk away and get their deposit back, right?”
She stared at us, unmoved.
“Seriously,” I tried again, “this is a great contract. If we lose it, the next offer could be for much less money or with major conditions you can’t accept.” Silence. “Pleeease don’t give them a chance to walk!” Now I sounded screechy!
Eventually we convinced the more level-headed partner to reason with her in the next room. Thirty minutes later we sighed with relief and phoned the buyer’s agent with the good news. Phew!
FYI Our homeowners could have avoided this near-debacle simply by removing their coat hook before the first showing or open house. And don’t assume because an object or piece of equipment is attached to the wall or bolted to floor that buyers won’t ask for it in their offer.
Why open the door – literally – to bungled negotiations or hard feelings?
. . . excerpts from How to Sell Your Home Privately
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