So after 40 years in your home, you've decided to sell and move to the Sunshine State. Or, after months of schlepping to open houses, you're zeroing in on your dream home - and can't wait to move in and change everything.
Congratulations - but, wait a minute: The experience of selling a home can be fraught with pitfalls. That's particularly true in this market: Though buyers have the advantage, both sellers and buyers are jittery about the economy and unsure of where the market will go from here.
Local experts - real estate agents, mortgage brokers, bankers, real estate attorneys - offer some cautions along the way:
1. Shop for a broker
Not all real estate brokers are alike - watch out for the bad ones.
There are lots of agents out there vying for your business, so take the time to find a good one.
They're not all alike, says Elysia Prinz, manager of the Northport office of Coach Realtors. "Who has the most signs up in town?" she says. "That shows whether the broker is popular." Ask people you know for recommendations.
When brokers present a comparative market analysis, ask how they will showcase your house - how it will be marketed in the newspapers, on the Internet, and on how many sites. Check out a broker's Web site to see in what details houses are presented: Are there lots of pictures, floor plans and other details to draw in buyers?
Also, educate yourself about what houses have sold for in your neighborhood so you can beware of a broker who suggests - just to get your business - that you overprice your home.
2. Hire a lawyer
Fools act as their own attorneys in real estate, too - don't sign anything without an attorney's OK.
You might think a real estate attorney is expensive, and that you should wait until closing to hire one, but you'd be wrong on both counts, experts say.
They might charge by the hour for a divorce or other action, but on Long Island they commonly charge a flat fee for real estate work, says David Sappé, an attorney in Huntington whose practice emphasizes real estate. (These fees often fall between $1,000 to $1,500 - thousands less than a broker's commission.)
From the start, an attorney will examine any contract you sign - even with a Realtor. "I tell clients, whether they're buying or selling, don't sign binders presented to them over the table over the weekend," Sappé says. Sellers might feel pressed into a quicker closing deadline than is comfortable, or be talked into making unnecessary repairs that a lawyer never would allow - and it's much harder to undo these mistakes after the fact.
3. Listen to your agent
Don't be stubborn about the price, or your house may sit for months and months with no offers.
You want to sell your home in a buyers' market? Then listen to the price your agent suggests, even if you think it should be higher.
"Pricing in this market is key," says Rick Hoffman, senior regional vice president of the East End for The Corcoran Group. "Any house in any market can be sold - it's all about the price."
If there are a lot of houses for sale in your neighborhood and you decide to sell at a similar price to your neighbors', "I would say, don't fall into that trap," says Hoffman. "I'd say, price it a little lower. Those other properties will help you sell your house.
"Look at other things that are on the market," he says. "They're all going to be negotiated 10 percent down, so why don't you price it 10 percent lower in the first place - and you're going to get a lot more interest. Let your neighbor sell your house for you."
A buyer's preapproval dated three months ago may not be worth the paper it's printed on.
You don't want to end up with a potential buyer whose credit rating plummets because of a few missed payments and can no longer get that mortgage. Or with a mortgage company that - well - goes away.
It's a different lending market, so even buyers who were prequalified when they started their housing search a few months ago may not qualify under new guidelines. Or, because of the volatility of the subprime mortgage crisis and of banks teetering on the brink, a program the buyer was approved for as little as 90 days ago may no longer exist, warns Robert Bram, senior loan officer for Preferred Empire Mortgage Co. of Melville, an affiliate of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate. He suggests that sellers ask the buyer for "an updated preapproval, [dated] within 30 days, from a reputable mortgage company or bank."
5. Deal killers
Don't frighten potential buyers away.
Keep the scares for Halloween: Environmental "hot spots," such as underground oil tanks, or other serious issues with household systems - electrical wiring that's not up to code, for example - may be real deal killers after an engineering report. "When it comes to a buried oil tank, it's best to unearth this potential problem and install an above-ground tank before you put your house on the market," says Donna Spinoso of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty in Huntington.
"In this market, I'm finding that we need to sell the house as many as four or five times to the same customer," says Michael Daly, principal broker for Beach Properties of the Hamptons in North Haven and author of The Hamptons Real Estate Blog (thehamptons .wordpress.com). "With all the negative media and insecurity in the market, buyers are skittish and looking for any reason to walk away from a deal."
Don't give them a reason.
"I sometimes recommend people get their house inspected by an engineer before putting their house on the market," says Michelle Cohen, associate broker/executive vice president of Century 21 Laffey Associates, Greenvale.
Find out what's wrong, and fix it. Cohen says she advises sellers to "get their home into tiptop shape" - adding not to forget to get all necessary Certificates of Occupancy. Their lack can hold up a closing - the towns are far stricter than they used to be about enforcing C of O's, and they're taking far longer to process them, she says - adding that not having one can even kill the whole deal.
6. An open book
Don't be cagey about your house - buyers will think you're hiding something.
With today's smarter - and warier - buyers and increased competition, your house needs to be an open book.
John Watson, associate broker and certified appraiser for Brown Harris Stevens in Bridgehampton, says that the sale of a house for $5 million fell through last year because "the seller would not issue a contract for sale that would allow the buyer to perform their inspections, which made the buyer very nervous. The buyer's exact words were, 'What is he hiding? What is the matter?'" The seller still hadn't signed a contract after a tense two weeks, Watson says, and "the buyer was still uncomfortable, to the point that he pulled out of the deal."
Watson says that sellers should always allow buyers to perform inspections, surveys or more in-depth environmental or engineering reports to learn about the house. "And buyers should always investigate what they are buying so that they are comfortable with the transaction," he adds. "Of course, all of this should be performed under the advice of an attorney."
Meanwhile, the house in Watson's example, he says, "is still for sale, one year later."
7. Clean up the mess
If you neglect curb appeal, your house may look neglected.
In a different market, you might have been able to get away with showing a shabby, messy house with obvious flaws. But the competition is fierce, so you have to make the house look its best.
A fresh coat of paint, cleaning up, taking junk out of rooms and closets and fixing little plumbing leaks, a small crack in a window or anything grungy is essential. "With more homes for the buyer to choose from, it is important to have the home looking its best for potential buyers," says Whitney LaCosta, branch manager of Coach Realty's East Islip office.
Look at prime properties in real estate magazines, home magazines and the like for ideas, ask your agent for suggestions or contact a home stager - usually, a designer who knows how to arrange a house so it looks great.
Make it stand out. Make it pretty.
8. Sell first
Never, ever, buy before you sell - unless you have oodles of cash lying around.
In a sellers' market, you might have been able to put up a for-sale sign, choose from several heady offers right away and bid on your next house, in a snap.
For now, that day has gone.
"The biggest pitfall I see is when sellers do not listen," says Kathryn Martin, licensed associate broker for Century 21 Northern Shores in Northport. "I tell them to get their home on the market and headed toward contract. In the interim, I suggest it is OK to go out and look at homes just to get educated to the market, but not to fall in love with anything.
"It is such a pressure cooker they put themselves into when they move forward on a purchase without having sold their primary property," Martin says. "And now with the banks being so tight with requirements, it is near impossible to make it work. For most of the people, the mantra is, do not buy until you are in contract to sell."
9. Price it right
Don't spurn a reasonable offer - it could be your only one, especially in this market.
"Historically, more often than not, your first offer is often your best offer," says Hoffman of The Corcoran Group - and, by and large, that truism holds today, he adds. "Negotiate with that person and try to work with it if it's reasonable. If it's really insulting, no - but if it's reasonable, don't get insulted and walk. You could lose your buyer."
Sellers should realize that the days of the big windfall are gone, says Joan Silverman, an attorney in Northport whose practice concentrates on real estate - and that, most likely, they already have received good value from their home. "You have to be realistic," she says. "You lived in that house, you had the value of living there for all those years. It provided you with housing, and probably at a reasonable cost, too."
So, while you don't need to give your house away, she says, you may need to learn to be happy with a lower price.