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Navigating the ups and downs of being a first-time home seller

Ines Ramirez-Heitner and John Heitner became first-time home

Ines Ramirez-Heitner and John Heitner became first-time home sellers last summer, when they put their Rockville Centre home on the market after deciding its location on a busy corner didn't work for their family. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Edy Nathan has lived in her French Colonial in Port Washington for 30 years and had not previously sold a home. When she decided to put the house on the market in July, she assumed the newly renovated bathroom and basement workout room were enough selling points to move the four-bedroom home quickly. Against her real estate agent’s recommendation, she kept her red dining room, berry bathroom and coral bedroom ceiling.

"It surprised me how negatively people responded to any kind of color," says Nathan, a psychotherapist in private practice who is leaving the area. In July, after two weeks of the house not getting an offer, she took it off the market to follow the advice her agent gave in the first place: Paint in neutrals. (The typical cost of a paint job is about $300 per room).

Ines Ramirez-Heitner and John Heitner of Rockville Centre bought their five-bedroom house in 2010 before their children, now 4 and 8, were born. But because it is on a busy corner, they decided to move. This past summer Ramirez-Heitner tried to sell the house herself, using her background as a digital marketing consultant and hoping to save the agent's commission.

"But then I realized that as familiar as I am with listing stuff on Facebook Marketplace, there's no way that I could vet everyone coming in to be qualified," she says. "We realized that we needed to trust it to the experts to list and help us manage the influx of people having questions about the house."

Both Nathan and Ramirez-Heitner were first-time home sellers, so they didn’t know what to expect, how to prepare to list their homes, and most importantly, what potential buyers would be looking for. Buyers' wish lists these days typically include updated kitchens, finished basements and home offices. They wound up relying on their agents to guide them through the process.

First-time sellers made up 31% of all sellers nationwide in 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors.

For first-time sellers, agents advise following specific tips on what helps the process during the pre-listing stage, while your home is being shown, and when you go into contract with a buyer.

Pre-listing stage

Ideally about six months to a year or more before you put the house on the market, have a real estate agent walk through and point out affordable updates and any potential problems, says Kelly Forman, a real estate adviser in the Long Beach office of Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty. This includes decluttering to make rooms more open.

"This is also a good time to clean out the basement, attic, all your little cubbies," says Joyce Roe, an agent with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Farmingville. "Besides, these are all areas you’re going to have to clear out to move, so you get a head start."

And you might consider hiring a home stager, with costs starting at $250 for a consult and going into the thousands for renting furniture and accessories.

Another important prep step is a pre-listing consult with a home inspector, especially if you’ve lived in your home for a long time, Forman says. A typical fee for a 3,000-square-foot home is about $550. "It’s not a full inspection, but they poke around looking at your utilities, roof, the foundation and electrical issues. They’re giving you recommendations for things that will affect the engineer’s report with the buyer."

A benefit is that it can point out issues that not only interfere with a buyer’s loan, but can also be a turnoff, says Tanya Negron, a licensed associate broker at Marylou Swan Realty Corp. in East Patchogue. "It can make a buyer wonder what else is wrong with the home. The buyer has to get an inspection, so you're going to have to take care of it anyway."

Taking these steps helped Ramirez-Heitner follow up on recommendations for what to get up to code, like adding a chimney cap. "We also decluttered and got a professional landscaper to hedge the bushes to make them look nice for the pictures, things we weren’t aware of," she says.

The couple listed their home in July and had a buyer in August at $799,000. They're waiting to close on a house nearby.

At her agent’s suggestion, Nathan also gave up her office to turn it into a sitting room, and converted a four-car parking area that she’d used for patients into 1,200 square feet of backyard. When she put the house back on the market in September, it sold within two weekends for just slightly less than her asking price at $1.259 million.

Nathan said the process was helpful. "It was actually disorienting. But then I realized it was a good thing because it gave me some distance, which I needed to let the house go," she says, adding that she got to enjoy her new yard until moving day, a bonus.

The showing stage

Have a plan for what to do during the open house, as well as during showings, because it’s recommended that you’re not home when potential buyers come through. Most agents will try to give 24 hours’ notice, though Negron says that in this hot market, sometimes eager buyers want to see a house on a few hours’ notice. Having a good relationship and open lines of communication with your agent helps to relieve the stress because they will work with your schedule, she says. "Usually, you’re displaced for 15 to 20 minutes."

Another stressor is making sure that your kids and pets are out of the way and that your lived-in home looks like no one is living there. You’ll want to stay on top of making sure the beds are made and the kitchen sink is clear. This is the period when you can't really live your life in your house the way you usually do, Negron says.

Nathan says it was an adjustment having to get her dog, Ziggy, out of the house for every showing, as well as conduct patient sessions from her car. "It’s kind of a displacement, but if you’re selling your house and you've got someone who wants to see it, it’s not a choice."

Ramirez-Heitner also found dealing with two small children, a puppy and her home-based business during this period a challenge. "You get into a groove after that first initial two," she says. "Knowing that it was a temporary situation helped us to get through it."

The contract stage

The good news? Negron says that this period is usually short, and in the current market is likely to last about 10 days. Once you’re in contract, you can stop making the bed.

But just because your house goes to contract quickly doesn't mean that you're going to move out quickly. Typically, you have from 30 to 90 days before the closing as you wait for the buyer’s mortgage commitment letter from the bank.

Roe says this waiting period for the closing date can be nerve-racking. "Usually, you would only know inside of a week when you're closing, and that's really hard for sellers who have to coordinate moving logistics."

Negron advises sellers to accept that delays are likely. "It may seem very painful and stressful," she says, "but it will get done."

And something that can help you get through all the uncertainties? Start packing.

Setbacks to look out for

Unexpected legal issues can slow down the sale — or derail it altogether, says John J. Breslin Jr., a real estate attorney and appraiser in Huntington. Even before you put the house on the market, try to pull together all the paperwork you can, including mortgage and original documents from the purchase, such as the survey, deed and title information, as well as COs (certificates of occupancy).

Here are common setbacks to look out for:

  • Look for COs for decks, finished basement, dormered room or extra bathroom. This could translate into anything from having to install a new septic system to converting to its earlier state a basement that doesn’t have legal egress or proper ceiling height.
  • Find out whether there are old mortgages that haven't been satisfied or don't have the associated paperwork.
  • Check that the survey still represents what the property looks like and that there haven’t been any changes on the perimeter, like the addition of a fence.
  • Know about any potential easements or rights of way, like a common driveway, and find the supporting documents.

—LIZA N. BURBY

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