With personal budgets and lending standards tight during the economic downturn, Long Island's home sellers are competing for every would-be buyer this spring, local real estate experts say. Those experts point out that it's more important now than ever for sellers to take steps to help their homes stand out from the crowd. With that in mind, here are seven points to consider when attempting to sell in this buyers' market.
1. Declutter and depersonalize
ADVICE Before showing a home, sellers should clear cluttered rooms, place personal items in storage and "neutralize" bright paint with tans or beiges, Lindenhurst-based home stager Christine Doukas says. This can help buyers visualize themselves in the home, she and others say.
WHY IT MATTERS Bowling trophies and bright red paint only serve to distract buyers from the details of the home that are important to the sale, Doukas says. "Knickknacks that you love, all of that stuff needs to be removed so they [buyers] can see the details like the molding or hardwood floors," she adds.
Buyers often are similarly distracted by clutter like shaving products in the bathroom, piles of clothes in the bedroom or stacks of electronics in the office, Doukas says.
The focus should not be on the owners' personality and taste but on square footage and architectural detail, Doukas says. Sellers should inspect their homes as if "they're snooping in their neighbor's house," she adds. "People are very quick to judge everybody else. They should judge themselves."
2. Order a pre-listing inspection
ADVICE Hire a licensed home inspector to examine the house before listing it on the market. Jim Freebody, owner of National Property Inspections in Westbury, says sellers' inspections go for, on average, $350 to $400.
WHY IT MATTERS Issues - from big problems like a buried oil tank to smaller ones like faulty wiring - will surface eventually, real estate experts say, so it's better policy to identify and address them early. A pre-listing inspection can help identify those issues, Freebody says.
Sellers who find out, for example, that their 17-year-old roof may need to be replaced can be upfront with potential buyers and drop the listing price to reflect future costs.
Potential buyers surprised by defects they learn about through an inspection later in the purchasing process often become wary of the property and may abandon the deal, Freebody and other real estate experts say.
"What hurts the sale is not the fact that your roof is old," Freebody says. "What hurts the sale is when the buyer who fell in love with the house shows up with an inspector and finds a whole bunch of things they didn't know about."
Many problems, like that wiring, can be fixed before sellers show the home.
3. Price home to market
ADVICE List the home at a price consistent with today's market conditions. Frank Urso, president of the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island and owner of Long Island Village Realty in Syosset, insists that sellers consult a Realtor to determine an appropriate listing price. Many homeowners also look to real estate sites such as Zillow.com, Trulia.com and MLSLI.com to research recent sales in their neighborhood.
WHY IT MATTERS Sellers must reject the common misperception that their home has been exempt from the market's downturn, Urso and other experts say. Real estate prices across Long Island have fallen about 20 percent in the past two years, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Long Island, and, with buyers looking for bargains, overpriced homes will languish.
"You want to attract buyers, not lookers," says Urso. "Perception might be, 'My house is worth a lot more.' Reality is, over the last six to eight months, prices have dropped. You have to aggressively price. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be on the market."
In fact, says Bonnie Doran, a licensed associate broker in the Manhasset office of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty, excessive time on the market can devalue a home. "The closer you price a house to market value, the more you're going to realize," Doran says. "Once the house has been on the market a while, it seems tired."
4. Timing matters
ADVICE Consider pricing, but don't stop there. Doran says that marketing a home should be a deliberate process that takes into account elements like timing.
WHY IT MATTERS Strategically timing a listing - deciding precisely when a home hits the market - can help the seller ensure his or her home will draw an ideal amount of attention, Doran says.
Generally, marketing a home around holidays when brokers and buyers are busy is a bad idea, she adds. But deciding when to list a home can be more nuanced. Listing on a Saturday can be less successful than listing on a Wednesday, for example, when brokers are at their desks, monitoring new homes entering the market.
"You'll get a larger audience" midweek, Doran says.
Sellers eager to put their home on the market should consult a real estate professional, Doran says, and, in some cases, consider waiting. Even a few days can make a difference in helping avoid a "flat presentation."
5. Find those occupancy certificates
ADVICE Gather important paperwork before listing a home. Missing certificates of occupancy can be particularly damaging when hoping to close a sale.
WHY IT MATTERS Occupancy certificates - documents from a town certifying building code compliance - are issued after a homeowner constructs a second-floor deck or an in-ground swimming pool, for example. If a homeowner failed to certify such a project, documents will be noticed as missing by the buyer's attorney or another professional involved in the sale at some point during the purchasing process.
Obtaining certification requires a visit from an inspector and can take a significant amount of time, particularly if the project does not meet conditions of the building code.
"In an environment like this, buyers extremely nervous and flighty," says real estate attorney Paul Craco, a partner at Craco & Ellsworth in Huntington. "They are looking for any excuse to ask for renegotiation. Everything you can do to avoid unnecessary bumps in the road is advisable."
6. File an assessment protest, if necessary
ADVICE Keep an eye on the home's tax assessment. Homeowners who feel their home is overassessed should file a protest, says Willets Meyer, a partner specializing in property taxes at the law firm Farrell Fritz in Uniondale.
WHY IT MATTERS A property assessed at a value higher than its perceived market worth can be unattractive for buyers sensitive to tax costs, Meyer says.
In Nassau County, the county assesses properties; town governments handle property assessments in Suffolk.
Buyers can inherit a protest in progress from a seller if the sale goes through before a decision is made. Having a protest in progress can, in fact, be reassuring for a potential buyer, Meyer adds.
"The seller may be off in Florida," Meyer says, "But if he can at least say, 'I started the protest process,' it's going to definitely help him sell the house."
7. Homes should feel lived-in and 'loved'
ADVICE Lastly, sellers should remember to cater to the emotional side of home buying, experts say, by creating a familiar atmosphere and addressing appearance issues before inviting would-be buyers into the home.
WHY IT MATTERS "Oftentimes, people believe that buying a house is an intelligence decision," says Doran, the Daniel Gale broker. "Actually it's very much an emotional decision. It's the feeling they get. Does the house talk to them?"
Displaying fresh flowers when showing the home or popping cookies into the oven are a couple tricks professionals use to make potential buyers feel comfortable, Doran says. Filthy welcome mats and faulty doorbells have the opposite effect, adds Doukas, the home stager. "Repairing your home is loving your home," she explains. "Nobody wants to buy your dirt."