Frequently Asked Questions

All About Buying | All About Selling


All About Buying

This section of ANSWERS® Online is made up of the most frequently asked questions about buying a home. If your questions don't seem to be answered here, you can call Jim Lawson at: (619) 472-5447

What are the advantages of using a real estate agent to help me buy a home?

Buying a home is certainly one of the most rewarding experiences most of us ever have; it's also one of the most challenging. If you're buying for the first time, the process may seem overwhelming. And even if you've been through it several times, every move is different, and presents new challenges.

So one clear advantage of enlisting the help of an agent is simply that you don't have to "go it alone." A good agent has the training, the know-how, and the experience to help you through each step of the process, and make the process of finding, buying and moving into your new home as smooth, quick, and enjoyable as it can be. Another advantage is that an agent represents a valuable source of information about market trends, communities and neighborhoods, and especially, homes for sale throughout the area. Remember, not every home seller runs an ad in the local paper or puts a sign up in the yard. In fact, many of homes actually sell before there is ever a need to advertise them. An agent offers you market expertise augmented by access to complete, regularly updated information about every home listed by area agents through the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). As you'll see in the following several questions, professional expertise and services can be of considerable help throughout the buying process.

Where do I begin the process of looking for a home?

The first thing you should do is begin focusing on what you're looking for in a home. You can start by establishing priorities in the following three areas:

Location: Are you relocating to a new town because of a new job, or to be closer to your current job? How will the location of schools, shops, and transportation affect your choice of neighborhoods?

Personal tastes: How large a home do you need? What style of architecture to you prefer? On what kind of lot? Depending on where you live, you may have a choice of homes in dozens of styles, sizes, and settings.

Budget: How much home is it wise for you to own?

As you consider these areas, do a little research of your own. Look through magazines for ideas about home styles and features. Drive through neighborhoods that appeal to you to see what's available. Read the real estate listings in the newspaper to learn about current prices in the areas you're considering. Talk to friends about the features that you'd really like to have in your home. The more knowledgeable you become, the better your final decision is likely to be.

How do I find the right agent to work with?

The key word here is right. While there's certainly no shortage of qualified agents to choose from, it's important that you find one who can fully understand your wants, needs and individual tastes, and whose personal and professional judgment you respect.

Today's buyers also have more choices when it comes to choosing the agent that can best represent them in a real estate transaction. Until recent years, virtually all real estate agents involved in a given transaction worked for the seller. However, a growing number of today's home buyers are choosing to be represented by a "buyer's agent." In contrast to traditional agents, a buyer's agent represents the buyer in the real estate transaction.

Most real estate companies throughout the United States have both buyer and seller agency. You should be presented with a disclosure statement by an agent before any working relationship between the two of you is created. That statement should explain what a buyer's agent is and does, what a seller's agent is and does, and what dual agency means. It is very important to remember that real estate firms are governed by state laws that can vary, and so disclosure laws also may vary.

We suggest you talk to several different agents before choosing one. We've included a few guidelines about the kind of experience and service capabilities you should be looking for. Above all, look for someone who makes you feel comfortable.

How do I know for sure how much home I can afford?

We've found that affordability is probably the single biggest concern of today's first-time home buyers. Given the wide range of media coverage regularly devoted to the issue, it's not surprising that many young families wonder how long it will take them to afford their first home.

Our advice: Don't sell yourself short. Talk to your real estate agent. A good agent is committed to honestly and responsibly working with you to determine your affordable price range. There are many financing options available today, and some include low down payments. Your agent will help find an option that fits your budget, and you may be surprised at just how much home you can afford.

For tips on various mortgages and more, look in the FINANCING section of this book.

How does buying compare to renting?

Renting offers a lifestyle that's nearly maintenance-free. That may appeal to you, but consider that renting offers you no equity, no tax benefit, and most likely no protection against regular rent increases.

If your rent has averaged $700 a month for the last 10 years, you've spent $84,0000 with nothing to show for it. Isn't it time you invested in yourself instead of your landlord?

Several financing options hold special advantages for first-time buyers or families with limited cash reserves. FHA-insured and VA-guaranteed mortgages can minimize or even eliminate your down payment. You may also consider a lease-purchase agreement, or borrow cash for a down payment from life insurance, profit-sharing or retirement account.

In addition to tax deductions you'll likely receive that can partially offset the cost of real estate taxes, insurance and home maintenance, your home may appreciate in value. Say you purchase a home that costs $100,000. If property increases in value a meager 2% each year, your potential appreciation in just two years is nearly $4,200. And thanks to recent changes to the tax code, but subject to certain restrictions up to 250K/500K if married filing jointly, the profit you make when you sell the house is tax free as long as you own the property for a minimum of 24 months.

Where can I get information about local schools?

Again, a good real estate agent is perhaps your best source. They know where the local schools are, and can provide you with valuable information about school districts, including test scores, extracurricular activities, bus service and more. If you're relocating, an agent may even be able to put you in touch with teachers and principals when you visit the area. And if you want to do a little searching on your own, the Internet may also be a good place to start. JCLproperties.com has a special links to Neighborhood Information including information about area school districts.

How can I find out what homes are selling for in a given neighborhood?

In most areas, home sales are a matter of public record -- you can get all the information you want about recent sales, including prices and listing times, by calling the county Recorder of deeds. Complete reports and additional information are available at local our Office.

An easier way is to ask your real estate agent. If you're interested in a particular home, an agent may be able to provide you with a list of comparables -- sale prices of homes in your area that are roughly the same size and age as the home you're considering. Although there will certainly be some differences between the homes -- the house next door may have an extra bedroom, or the one down the block may be older than the one you're looking at -- it's a good way to evaluate the seller's asking price.

How can I find out what my property tax bill will be?

Usually, the total amount of the previous year's property taxes is included on the listing information sheet for the home you're interested in. If not, ask to see the seller's receipt.

Remember, tax rates change from year to year, so the previous year's bill should be considered simply as a "ballpark" figure of what you would pay. For a more precise projection, call the local assessor's office for assistance, or ask your real estate agent.

If I'm moving a considerable distance, is there any way I can screen homes before I start traveling?

Yes. Today's Multiple Listing Service -- which include up to 90% or more of the homes listed in any given community -- have made it relatively easy for buyers to access detailed information on homes for sale practically anywhere in the country.

Real estate listings and ads seem to have a language all their own. What do all those abbreviations mean?

Abbreviations are a necessity in real estate advertising because so much information must be communicated in so little space. Some common abbreviations and their meanings:

BAbath
bltbuilt-in
BRbedroom
brkbrick
bkporchback porch
bldrs redobuilder's renovation
CACcentral air conditioning
DRdining room
dkdeck
FHA/VAqualifies for FHA/VA financing
fin llfinished lower level
fmlformal
fplfireplace
FRfamily room
FROGfinished room over garage
FSBOfor sale by owner
gmt kitchengourmet kitchen
ingrd poolinground pool
LRliving room
mstrmaster bedroom/suite
mtgmortgage
pvcy fenceprivacy fence
scc syssecurity system
scrnd porchscreened porch
THtownhouse
txstaxes
wbfpwood burning fireplace
w/owalk-out
u/g sprkunderground sprinkler system
ydyard

If you run across any other abbreviations or terms you don't understand, don't be embarrassed -- after all, you don't buy a home every day. For quick help, check the glossary of real estate terms in the back of this book. Or simply contact our local office -- we will be happy to "translate" for you.

When I start visiting homes, what should I be looking for the first time through?

The house you ultimately choose to call home will play a major role in your family's life. A home can be an excellent investment, of course, but more importantly, it should fit the way you really live, with spaces and features that appeal to everyone in the family.

As you look at each home, pay close attention to these important considerations:

  • Is there enough room for you now, and in the near future?
  • Is the home's floor plan right for your family?
  • Is there enough storage space?
  • Will you have to replace the appliances?
  • Is the yard the size that you want?
  • Are there enough bathrooms?
  • How much maintenance and/or decorating will you need to do right away? Later?
  • Will your present furniture work in this home?

How many bedrooms should I be considering?

Whether you are married or not, or have kids or not, spare bedrooms come in handy when family and friends come to stay. And when you're not having guests, extra rooms are useful as a library, den, or TV room.

Another good reason to choose a home with extra bedrooms: Extra space will make your home more appealing to a larger number of interested buyers when it comes time to sell.

Is an older home as good a value as a new home?

It's a matter of personal preference. Both new and older homes offer distinct advantage, depending upon your unique taste and lifestyle.

New homes generally have more space in the rooms where today's families do their living, like a family room or activity area. They're usually easier to maintain, too.

However, many homes built years ago offer more total space for the money, as well as larger yards. Taxes on some older homes may also be lower.

Some people are charmed by the elegance of an older home but shy away because they're concerned about potential maintenance costs. Consider a home warranty to get the peace of mind you deserve. The Fidelity Home Warranty Plan protects you against unexpected repairs on many home systems and appliances for a full year or more after you move in.

What do I need to bring along when I'm looking at homes?

Bring your own:
  • Notebook and pen for note-taking
  • Flashlight for seeing enclosed areas
  • Tape measure for checking room sizes, clearance, etc.
Be prepared to "snoop around" a little. After all, you want to know as much as possible about the home you buy. Sellers understand that because their home is on the market, it will be looked over pretty thoroughly.

If you need to go back to a home for another look, your agent will be happy to schedule an appointment. Also, be sure to ask any questions you have about the home, even if you feel you're being nosy. You have a right to know.

What should I ask about each home that I look at?

As a rule of thumb, ask any questions you have about specific rooms, features, or functions. Pay particular attention to areas that you feel could become "problem" areas -- additions, defects, areas that have been repaired. And above all, if you don't feel your question has been answered, ask until you do understand and are satisfied.

In most cases, your real estate agent will be able to provide you with detailed information about each home you see. Or, use the following home features worksheet to note room sizes, features that need a second look, and other comments.

What should I tell the agent I'm working with about the homes I look at?

Tell the agent everything you liked and didn't like about each home you see. Don't be shy about talking about a home's shortcomings. Is the home too small for your needs? Let the agent know. Was the home perfect except for the carpeting? Let the agent know.

However, remember that the real estate agent is frequently paid by and working for the seller. The seller's agent is obligated to help secure the best price for the seller. In addition, agent's working for the seller may also report any confidences you share to the seller - including any willingness to pay a higher price should the seller not accept your initial offer(s). This is why you may want to be represented by a buyer's agent because he/she will keep your input confidential. A buyer's agent puts the interests of the buyer - not the seller - first.

How many homes should I look at before I buy?

There is no set number of homes you should look at before you decide to make an offer on one. That's why providing the agent with as many details as possible up front is so helpful. The perfect home may be waiting for you on your first visit. Even if it isn't, the house-hunting process will help you get a feeling for the homes in the community and narrow your choices to a few homes that are worth a second look.

If you're looking in more than one community, try to make the most of each house-hunting trip. Stop by the local chamber of commerce to pick up promotional literature about the community. Or ask the agent for welcome kits, maps, and information about schools, churches, and recreational facilities. Also, be sure to take along a camera and snap some pictures of all the homes you like. That will make it easier to remember and reach a decision.

How do I know I'm getting the best value for my money?

A professional appraisal is the best way to tell if a home is priced fairly. A real estate appraisal is an unbiased opinion of a property's value based on its style and appearance, construction quality, usefulness, and other factors, including the value of comparable properties nearby. When you apply for a mortgage, the lender will have a professional real estate appraiser perform an appraisal of the property.

I'd like to have a professional look at the home before I buy it. What does a home inspector do?

For your own safety, and to make sure you're getting your money's worth in the home you choose, using a professional home inspector is highly recommended. A home inspector will check a home's plumbing, heating and cooling, electrical systems, and look for structural problems, like a damp or leaky basement.

Usually, you call an inspector immediately after you've made an offer on a home. However, before you sign any written offer, make sure (or have your attorney make sure) that it includes an inspection clause or other language which says that your purchase obligation is contingent on the findings of a professional home inspector.

Your home cannot "pass" or "fail" an inspection, and your inspector will not tell you whether he or she thinks the home is worth the money you are offering. The inspector's job is to make you aware of repairs that are recommended or necessary. A seller may be willing to renegotiate a price to accommodate needed repairs, or you may decide that the home will take too much work and money. A professional inspection will help you make a clear-headed decision.

In choosing a home inspector, consider one that has been certified as a qualified and experienced member by a trade association. Your real estate agent may refer you to qualified inspectors in your area.

Should I be present during the inspection?

Yes. It's not required, but it is very much to your advantage. You'll be able to clearly understand the inspection report, and know exactly which areas need attention. Plus, you can get answers to many questions, tips for maintenance, and a lot of general information that will help you when you move into your new home. Most important, you'll see the home through the eyes of an objective third party.

Are there any other inspections I need to have done?

In addition to the overall inspection, you may wish to have separate tests conducted to check for termites, or the presence of radon gas. Talk to your real estate agent for information about these tests, and companies in the area that perform them.

Do I need to talk to my insurance agent?

Yes, and the sooner, the better. Most insurance professionals have a lot of experience in working with home owners, and can offer useful tips about home ownership, particularly regarding home safety and keeping your premiums low.

Once you've found a home, work together to develop a homeowner's policy that meets your individual insurance needs. You'll need to bring evidence of a fully-paid policy for your mortgage lender when you come to closing.

When I've found the home I like, how do I make an offer?

When you've found a special house you want to call home, you'll probably feel excited and a bit nervous. Let the agent know you're ready to write an "offer to purchase" --- a written document that declares how much you will pay for the home provided that certain conditions are met. Because it's a legally binding contract that you will sign and date, it may be a good idea to have a lawyer review it before you sign, or within the grace period noted in the contract.

This is the time when it is most important for you to keep in mind that the agent is the agent of the seller (unless you are working with a "buyer's agent"). As the legal agent of the seller, the agent is obligated to help the seller get the best price and he will report to the seller any confidence you share.

It's best to make your offer without sharing with the agent your willingness to offer any higher price if the seller does not accept your offer.

Your offer should have a time limit for the sellers to accept, reject it, or make a counter-offer. If a counter-offer is made, you'll have some time to respond. Often, several offers go back and forth until an offer is accepted, or one party decides to end negotiations.

How do I determine the amount of my initial offer?

There is really no rule to use in calculating a realistic offer. Naturally, the buyer wants the best value and the seller want the best price, but negotiations can be influenced by many factors, such as a seller who may be changing jobs and wants to sell quickly, or a buyer who really wants a specific home.

After you've looked at the home's features, asked questions, checked comparables, and talked about it with your agent, you should have a good idea of what the home's value is in the current market. Consider what you can afford, and make an offer that you consider to be fair.

Most buyers and sellers negotiate on price, with both sides "giving" a little until both agree.

At that point, you typically will begin the process of arranging for an inspection and applying for a mortgage. See the FINANCING section for more information.

What's "earnest money" and how much do I need?

When you sign an offer to purchase, your agent will ask you for earnest money --- that is, money that shows you are serious about wanting to buy. Usually, you will be asked to write a check for 1% to 10% of the sale price. This money will be held in a special escrow account. If your offer is accepted, your earnest money will be included as part of your down payment. If your offer is not accepted, you'll get back all your earnest money. But keep in mind that if you back out, you may forfeit the full amount.

Is there any way I can protect myself against emergency repair bills in my new home?

Yes. Home warranties offer you protection against many potentially costly problems not covered by your homeowner's insurance. They've become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason: the coverage can save you thousands in the event of a major mechanical breakdown, at a time when your cash reserves have been depleted by your down payment and moving expenses.

There's so much to remember before I close. What do I have to do?

Your agent can help you with many of these items:
  • Are all the necessary inspections complete?
  • Are all the required repairs complete?
  • When will you conduct your final walk-through inspection?
  • Is your attorney satisfied that title to the property is clear (no one else has a claim on it)?
  • Have you confirmed a date, time, and place for your closing?
  • Who will conduct the closing?
  • Is your insurance policy paid and ready to go into effect the day you close? You'll need a receipt for proof.
  • What form of check should you use (and who should it be made out to) to pay for the closing costs?
  • Has your closing agent told you the closing amount?
  • Do you have receipts for the items you have already paid for, including your deposit and inspection fees?
  • Bring your checkbook to cover any last minute extras that might have been overlooked.

What should I look for on my final walk-through?

In most cases, you'll be given the opportunity to inspect the home immediately prior to closing. At this time, it's important to check on any work the seller agreed to have done in response to your initial inspection. You should also carefully check the condition of walls and ceilings from which window treatments, pictures, or any other attached furnishings have been removed. If you find any problems, don't hesitate to bring them up at the closing. It's the seller's responsibility to correct them.

What will happen on closing day?

  1. The lender's agent will ask for your paid home insurance policy.
  2. The agent will list the adjustments. These include the money you owe the seller (the remainder of the down payment, prepaid taxes) and what the seller owes you (unpaid taxes, prepaid rent).
  3. You will sign the mortgage. This gives the lender legal rights to the property if you don't make your payments.
  4. You will sign the mortgage note, the promise to repay the loan in regular monthly payments.
  5. You will get title from the seller in the form of a signed deed.
  6. The lender's agent will collect the closing costs from you and give you a settlement statement of all the items you have paid for.
  7. The deed and mortgage will be recorded in the town or county Registry of Deeds.

Is there anything I should do immediately after closing?

The first thing you'll want to do is have the locks changed. Also, put your deed and other important paperwork from the closing in a secure place, preferably a safe deposit box. Even though it's all on file with the county, it's smart to know where your copies are and have access to them at all times.

Should I move myself or use a moving company?

In almost every case, you can save yourself time and energy by using a reputable moving company to help you move.

Ask your agent, friends, and co-workers for recommendations, then get estimates from several companies. Don't choose a mover based on price alone -- consider the reputation and professionalism of the company, too.

Work closely with the moving company to coordinate your efforts and your move will be achieved with maximum efficiency.

Can an agent help with the move itself?

Yes. Most agent are more than willing to offer advice and assistance to new homeowners; all you have to do is ask.
 


All About Buying | All About Selling


All About Selling

If you're ready to sell your home and want some professional help, or you simply want some answers about the process, you've come to the right place. ANSWERS® Online was created with you in mind. This section provides questions and answers about selling your home. If you'd like some personal attention, you can call us at (619) 472-5447.

Can I sell my house myself?

Many people believe they can save a considerable amount of money by selling on their own. They look at the average commission on a house, and remember stories of friends or relatives who managed to get through the process with seemingly little trouble. "People sell their own homes," they say - "so why can't I?"

Right now, over 10% of American homeowners handle their own sales. But in order to join the ranks of the successful ones, you need to realistically assess exactly what's involved. The routine parts of the job involve pricing your house accurately, determining whether or not a buyer is qualified, creating and paying for your own advertising, familiarizing yourself with enough basic real estate regulations to understand (and possibly even prepare) a real estate contract, and coordinating the details of a closing. The greatest downsides are the fact your house is only on the market when you're home, and the possibility that a mistake may cost you the money you're trying to save.

The best reason for working with real estate broker is the enormous amount of information they have at their disposal -- information that can help make your house sell faster and easier. Professionals know about market trends, houses in your neighborhood, and the people most likely to buy there. They also know how to reach the largest number of people who may be interested in your house, and are trained in areas like screening potential buyers and negotiating with them. Finally, they're always "on-call," and willing to do the things most of us hate: working on the weekends, answering the phone at all hours, and always being polite about it.

What makes a house sell?

This entire site could be devoted to answering this question. But to be as concise as possible, a successful sale requires that you concentrate on five considerations: your price, terms, condition, location, and exposure. Since you can't control all of them, you may have to overcompensate in one or more areas to offset a competitive disadvantage in another.

When is the best time to list a house for sale?

As soon as you decide to sell it.

If you want to get the best price for your house, the key is to give yourself as much time as possible to sell it. More time means more potential buyers will probably see the house. This should result in more offers; it also gives you time to consider more options if the market is slow or initial interest is low.

Is there any seasonality to the market?

Peak selling seasons vary in different areas of the country, and weather has a lot to do with it. For example, late spring and early fall are the prime listing seasons in many areas because houses tend to "show" better in those months than they do in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. And of course, people like to do their house shopping when the weather is pleasant.

But keep in mind that there are also more houses on the market during the prime seasons, so you'll have more competition. So while there is seasonality in the real estate market, it's not something that should dominate your decision on when to sell.

What about market conditions -- price trends, interest rates, and the economy in general? Should they have any bearing on when I list?

Probably not. Even if you're under no pressure to sell, waiting for better market conditions is not likely to increase your profit potential.

How long should it take to sell?

Average listing times vary from 30 to 180 days, according to market conditions in a particular region, town, or even neighborhood; and of course, price, terms, condition, location and exposure play an even greater role. Selling in any market is easier if you keep time on your side. Most professionals will tell you that allowing yourself at least six months will put you in a position to get a better return from their marketing efforts.

What if I can't sell my old house before we have to move?

This situation can arise for any number of reasons. For instance, getting the job promotion you've been waiting for may mean having to relocate very quickly. Another example: you finally find your "dream home," and need to get it under contract before it sells to another buyer. Whatever the reason, don't panic. You have some viable alternatives to the potential nightmare of double mortgage payments.

If you don't have to sell in order to buy a new home, renting is one option to think about. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of renting your old house. If you're being transferred, you may be able to obtain a short-term rental while you're becoming familiar with the new area. Either way, a local broker can usually help, by advising you how much you can expect to pay for rent in your new city, or what you need to charge to cover your mortgage payments and other costs you'll entail as a landlord.

Another solution available from some brokers is the guaranteed sale plan, which is detailed in the next question.

What if I do have to sell my old house first?

Some brokers offer guaranteed sale plans, which are essentially a written promise to buy your house at a pre-determined price if it doesn't sell by a certain date. The amount of the guaranteed price varies considerably between brokers.

How do I price my house?

In a word, realistically.

Today's residential real estate market is no place to look for easy profit. The fact is, prices have generally leveled off from their peak during the 1980's. That's not to say you can't get what your house is worth. You just have to be realistic about its value, and price it accordingly. A good place to start is by determining the fair market value.

What is "fair market value," and how do I determine mine?

Simply put, the fair market value of a house is the highest price an informed buyer will pay, assuming there is no unusual pressure to complete the purchase. It is usually not the asking price.

To get an estimate of fair market value, contact Jim, at our local Office and ask for a Competitive Market Analysis (CMA) of your house. We will provide this service free of any charge, without obligation.

The analysis will give you a realistic figure based on the most salient points of the local real estate market. It should provide information about recent sales of similar houses, including how much they sold for and how long it took. The broker's price opinion is very helpful in determining the right asking price.

What's the difference between fair market value and asking price?

Generally speaking, the owner's asking price -- the advertised price of a house when it goes on the market -- is set slightly higher than fair market value. You can assume that some negotiation will be necessary to reach an agreement with a buyer. In most cases, the agent who presents you with the results of your CMA will be willing to help you establish a competitive pricing strategy.

Who can help me determine the right asking price?

Real estate sales agents suggest asking prices based on a wide array of information you may not have at your disposal, including recent listing and selling prices of houses in your neighborhood. If you're not completely confident in their suggestions, you may want to order an appraisal.

Next, establish clear priorities. If you had to choose, are you more concerned with selling quickly, or getting the most money possible?

Someone else -- a neighbor, friend or relative -- may point out advantages or disadvantages about your house that you hadn't thought about. Third-party views will help you start thinking of your house as a commodity, with positive and negative selling points. Then you should decide on a price that you feel is competitive and consistent with what other houses in your area have sold for.

How flexible should I be about the asking price?

Most buyers also leave room for negotiation when they make an offer. Thus, a certain degree of flexibility is usually called for on the part of both the buyer and seller.

While it is ultimately your decision to accept or reject an offer, or present a counter-proposal, a good agent can be of great assistance to you during the negotiating process. In fact, negotiation is one of the valuable skills an agent can offer you. As negotiations proceed -- whether in writing, face-to-face, or by phone -- your agent should inform you of your options in responding to each offer from the buyer. Even without such advice, a cool, rational manner in what is often a long, emotionally-charged process will usually net you a significantly higher price.

Should I fix my house up before it goes on the market?

Unless your house is nearly new, chances are you'll want to do some work to get it ready to market. The type and amount of work depends largely on the price you're asking, the time you have to sell, and of course, the present condition of the house.

If you're in a hurry to sell, do the "little things" that make your house look better from the outside and show better inside. Read on for several specific ideas for making low-cost improvements.

What is "curb appeal," and how do I create it?

"Curb-Appeal" is the common real estate term for everything prospective buyers can see from the street that might make them want to turn in and take a look. Improving curb appeal is critical to generating traffic. While it does take time, it needn't be difficult or expensive, provided you keep two key words in mind: neat and neutral.

Neatness sells. New paint, an immaculate lawn, picture-perfect shrubbery, a newly sealed driveway, potted plants at the front door -- put them all together, and drive-by shoppers will probably want to see the rest of the house.

Hand in hand with neatness is neutrality. If you're going to repaint, stick to light, neutral colors. Keep the yard free of gardening tools and the kids' toys. Remember, when a family looks at a house, they're trying to paint a picture of what it would be like as their home. You want to give them as clean a canvas as possible.

What should I do to make the house show better?

First, make your house look as clean and spacious as possible. Remember, people may look behind your doors -- closet and crawlspace doors as well as those to the bedrooms and bathrooms. So get rid of all the clutter; have that garage sale and haul away the leftovers.

After you've cleaned, try to correct any cosmetic flaws you've noticed. Paint rooms that need it, regrout tile walls and floors, remove or replace any worn-out carpets. Replace dated faucets, light fixtures, and the handles and knobs on your kitchen drawers and cabinets.

Finally, as with the outside of your house, try to make it easy for prospective buyers to imagine your house as their home. Clear as much from your walls, shelves, and countertops as you can. Give your prospects plenty of room to dream.

Should I make any major home improvements?

Certain home improvements that are useful to almost everyone have been proven to add value and/or speed the sale of houses. These include adding central air conditioning to the heating system, building a deck or patio, basement finishing, some kitchen remodeling (updating colors on cabinets, countertops, appliances, panels, etc.), and new floor and/or wall coverings, especially in bathrooms. Improvements that return less than what they cost are generally items that appeal to personal tastes, like adding fireplaces, wet bars, and swimming pools, or converting the garage into an extra room.

The challenge that comes with any home improvement designed to help sell your house is recouping your investment. There's always the risk of over-improving your house -- that is, putting more money into it than neighborhood prices will support.

So how much is too much? Professional renovators have found that, no matter how much you improve any given house, you're unlikely to sell it for more than 15% above the median price of other houses in the neighborhood, whether you do $1,000 worth of work or $50,000. That's why you might want to ask your agent's opinion about the viability of recouping the cost of any major renovation you have in mind before you start the work.

Should I do the work myself?

If you have the time and talent, do-it-yourself improvements are the most cost-effective way to go. Painting, wallpapering, replacing cracked trim and old plumbing fixtures -- the difference between work done by a competent amateur and a professional is usually time and money. Just make sure you don't tackle something you can't handle -- this is no time for "on-the-job training!" If you're not experienced, it may be worth calling in a professional.

Larger jobs involving mechanical systems (heating, electrical, plumbing, etc.) or work that must meet local building codes are another story. Even if you or the family handyman know exactly what you're doing, it's not a good idea to engage in this type of work unless you're licensed to do so. Your efforts could make you responsible for more than you realize if something you worked on goes wrong after you sell.

Am I liable for repairs after I sell?

In certain situations. If the buyer's reveals major problems with your house's structure or mechanical systems (heating, electrical, plumbing, etc.), the buyer may wish to negotiate the price downward on the basis of anticipated repair costs. So even though the repairs won't be made until after the sale, practically speaking, you'll be paying for them.

Sometimes, repairs may be required before the transfer of title takes place. This is especially true in sales that involve financing that's insured or guaranteed by the government (FHA/VA loans, for example).

You may have also heard about lawsuits involving sellers who failed to disclose major problems before the sale -- like an addition to the house that wasn't built to code. Most states now maintain very specific disclosure laws that require sellers to disclose any pertinent information relative to the condition of the property. For example, most states require sellers to notify buyers about the presence of any lead-based paint. It is important for you to be knowledgeable about your state's disclosure laws.

These are just a few good reasons to retain a lawyer or agent who knows as much about the condition of your property as you do. It's also a good idea to get the buyer's written acknowledgment of any major problems when you accept their offer.

What about home warranties? Are they available to sellers as well as buyers?

Yes they are, and they're worth investigating. It's our belief that an Home Protection Plan is one of the best selling points you can add to your house. In fact, a 1996 survey conducted by an independent market research company shows that houses covered by the Home Protection Plan sell an average of 15 days faster than comparable houses without the protection.

It's easy to see why. After a buyer has invested substantial cash savings in a down payment and moving expenses, the last thing they want to worry about is a costly home repair. With the Home Protection Plan, they don't have to.

The warranty offers protection for you and your buyer, covering repair or replacement costs for breakdowns to most major systems and built-in appliances up to a year or more after the date of closing. In many states, there is no additional cost for coverage to sellers who provide coverage for their buyers except for a small deductible if you make a claim. And when you consider the returns -- a quicker sale, a better chance of selling, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing 24-hour emergency service is always just a phone call away -- it's hard to imagine a better investment.

How do I reach the right potential buyers?

There was a time when selling a house was simple. Your real estate agent would put a sign in the front yard, an ad in the paper, and wait.

Of course, agents still do those things -- but that's far from all they do. Today, people are moving further and more frequently than they used to; it's not unusual for upwardly mobile executives to relocate across the country more than once in a year. The result is that the pool of potential buyers for your house is much larger and spread far wider than ever before, and the competition to reach them is fierce.

Because you'll probably need to cast a wider net to find the right buyer, choosing a real estate company that offers the sophisticated marketing techniques that define likely buyers, where to find them, how to reach them, and how to persuade them to buy one house over another has never been more important. The fact is, virtually everything we've discussed up to this point, from pricing to home improvements, the Competitive Market Analysis to the "For Sale" sign in the yard, is part of a marketing process that's put into motion when you decide to work with a good broker.

What's an MLS®, and why do I need one?

A Multiple Listing Service, or MLS, is one innovation that makes it easier to reach a large number of prospective buyers and dramatically increase the exposure of a property.

Quite simply, it's a system under which participating brokers agree to share commission on the sale of houses listed by any one of them. So, for example, if you list your house with one broker and another broker actually sells it, they share the commission. The advantage to you is clear; more people have an interest in selling your house.

Over the years, the MLS concept has grown from a strictly local sales tool into a powerful national marketing system. That's due largely to the Real Estate industry, whose pioneering use of the fax machine led to the development of the nation's first, and still the largest, interstate shared listing system.

How important is advertising?

Advertising remains one of the most important components of the marketing process. But again, it's not as simple as it used to be, at least not in the hands of a good broker.

Many people don't realize how costly advertising can be -- a single page of photo listing ads run by a local real estate office in your local newspaper can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Yet it's a far more cost-effective way to go than the three or four-line classified ad you would probably run you were selling the house yourself. Here's why:

Your classified ad requires a prospective buyer to find it amidst the dozens of others on the page, and be impressed enough by its message to call in response. In contrast, the broker's ad is designed to "find the buyer" -- with its large size and easy-to-read layout, the eye-catching photographs and professionally written descriptions, plus the fact that it includes not just one, but several houses for sale.

How does the inclusion of other houses benefit yours? The power of numbers, plain and simple. Fewer than 5 % of buyers actually purchase the first house they call about. When they call to respond to the broker's ad, on the other hand, they're likely to be shown a number of houses similar to the one they initially express interest in seeing.

And that's just advertising in the local newspaper. Brokers today, especially larger ones, employ a variety of other proven advertising methods, including the Internet, magazines, radio, TV, and direct mail.

What should we expect from an open house?

As another valuable part of the marketing process, the open house offers prospective buyers the chance to view houses in a low-pressure, "browsing" atmosphere. With that in mind, you shouldn't expect it to generate a sale, at least not directly. What you should look for is traffic, and calls to your agent for private showings in the days following the open house.

Open houses are always valuable, even if very few people show up. Such a situation can indicate that the price is too high; it may also lead you to look for ways to improve curb-appeal. Try not to draw your own conclusions -- your agent will give you a full report on open house activity, and offer a professional assessment of its results.

Agents often hold an open house for other agents shortly after a house is listed. This event, usually held mid-week when real estate people can give it their full attention, can be as important to your efforts as your listing in the local MLS. The more professionals who see your house, the more prospects you're likely to reach.

Should we try to avoid being at home when the house is shown?

You should definitely plan to be out of the house during any open house your agent has scheduled; the same goes for first showings to prospective buyers. People often feel uncomfortable speaking candidly and asking questions in front of current owners. You want them to feel as free as possible to picture your house as their "dream home."

Who actually sells my house -- a broker or an agent?

Both. In legal terms, a real estate agent is an individual trained and licensed to act for other people looking to buy or sell a piece of property. While that definition applies to both broker is permitted to collect fees and/or commission for such work. Thus, the sale agent -- with whom you have most of your day-to-day contact -- works on behalf of, and is compensated by, the broker.

Will my agent be present at the closing?

If you wish. While their presence is not required by law, both the buying agent and the selling agent may attend the closing. Even though most of the procedures are handled by the lenders, title companies and in some cases an attorney, you'll find your agent to be a valuable source of information and counsel, especially if any last-minute problems arise.

Good agents are also extremely helpful in the days immediately prior to the closing. They'll help you prepare by giving you a step-by-step preview of the entire process and what will be expected of you. And they'll make certain you bring all necessary documents and other information.

What makes a sales agent effective?

We like to think good training and experience make the best agents. But the truth is, not every agent is right for every seller. And that's why we suggest you follow this simple formula to help you decide whether a particular agent will work well for you:

COMPETENCE + COMFORT = CONFIDENCE

Competence: When you first meet with real estate agents, they'll do their best to show you that they have what it takes to sell your house. You can expect to see a portfolio of credentials, past achievements, sales volume and letters of recommendation. Look for evidence that their background is relevant to your needs -- someone whose portfolio includes success with houses in your price range, preferably in your immediate neighborhood.

Comfort: The importance of being comfortable with your agent as a person cannot be overstated. You're going to be dealing with this individual on a regular basis, maybe for months, during a time that can be emotionally trying for you and your family. Indeed, your agent may well become something of a family member, who shares in the tension, anticipation, frustration, and ultimately the joy of selling your house.

It takes a unique combination of those two characteristics to inspire the confidence a homeowner needs to maintain peace of mind through the process of selling a house. It's something every agent strives for. "Just the kind of help you'd expect from a friend"® is more than a slogan. It's our way of doing business.

How do I find the agent that's right for me?

A good place to start is by talking to friends, neighbors, relatives -- anyone whose recommendation you trust.

Another way to find an agent well-suited to sell your house specifically is by responding to local advertising from agents -- such as those "just sold" mailings you find in your mailbox from time to time. The very existence of such self-marketing efforts suggests that they may have more to offer you than the agent who picks up the phone when you call the local real estate office.

What is the advantage of an exclusive right-to-sell?

The answer is incentive -- it affords agents the protection they need to know their time and effort will not go unrewarded. That's one reason the great majority of residential listings are marketed under exclusive right-to-sell agreements.

What if my agent doesn't produce?

Besides commission, the most important matter you negotiate at the time of listing your house with a broker is the duration of the listing contract. Terms vary, but listing agreements are seldom for less than three months or greater than one year.

So what if you find yourself dissatisfied midway through a nine-month contract?

While the listing contract is legally binding, some brokers offer homeowners an "out" if they are unhappy with the services they are receiving. Our Commitment to Service is one example

Why list my house with an Realtor?

Exclusive services that can make selling your house faster and easier, unparalleled expertise in local and national markets -- those are some of the reasons why no one can sell your house more effectively than an Realtor.

Beyond that, we're sincerely interested in helping make the experience of selling your home as smooth and easy as possible. So even if you're not ready to list your house quite yet ... if you simply have questions about the market in your area, price or mortgage trends, anything at all about real estate as it relates to you ... just pick up your phone and call our office. It's "Just the kind of help you'd expect from a friend."

 
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