By Susan Johnston, U.S. News & World Report Dec. 3, 2013
When Shannon Stell and her husband decided to sell their Yorktown, Va., home this summer, they ran the numbers and discovered that the small amount of equity they built up during two years of homeownership would be wiped out once they paid an agent’s commission. Instead, they chose the “for sale by owner” route (or FSBO), and uploaded a listing and photos online with the help of a website called forsalebyowner.com. They gave one showing – to someone who was also selling a home nearby and perhaps wanted to scope out the competition, so Stell doesn’t count that showing – and announced an open house through the neighborhood’s Facebook page.
A neighbor’s daughter and her family stopped by the open house that weekend and on Monday morning, they made an offer. Both parties hired their own real estate attorneys to prepare closing documents, and Stell says the process went smoothly. “It was only on the market for 20 days when we accepted the offer,” she says. “We’ve got that down payment that we didn’t have to pay to a Realtor.”
Forsalebyowner.com is one of several websites that let consumers list their properties on the Multiple Listing Service, or mls.com, instead of paying a real estate professional to do it for them. Eddie Tyner, general manager of forsalebyowner.com, says the website has seen listings grow by 14 percent in the past year. “If a person has the time and willingness to invest in the process, we believe that almost anybody could do this,” he says. “The benefits are pretty substantial.”
Beyond saving on commission (5 or 6 percent is typical when both parties have an agent), Tyner says FSBO gives homeowners more control over negotiating price and other factors. “If you take out the person in the middle and you’re able to negotiate with the actual buyer, you’re the only two people who have an interest in it,” he says. “If you add other people, some of their interests get put into the equation.”
Jane Hodges, author of “Rent vs. Own: A Real Estate Reality Check for Navigating Booms, Busts, and Bad Advice,” offers a different point of view. “Most people choose to FSBO because they want to keep as much of their post-sale proceeds as possible,” she says. “However, the Realtor argument against this is that a good Realtor can get you sufficiently more for your sale, or accomplish the sale faster, such that their fee and your higher sale price still wash out in a way where you make the same or better money.”
Sellers sometimes grumble that their agent set the price too low because the agent wanted to move the property quickly. Then again, agents often know the local real estate market, and sellers sometimes have unreasonable expectations about what their home is worth. “We recommend that people view this as a business transaction and try as hard as they can to keep that mindset,” Tyner says. “If they don’t [set a reasonable price] they’re not going to sell their house.”
Nowadays, data about recent sales and comparable properties is readily available online if you’re willing to sort through it, which perhaps explains why FSBO listings are becoming more common. “If you live in a neighborhood where there are lots of very similar properties, such as a gated community where homes come in only a handful of flavors and sizes, and there’s been some turnover,” Hodges says, “it’s easy to present your property as one with direct comps and rationalize your pricing.”
Of course, if a property is priced too high, it’s likely to sit on the market. “The longer a home sits on the market, regardless of listing type, the more ‘smell’ the listing gets on it,” Hodges says. Setting a realistic price from the beginning can prevent the potential stigma associated with a property that sits on the market for long periods of time.
Even if a buyer is interested in a property, a mortgage company won’t approve the transaction if the property appraises too far below the expected price. Kim Schnick discovered this over the summer when she sold her home FSBO in Omaha, Neb. “I thought maybe the price was too high, but I went for it anyway and I got an offer in six days,” she says. Then the mortgage company’s appraisal came in $6,000 below the offered price, so she had to adjust the price.
If you’re unsure what price is reasonable for the market and your property, Tyner suggests paying a few hundred dollars to have an appraisal done. The mortgage company may send an appraiser, but your own appraisal can give you a starting point.
Depending on your situation, you may also decide to hire a professional photographer or stager to make your home look as appealing as possible. And in some states, it may be appropriate to hire an attorney for the closing. “You can decide which parts of the process you’re comfortable with and where you need to bring in someone to help you,” Tyner says.
Once you’ve priced your home and uploaded your listing, you’ll need to get ready for showings. “The most important part of showings is making sure you’re really open on the times that you’re willing to show it,” Tyner says. “Buyers are going to want to see the house when they’re not working, often on evenings or weekends.” Stell says chatting with prospective buyers at the open house was the most awkward part of the process, “knowing they’re probably not going to say what they’re thinking.” In Schnick’s case, the buyers’ agents handled showings. “I left the house, and they brought their clients through,” she says.
If buyers use an agent, they’ll typically expect the seller to pay the agent’s commission. “If you’re unwilling to do this, you may not find many buyers wandering through the door, so decide how much you’ll pay, percentagewise or dollarwise, to the buyer’s agent,” Hodge says.
FSBO sales require more seller involvement, but Schnick and Stell say it was worth the extra effort. “I saved myself thousands of dollars,” says Schnick, who coincidentally bought a FSBO property as her next home (although she used a buyer’s agent). “I hope I don’t have to move again for a long time, but if I did, I would do it again.”