Selling a house? What to do now

Real estate agent Teresa Sifferman ticks off the virtues of an Everett home she is trying to sell: the cathedral entryway, the chef’s kitchen, the big yard, the designer colors, the coffered ceilings in the formal dining room.

A year ago, this squeaky-clean home probably would have garnered multiple offers and a quick sale at the original $469,000 asking price.

Now it’s a different story.

The home has lingered on the market for more than two months, even after the real estate agent dropped the asking price three times, a reduction of $40,000.

Sifferman, who ran an advertising agency for 15 years, is trying every trick in her marketing repertoire to get some potential buyers in the door, including holding open houses with doughnuts, coffee and root beer floats before and after school to entice parents driving by.

She’s generated interest, but no offers so far.

“Sellers are getting panicky, slashing prices and taking lower offers — that’s what I’m seeing in Snohomish County,” said Sifferman, an agent at Prudential MacPherson’s Real Estate in Lynnwood. “At our weekly sales meetings agents are saying open houses are dead, buyers aren’t showing up.”

Welcome to a buyer’s market in Snohomish County, a place with ample choices and more negotiating clout for buyers and a reality check for sellers expecting quick, easy sales at top prices.

“Two and three years ago, the sales prices used to be the starting point. Now it’s the ending point,” said Nathan Gorton, executive officer for the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors.

The change in the market isn’t a meltdown — it’s a return to normalcy after a blistering hot market, he said. In Snohomish County, home values are still going up, just not at double-digit rates. The median priced home and condominiums in the county gained 3 percent to 6 percent from this same time last year, he said.

Single-family homes alone gained about 2.6 percent in value in the county from this September to last, while condominiums appreciated about 9 percent, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which keeps sales data.

Inventory has swelled from this time last year — it’s up more than 50 percent countywide and 71 percent in Everett and Mukilteo, according to statistics from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Inventory is up partly because a boom in new construction outstripped demand, Gorton said. And even though Washington ranks 49th of the 50 states in foreclosures, buyers are still skittish.

“The subprime mortgage crisis didn’t really affect us directly but it affected us psychologically,” he said. “Buyers are sitting on the sidelines worried about subprime problems.”

Homes are sitting on the market longer and sellers are hiring professional stagers.

Jan Sewell, a professional stager based in Seattle, said she is booked six weeks in advance and she is so busy right now her 15,000-square-foot warehouse is nearly empty of furniture and accessories.

“We’re doing as much as I can,” she said. “I’m so busy, I’m running out of inventory.”

More homes on the market means buyers can afford to be choosier.

Leah Lang and her family recently bought a home in the Northshore School District. The family had a list of criteria: a close-knit neighborhood, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, around 3,000 square feet and high-quality appliances and materials. Any home with linoleum was out.

A year ago, four or five homes that met the family’s budget and criteria might have been on the market, said their agent, Barbara Athanas, a Windermere Real Estate agent in Bothell. This year, she showed them 42.

Lang said that while the selection wasn’t as good as she would have liked, she previewed dozens online and visited dozens in their $800,000 price range. When one seller wouldn’t budge $4,000 on the asking price, the couple walked. Lang drove by that house recently, noting that after two months, the For Sale sign is still up.

“Sellers don’t get it yet,” Athanas said. “They have to put in some effort.”

In order to get the attention of buyers, sellers need to price the home realistically, and what’s realistic today might be less than what the house would have sold for six months ago, said Vern Holden, a Windermere broker based in Mill Creek.

“Sellers have got to get out of the mode that my neighbor sold his for ‘X’ last year,” he said. “They have to be in tune with the market at this moment.”

With so many homes to choose from, the appearance of a home is essential, said Didi Garlow, an Everett agent at Keller-Williams. The home needs to be clean, tidy and in good repair inside and out. A home needs to smell good and feel good. If sellers can’t or won’t make updates and repairs, they need to lower the price, she said.

“What I’ve been coaching is you’ve go to do all the things to make this the best package under the Christmas tree,” she said. “Even if that means bringing in a professional stager to set the home up like an Ikea model home.”

Garlow said she worked with one seller who refused to make any upgrades to an older home or do anything about an odor of cigarette smoke. It sat on the market seven months until it went into foreclosure, she said.

“If a seller wants to get the best price, make it look worth its value,” she said. “Paint it, update it, get the roof fixed, give it the value you’re asking for. Nobody is going to pay top dollar for a junk heap.”

Agents, too, have had to ramp up the effort to make a sale. The market was so fast and furious that many agents didn’t need to do more than plunking a sign in the front yard.

Now many agents are marketing more aggressively. Agents listing homes are holding significantly more open houses and brokers openings.

Pat Deptuch, a top-selling agent for Re/Max Metro Properties, is using every marketing technique she can, including posting home listings on Web sites such as Zillow.com and Craigslist.org. She even started using a special light on a timer that attaches to her For Sale signs so she can squeeze a few more hours of visibility.

She said sellers need to get clutter out of the house, even if it means renting a storage unit. Think simple, fresh and clean. Clear away personal items such as photos from public areas of the home. Buying a home is an emotional experience, she said, and buyers need to be able to picture themselves living there.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

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