For Sale By Owner Issues

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I've been taking a long look at the world of For Sale By Owner and similar concepts lately. With the digital revolution, you always want to be watching the tide to figure out if you're in a business that's about to go the way of milk delivery and diaper service - a few left, but only a tiny fraction of the size they were. Since blogs and online magazines replacing or at least greatly supplementing mainstream journalism is one thing I'm constantly reading about, it might be good information to know if my real career is about to go the way of journalism.

At this point, I'm not worried about needing to change professions. The world of For Sale By Owner (FSBO) does seem to be figuring out the legal ramifications fairly well. There are resources available to get most, if not all, of the legally required disclosures for sellers to avoid future liability to the buyers. I'm going to go on record as believing from the things that I have read and seen that they are not as assiduously practiced as they are by people with real estate agents working for them. Reading the groups, I am seeing all kinds of whining about "Do I have to disclose X?" "Do I really have to disclose Y?" Sometimes, the stuff is minor and inconsequential (leaky toilet, drippy faucet), but a lot of times it's pretty major as well (water leak in/under slab, lead based paint, asbestos, "minor" cracks in the slab). Mind you, I've heard similar whining from real estate agents, particularly new ones. But the real estate agents at least want to be in business (and not sued) for a long professional career with many transactions every year, and so have motivation to disclose everything they find out about, lest one transaction cost them their license. Many individual owners, it seems, even the ones who have been made aware of the legal requirement to disclose, are hoping to get through the one transaction unscathed. After all, they hope they're going to be long gone when the problem crops up. To this, I say, don't count on it, and failure to disclose can often make your legal liability worse than it needs to be.

Needless to say, this is a big "let the buyer beware," when dealing with FSBO properties. You're standing across the table from someone with an immediate motivation to not tell you about whatever metaphorical bodies are buried in the property because once told you may not still want to buy, and most particularly you may wish to reduce your offering price. They have only a hazy motivation to tell you - the indefinite threat of perhaps some legal action sometime in the future, when they may or may not have assets you can even go after. If that doesn't make you uneasy, something is wrong.

One area FSBO is falling short in is picking an appropriate asking price. By the evidence, this is not only lack of information but also homeowner ego speaking here. Some people are not aware of what their home is really worth, or if they are aware then they are ignoring the evidence. Speaking from personal experience, persuading people to put an appropriate asking price on their property is one of the most difficult parts of the listing interview. Also significantly, in the long seller's market we had, many real estate professionals were making a lot of money buying "For Sale By Owner" properties that were under-priced, and immediately "flipping" them for $30,000 to $50,000 profit, often more. Here's the math for a property that sells for $460,000 but should have sold for $500,000: In the latter case, assuming you pay a standard 5%, you paid a $25,000 commission, split between the buying and selling brokers. But you come away with a net that's $15,000 higher. I personally know of several sales where an agent purchasing a FSBO property then sold it again before escrow was even completed for profit of $75,000 or more.

There is still some of that going on, but the problem with most FSBO properties seems to be over-pricing the market, rather than under. Their neighbors house sold for $500,000, and by god they are going to get $525,000. Never mind that the neighbor house has an extra bedroom, an extra bathroom, 800 more square feet, sits on a corner lot that's twice the size, and most importantly, sold when demand was high and supply was low. They are going to get that price, come hell or high water. So they put that out as the asking price, and they wonder why the one or two people to express enough interest to look vanish as soon as they've seen it. The reason is simple: They've priced themselves out of the market. There are better homes to be had for less money. In a fast rising market, this may be a survivable defect. When prices are rising as fast as they were, the market would catch up to anything that was vaguely reasonable. That has changed now. It's bad enough with people who have a real estate agent for their listing. Two of the hardest fights with listing clients in this market are keeping the property priced to the market, and getting them to accept what in today's market is a good offer rather than hoping for previous years' "bigger fool." Seems that most people who don't have an agent are just in denial. There's a FSBO two doors down the block from a corner listing we had where I held an open house. Even with me drawing the traffic to him, he didn't get a single offer because his asking price was too high. That's fine if you would be happy and able to stay if the property doesn't sell. If you're not in that situation, it's not.

Another area where FSBO properties are falling short is in marketing. They've got an internet advertisement and a sign in the yard. Maybe they've got an advertisement in the paper (usually the wrong one), and maybe they are holding open houses. All of these are nice. None of these are optimal. First thing is that internet advertisement you have is often on one site where even internet savvy buyers don't necessarily see it. Even if that is free, it's probably worth money to list on a co-operating network of sites. For Sale By Owner signs in the yard are more bait for agents than a prospective buyer. I'll put a sign out there when I get a listing also - it does catch a few people, and a sign with an agent or broker's name on it keeps other agents from bothering you. But it's a long shot at actually selling the property.

There are places to advertise your property to actually sell it, and there are places where agents advertise their business to attract new clients. Most of the FSBO ads I see seem to be in the latter sort of place. I don't think I recall a "For Sale By Owner" ad in the places where I'd expect it to generate significant actual interest in buying that particular property. There are reasons for this. The ones that are likely to generate interest require more lead time. I don't mind spending the money (especially amalgamating my listing with other listings in the office). Even if it sells before then, it helps the office generate more clients we're going to go out and show similar properties with, and I get a certain proportion of those. But For Sale By Owners tend to balk, as they are thinking one transaction. There are also resources that make an Open House effective, but are not cost effective for somebody looking to sell one house.

Number one resource for actually selling the property is the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Put it out there where the agents who the buyers come to will see it. My primary specialty is buyer's agent. I know they are ready, willing and able to buy a property. Do I even take them to look at "For Sale By Owner" properties? Not unless I know ahead of time that the seller will pay my commission. Nor does any other buyer's agent I know of. Before you "For Sale By Owner" types start cursing us, remember first, we've got to make a living so we'll be there for the next buyer. Second, we're actually living up to our fiduciary responsibility when we do this, as I've got their signature on a piece of paper that says they'll pay me if you don't. So unless your property is priced far enough under the market to justify the expense on my client's part, your property is not a contender, and I'd better be prepared to justify the expense on my client's part in court, so your under-pricing the market has got to be by more than my commission. Furthermore, going back to legal requirements, I've got to figure that there is a higher than usual chance that the seller will not make all the necessary disclosures, or perhaps won't tell the complete truth and nothing but the truth on them. This puts my clients, and through them, me in a bind: Sure my clients can and will sue you, but if you don't have the money my insurance is likely going to end up paying out, because even though I've done everything I reasonably could have done, you didn't have an agent.

Given that the Multiple Listing Service is far and away the best tool for selling any given property, if you're not on it, you're missing out on buyers. If you don't have a selling agent's commission listed on Multiple Listing Service that is at least what is specified in the default Buyer's Agent Agreement in your area, you are missing out on buyers. If you don't have an agent at all, you are missing more buyers. Because I, like other buyer's agents, want to be certain we're not wasting our time. I've done a real pre-qualification or even a preapproval on my buyers (if the transaction doesn't actually go through, I don't get paid by anyone). Compare that with Mr. P, whom I sent away the night before I finished this essay. He's out there looking at houses he wants to buy, but the fact is that given the situation he should continue renting. A competent loan officer such as myself who was less ethical could maybe get him the loan anyway, or maybe not. It would certainly be an uphill fight. So he's out low-balling "For Sale By Owner" properties on his own today. The one who's desperate enough to sell at that price needs the transaction done with the first buyer who comes along, and is going to spend at least a month finding out there's only a small chance of the transaction actually going through, a month that they likely don't have to spare. The other For Sale By Owners are likely to get mightily annoyed with him, but he's the customer they're most likely to get.

There are also issues of timeliness and context and negotiations to consider. Putting your property on the market for the wrong price is a recipe for disaster, because by the time you figure out that the buyers aren't interested at that price, your "days on market" counter is so high that they're not interested, period. Agents know - because they're dealing with the issues all the time - what is a good response in this situation to a given event, and the good ones understand a lot more about keeping negotiations appropriate, so as not to lose what really is a good offer.

Caveat Emptor (and Vendor)

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on August 15, 2014 7:00 AM.

Mortgage Lenders Don't Want to Compete on Actual Price was the previous entry in this blog.

Why Cost Is As Important As Rate For Mortgage Loans is the next entry in this blog.

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