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The Washington Scene

There's Lesson in House That Didn't Sell

November 16, 1986|JOHN BETZ WILLMANN | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — Why does one nice existing house sell while a very similar house in the same community waits endlessly for a buyer?

Funny you should ask, because the answers recently have been strikingly demonstrated to this longtime realty observer. And this little anecdote on how not to sell your house is particularly poignant because the owners happen to be close personal friends.

The story started last May when a couple we'll call Harry and Mary decided to sell their house and move to another state for health reasons. Their first mistake was that they made a commitment to buy another residence before putting their own dwelling on the market.

That initial error was exceptionally costly this year. The resale home market was remarkably strong in the first five months before starting to cool off in June and continuing to lose some heat through the summer and early fall. But, overall, the resale market has been better than average this year.

That was simply an unfortunate bit of timing. My friends, who acted without any early advice from this writer, first found their next place to live and then put their house on the market in early June, just before they moved.

Their second mistake was pricing the house a bit too high and holding out for that price, which seemed fairly reasonable when compared to other selling prices in the relatively small community. But there are some pertinent differences.

The house being sold by my friends was given to an outstanding broker, and a sales associate familiar with sales in the community was assigned to the offering. She contends now that the house generated decent interest but no really serious buyers.

Until last week, she had presented no "serious" offers even slightly below the original asking price to the sellers.

Unfortunately, there are some solid reasons why prospective buyers failed to become interested in this well-maintained, 6-year-old house that generally looks much like any other of the single houses in this adult community.

1--Anyone who visited the Harry-Mary house also saw others for sale in the community. The others were not located next to the main entrance road that handles all of the incoming traffic. Street-wise, almost every other house is somewhat better located. Anyone knowing anything about real estate is aware that location is spelled in capital letters for good reason.

2--Every prospective buyer saw a clean, decently decorated--but obviously empty house. All other houses on the market--and at least six have been sold here since June--were shown fully furnished. That's a major plus because a house with furnishings is so much warmer and cozier--and inviting to buyers. They may abhor some paintings or chairs--but still like the overall effect.

3--The Harry-Mary lot is almost as nicely planted as any other in the community. But May, June and July were among the hottest and driest months on record in the entire Washington area. What happened? Large patches of the grass burned out and the surviving grass was, for awhile, permitted to grow long and shaggy. The property simply did not look inviting during the summer months, and still shows some of the signs of brownout.

The National Assn. of Independent Fee Appraisers has statistics showing that good landscaping pays off 100% on sale if it totals 10% or less of the market value of the house being sold. So anything a seller has done to spruce up the grounds will probably bring good returns.

While the story of an unsold, actively marketed house in a nice community may be sad news for readers, it is quite a bit more depressing, especially in a financial sense, for the owners. They continue to pay taxes and some heating and cooling on two houses--and they have a good deal of money tied up.

It seems obvious that the asking price should be dropped by at least 5% before the weather turns really cold. And the yard should be watered and kept cut during the autumn house-hunting season.

There are only about three or four more good selling weeks ahead in 1986. Almost all discretionary buyers will be distracted by Thanksgiving and Christmas. They won't start looking again until after Jan. 1.

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