Traditionally, the slowest time of year for home sales is between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. However, now is the best season to be a home buyer.
Usually only highly motivated sellers list their residences for sale during this season, although 2001 might be different.
The major reason is that current home-loan interest rates are the lowest most real estate agents can recall. Mortgage interest rates around 6% are abnormally low. Although this is the time of year when agents customarily take vacations, 2001 is unusual because of the Sept. 11 events.
Many buyers are still in the market, especially the bargain-hunters. Eager sellers and their listing agents are discovering that today's home-sales market is unusual, especially for lower-priced homes for which first-time buyers are abundant. However, the upscale luxury market in most cities is slowing, as "move-up buyers" think twice before buying more expensive homes.
If you absolutely must sell your home, perhaps due to a job transfer, unemployment, divorce or other motivating reason, the key to success is selecting the agent who knows how to sell homes in tough times.
Friends, business associates and neighbors are the best sources of agent recommendations. Also visit nearby weekend open houses to meet agents who sell homes in your vicinity and to inspect their listings, your sales competition.
This is definitely not the time to attempt selling without a professional agent. Even the best agents have difficulty selling homes this time of year.
More important, agents have access to two marketing sales sources that do-it-yourself home sellers don't: the local multiple listing service and the http://www.realtor.com Web site. Today's savvy buyers, especially out-of-town buyers, often shop on the Internet first before contacting listing agents. Without the Internet, many homes won't sell.
If you are a serious, motivated seller during this slow home-sales season, the first step is to get your home into tip-top sales condition. Few buyers want to go through the hassle of buying a run-down house that needs to be fixed up.
Painting, cleaning, repairing and fixing up are virtually mandatory for homeowners who want to sell at this time of year. The goal should be to offer a "model home" that requires no buyer effort other than turning the key in the front door.
Successfully selling a home in the currently slow home-sales market requires help from a superb professional agent. It's best to interview at least three agents who sell homes in your vicinity before selecting the best one. Here are the key questions to ask each agent:
* How much can you get for my home?
This question gets right to the heart of the agent interview. After each agent inspects your home, that agent should prepare a written comparative market analysis.
This critical form shows recent sales prices of similar nearby homes, asking prices of comparable neighborhood homes (your competition), and asking prices of recently expired home listings that didn't sell. Sales during the last 30 days are especially indicative of what is happening to local home valuations.
* How will you market my home?
The next key question to ask each agent you interview relates to their marketing plans for your home. At the minimum, every plan should include use of the local multiple listing service, which is each agent's most powerful sales method because it distributes your listing to all member agents within the local MLS.
A related marketing tool is the Web site http://www.realtor.com, on which virtually all local MLS listings are posted. With today's Web-savvy population, more and more buyers are first comparing Internet listings before contacting listing agents.
Each agent's marketing plans for your home should also include weekly newspaper advertising, brochures and local home-sales magazines.
* How long a contract period do you require?
The worst mistake a seller can make is to sign a long-term listing with an agent who's not a go-getter. To prevent this from happening, smart sellers sign listings for no longer than 90 days with the best agent interviewed. If the best agent insists on a 180-day listing, however, that is all right, provided that agent agrees to a written unconditional cancellation after 90 days.
* What are the names and phone numbers of your last five home sellers?
The best agents anticipate this question by providing written references of recent sellers. If an agent you interview doesn't do this, ask for such references.
* How many listings do you have, and what percentage of your listings sell?
Agents with more than 15 to 20 current listings probably won't have adequate time to market your house.
* How long have you been selling homes in this area?
If you aren't sure about an agent, asking about sales experience in the vicinity should be the final question.
The longer an agent has been selling local homes, the better.
Robert J. Bruss is a syndicated columnist as well as a real estate investor, lawyer, broker and educator in the Bay Area.