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A timely checkup

More sellers are shelling out for a service they hope will speed sales: a pre-listing inspection.

August 26, 2007|Frank Nelson | Special to The Times

JUDY MELLO wasn't looking forward to buying a new place to live, imagining a lengthy, complicated and perhaps stressful experience.

"I figured it was going to drag on for months and months," she says. "But it wasn't like that at all."

In fact, it took Mello, a retired registered nurse, a total of only 3 1/2 weeks to buy a $500,000 condominium in Carpinteria, a small coastal town a few miles south of Santa Barbara.

Although a number of factors smoothed the process, Mello says an inspection report commissioned in advance by the sellers played a large part in her decision to buy and helped speed the sale.

As housing sales continue to bog down -- last month Southern California sales were the slowest for any July since 1995, according to DataQuick Information Systems -- property owners are turning to new strategies.

One tactic increasingly bringing buyers and sellers closer together is a property inspection obtained by the seller before the home is even listed. A seller's inspection report is not in lieu of one commissioned by the buyer, but it often accomplishes the goal of signaling openness and good faith while at the same time unearthing any unpleasant surprises.

In some cases, a preemptive seller's inspection means repairs, such as leaks or faulty electrical wiring, will likely be completed in advance on the buyer's behalf; less pressing matters may be flagged and the asking price adjusted down accordingly. "To me, the report meant they were definitely interested in selling and cared about selling to somebody who was going to be satisfied," Mello says. "I felt comfortable that they were thinking of my interests."

Colleen Badagliacco, president of the California Assn. of Realtors, says not so long ago, when sellers were being bombarded with multiple offers, they didn't have to worry that much about the shape of the home.

"Now, the seller has to go the extra mile," she says. For some, the downside means making sure the house is priced right, taking disclosure to the next level -- the more they know, the more they legally have to disclose -- and offering to fix things.

But on the upside, a pre-listing inspection that gives buyers a better idea of where they stand and what, if any, additional work is needed, can also help sellers fend off demands for unrealistic price reductions to cover repairs.

According to Dan Steward, president of Pillar to Post, a nationwide home inspection company, buyers typically expect a $2 to $3 price discount for every $1 worth of defects turned up by their inspector.

With their own report, sellers can choose, for example, to spend a few hundred dollars fixing a plumbing problem that might otherwise mushroom into a claim for more than $1,000 off the price and, in the process, spark further potentially prickly negotiations.

"It definitely makes sense," says Chuck Miller, a 16-year veteran of the real estate business and now associate manager and sales agent with Coldwell Banker in Studio City.

In his own and other real estate companies, he's seen a marked uptick in the number of pre-listing inspections, perhaps a rise of 10% to 15% in the last year, and believes the ploy is helping sales move faster and more smoothly.

"Most people want to turn the key and walk in," he says. "They don't want repairs, and they certainly don't want surprises. If they know they have to do some work, they can at least prepare for that."

The National Assn. of Certified Home Inspectors, based in Boulder, Colo., also has noted a rise in the number of inspections carried out for sellers, though founder Nick Gromicko says they do not have national statistics.

However, on a local level, Gromicko does have some figures: "Our Denver chapter went from doing less than 2% of their inspections for sellers last year to doing 28% for sellers in 2007."

When Jack Lucarelli and his wife, Jeannie Wilson, decided to put their Toluca Lake home on the market for $3.75 million, they followed agent Miller's suggestion and first had an inspection.

The way it turned out, they need hardly have bothered. As Bob Wood, senior inspector with Sunland-based LaRocca Inspection Associates, combed through their 3,700-square-foot, two-story home, he was hard-pressed to find anything wrong.

A little dry rot in one post in the backyard, two faulty sink stoppers, a loose faucet and a cracked tile in the driveway. "It cost us about $18 for repairs," Lucarelli says, adding that the clean bill of health did not surprise him.

He says that he and his wife -- both of whom work in the entertainment industry -- have done a lot to the 1936 Spanish Mediterranean-style home and always kept the place in top shape. "But we thought the inspection and termite inspection were important to alleviate any fears or anxieties about any internal, hidden problems," he says. "It's an added convenience to the purchaser."

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