NEW YORK (MainStreet) – In today’s tough housing market, a seller is wise to take special care in selecting a real estate agent, such as interviewing top full-timers in the area, checking references, and making sure your pro has a personality buyers will respond to.
But no matter how good your agent may be, it can pay to get involved in the sales process yourself, either by being present for showings or by providing printed materials to help buyers visualize life in the home. Be careful, though, because even providing seemingly innocent details like the availability of playmates and churches could violate the anti-discrimination rules of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Why get so involved when you’ve got a pro working for you? Because once the home is listed, reality sets in: Most buyers have agents of their own, so a good number of showings will be conducted by strangers. On many of these visits, the prospective buyer's agent may be seeing the property for the first time. Some agents might even bad-mouth your home in the hope that their client will instead pick one of the agent’s own listings (so the buyer’s agent won’t have to split the commission with yours).
You could insist that your own agent be present for all showings, but that could reduce the number of showings because of schedule conflicts. So how do you make the best of the situation? Think about providing an "owner’s manual" that answers questions that buyers are likely to ask.
For instance, how long is the commute to town, or how far is the nearest train station or airport? An agent might provide a general idea, but you could print out routes from Google Maps. You can also answer basic questions like where to shop for food, where to go for entertainment, or any recommended plumber or lawn care firms nearby. Maybe you even have a list of doctors and babysitters, or people to maintain the furnace and air conditioning? Maybe you can offer tips for maintaining the garden, telling the prospective buyer what grows well and what doesn’t, and what fertilizer works best on the lawn.
In general, try to think of tips that would make living in the home easier, especially those that would reduce the intimidation factor for first-time buyers.
But don’t go too far. Many buyers want to know about the neighbors, especially the number of children and elderly people. Some want to know what churches are nearby. Some may ask about the neighborhood’s racial, ethnic or religious makeup.
Answering such questions could violate the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. Generally, the act applies to real estate agents and other companies, as well as to homeowners’ associations.
In some cases, an individual homeowner has more freedom to talk about the neighbors and neighborhood. But if your owner’s manual talks about the racial makeup and number of school children on the block, or touches on any subject realtors are not allowed to discuss, you may scare the realtors off even if you technically don’t break the law yourself.
So bone up. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a good summary on its website, and the National Association of Realtors provides an eye-opening quiz on the rules. You can also simply Google “Fair Housing Act” to find lots of guides to avoid violations.
Worries about the Fair Housing Act shouldn’t discourage you from offering useful tips for living in the home. No one’s going to sue you for discrimination for revealing where the tulips will grow, or for recommending someone to shovel the driveway.
The truth is that a thorough and engaging owner’s manual may be just enough to tip the balance, and lead a shopper to buy your home instead of another.
Thinking about selling your home without any help from a pro? Learn what you should know in MainStreet's, “Want to Sell Your Home Without an Agent? You’d Better Be Ready”!