Parting is such sweet sorrow

#337 in a series of true experiences in real estate
August 2000, Hills Newspapers

The hardest thing for sellers to do is to let go. It’s almost always true. Even for sellers who can hardly wait to go to a better house, disconnecting from their present one can be a problem.

This must be because our homes embody so much of our lives – eating and parties, shelter from storms, neighbor friends, new babies. We want to hold on, and holding on seems often to include the hard scape – our colors, carpeting, knickknacks – frozen as we’ve grown to expect them.

Years ago I went to see a house that was for sale. The man who owned it had grown up there, lived there with his parents while he went to college and beyond, until his parents died. Then he closed the door to their bedroom, leaving it just as it was – a kind of shrine.

Now he was selling the house and he had to let people into that room, and this must have been hard for him. I remember wondering, worrying about what he would do on the day when he would have to pack the room into boxes.

At the time this seemed to me an extreme example, and perhaps it was. But we see this same need for “everything as it has been” in sellers all the time.

One couple who intended to sell asked us to recommend a gardener who could groom their overgrown garden. We agreed that cutting and clipping would let more light into the house and would allow buyers to see how much outdoor space was available.

The gardener met with the owners and they made a plan. But as the gardener raised her shears, the couple cried out, “No, we like the ivy growing everywhere. Wait! Don’t cut the bushes.” They couldn’t bear to have the garden changed.

Another couple bought their stylish house in the early seventies. It had just been redecorated in up-to-the-minute colors and materials. In the living and dining rooms was orange shag carpeting, in the kitchen and bathroom the brightest red ceramic tile.

The master bedroom had a large corner desk done in the wood butcher style of the era, unpainted redwood with bracing poles running to the ceiling. The owners knew that the appearance of the house was dated. They wanted to sell quickly, so they hired a stager. They listened to the stager’s advice, then said, “We like the orange rugs and red tile. And we would never allow the desk to be painted.”

Although they had already moved out of the house to a new one, they insisted that their old place remain as it was.

This common situation is a sticky wicket for agents. No agent wants to criticize her clients’ chosen style. But agents have learned from experience that the right decor, something that today’s buyers find desirable, can make all the difference in a sale.

Good, thinking agents want their listings to sell quickly and well. This means that both buyer and seller are satisfied and that it didn’t take forever for them to find one another.

And so agents suggest ways to make their listings look their best. When they are met with owner resistance, what is there to do?

Back off. There is certainly no gain to be made when clients are feeling defensive.

Agents and sellers should both go slowly. Allowing sufficient time for parting with a house is very important. We’ve represented several sellers who needed close to a year to let go. They cleaned out accumulation, sorted through, pared down until they had left what mattered to them. And in the process, while they were readying for unknown new owners, they were becoming prepared themselves – to let go.

Sometimes these people complained to us that they were getting nowhere, that little progress was being made, but it was. It takes time for memories to fade, to replace them with visions of the future.

And this is why agents and sellers should talk again, and perhaps again, about why the sellers are selling. Where are they going? What’s in it for them?

It may not be possible to know the exact spot where the sellers will be landing. But going someplace desirable, if only in fantasy, is usually interesting and fun. People who have a destination in mind are excited and willing to do whatever they can to get going, whereas those with nothing in front of them clutch what they have now.

Sometimes looking at other houses for sale – selected, well-presented houses – can be an inspiration, may help would-be sellers see how their own houses could be sold. They just might go home with a new understanding of the in-vogue, clean and spare look, and then apply it.

There is a last option, not one I would recommend, but sometimes it’s unavoidable: just let it be.

Some people can’t do it any other way. No painting, minimal de-cluttering, no staging or new landscaping; just living as they’re used to living. For some people, this is the only way for them to move on. That’s just the way it is.

We do hope that these people will, at the very least, do some cleaning. Just last week we were once again in a house that seemed not to have been cleaned in years. It smelled funny, there was stuff everywhere, the stove was caked with grease and food. Newspapers, plants, plastic sheets and cat hair covered the surfaces. The backyard was barren. It was most unpleasant to be there.

Was the price so attractive that someone might try hard to see beyond the mess? Low enough that agents visiting the house would be anxious to return with their clients? No, not that we could tell. This house seemed to be priced as if it had been shining and appealing.

Big mistake.

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