Selling a ‘hard-to-sell’ home #726

#726 in a series of true experiences in real estate

Is your house a hard house to sell? Some houses are much harder than others. If you’re buying, are you buying a house that will be hard to sell later?

Years ago I was looking for a house for a group of people. They’d been living together for a while and were tired of landlords who didn’t appreciate their lifestyle. One of the group had a trust fund and was going to put up the money. They were young and didn’t know how long they’d be living in the house. They hadn’t considered what would come next in life.

They became fascinated with very large houses, houses I didn’t think they should buy. The first one was a bargain they told me. I said it was cheap but it wasn’t a bargain. It was sliding slowly down the hill. When their lives changed and they wanted to sell, it would be hard.

Then they happened across another huge house, so huge and so odd that they really wanted it. There were passages and a tower, long halls, several kitchens. This one was on stable ground but every surface in every room needed attention. They liked it. I didn’t. Mostly I knew I didn’t want to be the one responsible for selling it some other day.

Eventually I sold them a smaller house. It also needed work but even if they never did anything to improve it (which I figured was pretty possible), I knew I could sell it again. It was on a good lot in a great Elmwood neighborhood. The exterior, while worn, was covered in wood shingles. It was the kind of house that lots of people would say had “potential.”

The buyers didn’t stay together very long, maybe three years, but as it turned out, one of the group bought the house from the trust fund person. He stayed there, got married, put in a new kitchen, painted everything, and sold some years later for a good profit. I don’t know but it’s possible that he realized how much better it was that they’d bought that house instead of the others.

Once Anet and I were asked to look at a house that the owners wanted to sell. We knew the instant we walked in the door that this would be a hard one. The house had started out as a tiny, poorly laid out two-bedroom. There was no entry, the living room was maybe 10 by 12, the flagstone fireplace was in ruins.

The original kitchen had been made into a small bedroom and, because the owners liked the look of wood, they had lined the walls and ceiling with rough-sawn fir. Unfortunately, this made the room feel like the dark inside of a tree.

At the rear of the house the owners had added a new living room and kitchen. It was a peculiar mix of quality and economy. On the walls was plastic paneling, there were metal sliding doors to the yard and brown shag carpeting on the floor, but the kitchen contained top-of-the-line appliances.

By the time we got to the kitchen we were thinking, “Oh, oh. How are we ever going to price this one? Who is the buyer for this house?”

The situation was difficult because the owners were very proud of their house and did not want to do any more work on it. They realized that there was no off-street parking, an inconvenience, and they knew that it would be better if the fireplace was whole, but they had customized their house themselves and felt, in fact, that it should sell for a premium.

We suffered over that one. There certainly weren’t any “comps,” so we interpolated and came up with a price which they considered too low. They listed with someone else.

There are a number of things that can make a house hard to sell. Really different houses are hard unless they have some kind of snob appeal. Very small houses are harder and so are houses with no yard. Deluxe houses surrounded by lesser ones and ones next door to ugly and falling down houses are hard.

Houses reached via a great many stairs or those in very noisy locations are a challenge, as are dirty, cluttered and dark houses. Houses covered with asbestos shingles are more difficult than if they had something else on them. But none of these things will in itself prevent a house from selling.

What causes any house to sell are: (1) appropriate pricing; (2) getting people (buyers and agents) to go see it; and (3) appeal. It makes sense. The better the price, the better. The more people who see a house, the better. The more people a house appeals to, the better.

Strange houses and houses in poor condition sell all the time. They sell when there are compensating factors — almost always including a lower price than would be true otherwise. The reason for this is that every buyer wants the preferred, safer location, best condition, ample space and good looks. Most buyers cannot afford all of these, so they buy something less for less money.

If you are selling, provide as many pluses as you can. Then find an agent who likes your house (do not underestimate the power of liking) and is confident about selling it. Buyers, please remember that you will very likely be selling some day.

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