For most of us earthlings, a simple structure of mortar, bricks, and shingles -- or even a tiny concrete cubicle in a high-rise -- can become the object of great affection. A house is not just property, worth X amount of dollars. It's home -- the setting for a thousand events, conversations, plans, celebrations. Selling a home can be a delicate experience. One might, for instance, be blind to flaws, overly protective, not sufficiently forthcoming.
``With commercial property, people just want figures,'' says Margie Starkey, a real estate agent with Citation Homes in Falls Church, Va. ``With residential property, you're dealing with emotions.''
Is it priced right? Could you sell it for what you paid for it? And how, exactly, will you pay for it? So complex and costly is the transaction that there is no single way of completing it that is satisfactory to all people.
A confident seller might market a house single-handedly and pocket the money that would have gone to a real estate agent.
In many states, one can pay for a minimum set of real estate services -- almost like the discount brokerages that are available in the financial world. This gives your property some degree of marketplace exposure, and you keep most of the profit from the sale.
Then there are full-service real estate agents. It's easy for frequent buyers and sellers to pooh-pooh the work of an agent and call it overpriced. But it's difficult to imagine another way of creating a motivated group of salespeople and negotiators without the incentive of a 4 to 7 percent agent's commission.
By far the surest way of selling a house is with a real estate agent, but interest in selling a home oneself appears to be growing.
James M. Pearson, president of Homes by Owner Inc. of Chicago, maintains that many home sellers today put property on the market two, three, or more times in a lifetime and therefore are experienced at the ins and outs of real estate transactions. Consequently, more and more people, Mr. Pearson contends, need only basic real estate support services.
Pearson's three-year-old business (and many businesses like his in other cities) offers a range of services. A home can be advertised in his ``Homes by Owner'' magazine for $59 an issue, $125 with picture. For additional charges, a seller can arrange for a telephone answering service, lawn signs, fact sheets, and how-to books. Pearson also offers a plan in which the seller agrees to pay $295 up front, receives from Pearson a property survey, photo of the property, lawn sign, phone service, etc. If the property sells, the customer pays 1 1/2 percent commission.
``More and more people analyze what they get from a broker,'' Mr. Pearson says, ``and on a $100,000 house, when they write a check for 7 percent off the top, that $7,000 could go a long way toward buying a new car instead.''
George H. Bruns, vice-president for member development at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate Service in Des Moines, agrees that there are some instances in which one can easily sell a home oneself. But he argues that real estate agents are much more than ``a smile and a promise.'' They actively market one's house, perform an important negotiating role, and understand how to close a sale much more than does the average do-it-yourselfer.
Notes Mr. Bruns: ``There are three things an owner can do to sell property. He can run an ad, put up a yard sign, and hold an open house. But only about 30 percent of all sales come from this. If you want that other 70 percent, you have to go through a real estate firm.''
A real estate agent can help with advice on how to prepare a house for showing and how to arrive at a reasonable price. But referrals are what a real estate firm really has to offer -- contacts with people you might never meet otherwise.
Past customers are a good source of these referrals. They make for repeat customers and often steer friends and relatives to one particular agent or agency -- and, in turn, to your property. Real estate firms also have contacts with national and local corporations, many of which rely on one agency or another to help find housing for employees who are relocating.
And most firms are linked with other real estate offices of the same name (Red Carpet, Century 21, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.) nationwide, or on a cooperative basis with different firms. In big cities, where neighborhoods are substantially different, there are also intracity referrals.
The ability to share in the real estate commission plays a good part in motivating cross-town, cross-agency cooperation. The primary tool in this huge referral network is the multiple listing service operated by the board of realtors of a particular city. Via the MLS link, most agents have access to all real estate listings in a city. Mr. Bruns notes that in most cities the largest single real estate agency usually controls no more than 30 percent of the market; hence, someone other than the listing agent usually sells a house.
``The size of the [real estate] firm doesn't really matter,'' says Walter Maloney, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors in Washington. ``Most have good access. A small firm might give you more personal attention. A franchise might give you more frills. The key is to meet with several agents before deciding on one to list your house.''
Even though the agent represents the seller, the agent is usually the intermediary in negotiations between buyer and seller. ``You can let the agent take the flak,'' Bruns says. It can be flak from a seller because the buyer has low-balled the price -- or flak from a buyer because the seller has refused to budge on the offering price.
As a routine, the agent also can ``qualify'' a buyer (determine if the buyer can afford the house). If you are selling a home yourself, asking someone's income and credit history can be a difficult task. The agent, as a third party, can do this more easily.
All of this leads to the real forte of real estate agents: closing the deal. If you're selling a home yourself, you may be playing host to a great number of cheerful browsers during an open house. That may result in a handful of potential buyers. And one or two may have the qualifications to buy and an interest in doing so. But as a seller, it can be difficult to prod the deal along, lest you appear too eager.
Real estate agents, on the other hand, stick with the deal until it closes, motivated by that commission, collectible at the final handshake.
``Closing a sale, for many agents, is a question of educating the consumer,'' says Ms. Starkey of the Citation Homes agency. ``You can't sell people property that they don't want, but you can help them make a decision.''
This can be done, she says, by keeping a list of comparable sales in recent months, showing the buyer alternative property, and preparing computer estimates of tax breaks, neighborhood appreciation rates, financing options. Ms. Starkey also follows the progress of the loan and keeps all parties updated as closing approaches.
Is all of this worth 4 to 7 percent of the sale price of your house? It's difficult to know, but as Mr. Burns notes, a real estate agent ``seems worth the money only when you have trouble selling your house.''