Selling Your House FAQ

Tips for selling your house: setting the right price, timing the sale, and hiring an agent.

Do I need a real estate agent or attorney to sell my house?

Except for a few states where you are required to hire a real estate attorney to do your closing, you do not have to hire an agent or attorney to help you. Be aware, however, selling a home yourself is a lot of work. Beyond the obvious tasks normally provided by agents, such as advertising and marketing the house, preparing and showing up for open houses, and helping prepare documents and negotiate, good agents take care of a lot of behind-the-scenes tasks, like helping you decide which repairs need doing and getting recommendations on repair people, responding to questions by other agents or even unrepresented home buyers about the property, and even pulling out a mop when people at the open house are tracking in dirt.

Hiring an agent doesn't necessarily mean that he or she handles all aspects of the transaction and is paid the traditional 5-6% commission, however. Instead, to save money, you might consider hiring an agent to help you out in specific ways, such as advertising your home in the local multiple listing service (MLS) and handling some of the paperwork. For more information, see Nolo's article Do You Need a Real Estate Agent to Sell Your House? Or you might take care of most of the selling tasks yourself, and hire an attorney to help with the negotiations and closing paperwork.

Will I owe taxes when I sell my house?

Thanks to the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, many home sellers no longer owe taxes on the gain they make when they sell their houses. Married taxpayers who file jointly now get to keep, tax-free, up to $500,000 in gain on the sale of their home, as long as they lived in it for two of the prior five years. Single folks and married taxpayers who file separately get to keep up to $250,000.

If you're lucky enough that your profits on the house exceed this amount, don't panic quite yet -- not all of it may be taxable gain, for example if you invested in home improvements. (See Nolo's article Tax Breaks for Selling Your Home.)

When will I meet my prospective home buyers?

If you use a real estate agent to sell your home, you probably won't meet your buyers until after the closing -- if then. Your agent (or the buyer's agent) will handle visits to the house by potential buyers and probably encourage you to make yourself scarce during those visits lest you blurt out something you regret later.

You may meet your buyers' real estate agents if they choose to formally present purchase offers to you and your agents. You may even be handed photos of the prospective buyers, and personal letters, if they're in a competitive bidding situation. And you can certainly find out their names from the purchase offer forms, in case you'd like to Google them later. But that's still not a personal meeting.

Even closings are often done separately, with you meeting with the escrow agent on one day to sign documents and the buyer doing so on another day.

It's not that there's any law against meeting the buyers -- but you'll probably appreciate, at various times along the way, having your agent serve as a buffer in any negotiations and be the bearer of bad news, if need be.

After the closing, however, arranging a time to meet with the buyers at your house can be a nice gesture -- and a good opportunity to show them things like how to turn on the furnace, turn off the security alarm, and which plants are weeds.

What will I need to leave behind in the house after it's sold?

It's important to prepare in advance for buyers' expectations about what you'll leave behind. As a general rule, you'll be expected to leave behind all "fixtures," defined in most states as things that are affixed, fastened to, or an integral part of the home or landscaping. For example, lights and their shades (the sort that can't be unplugged and carried away), built-in dishwashers and other appliances, window shades, curtain rods (and sometimes the curtains), built-in bookshelves, and all trees, plants, and shrubs with their roots in the ground instead of in pots are all normally considered fixtures. No matter how good they make the house look, if you don't want the buyer to keep them, replace them before you start showing the house.

Also realize that buyers may associate some items that aren't technically fixtures so strongly with your house that they won't be happy at you carrying them off -- for example, a backyard statue that's so perfectly placed in the center of a brick circle that you'd think it was a permanent part of the landscaping. The buyer may name such items in the purchase offer to make sure you leave them behind (or to start negotiations over them) -- or may assume they come with the house and raise a fuss on closing day when they've been moved. Take a good look at what you plan to move. If anything falls into the category of "A buyer may fall in love with this and assume it comes with the house," decide now whether to move it before the sale or to buy a replacement.

How much should I fix up the house before selling it?

Home buyers ’ fascination with fixer-uppers seems to be on the wane. Even if it costs more, home buyers are increasingly looking for a home that's move-in ready. So where does that leave you, as the home seller?

Paying more money just to get money out of your home may be the last thing you were hoping to take on (or have the cash to complete). Nevertheless, some investment may be necessary in order to attract buyer attention.

At a minimum, you ’ll want to fix obvious eyesores and danger spots, such as cracked windowpanes, tiles, and plaster. Correct high-priority issues like moisture leakage or rickety stairs. Walk around your house with a critical eye, noticing areas where you ’ve always meant to deal with a problem – such as a light switch that doesn ’t work or a window shade that ’s lost its pull string -- but haven ’t gotten around to it.

After that, a new paint job is one of the more affordable ways to give a house a fresh look. If painting the exterior is more than you can afford, consider at least painting the front door, and possibly the trim.

Simple cosmetic touch-ups can give your house a more cared-for look – all the way up to a major staging job, as described in “Is Hiring a Home Stager Worth the Cost?

Of course, we ’re dancing around the big issue here, which is what if the kitchen, bathroom, or somewhere else is just crying out for a remodel? You may have already noticed, from reading the real estate ads, that the agents never fail to mention “newly remodeled kitchen. ” You ’ll need to proceed with caution. The worst possible result is to pour money into a remodel that buyers don ’t like and plan to rip out anyway. For tips on how to plan a remodel that will recoup its costs and then some, see “Do Home Improvements Really Add Value? ”

Should I sell my house now?

If you can choose when to sell, it's best to wait until your local real estate market is "hot," or a "sellers' market." This can occur on a very local basis, regardless of what's common across the United States. The heat of a market can usually be gauged numerically, because the number of available homes drops well below the number of buyers wanting them. Here are some other indicators that the market is good for sellers:

  • Mortgage interest rates are low, allowing buyers to finance larger mortgages.
  • The economic climate of your region is healthy, and people feel confident about the future.
  • There's a jump in house buying activity, as often occurs in the spring.
  • Your area is considered especially attractive -- because of the schools, low crime rate, weather, affordability of starter homes, proximity to a major city, or other factors such as employment opportunities.

Of course, not everyone gets to choose when to sell. If the market is down and you have to move immediately -- for example, because of financial reasons, a divorce, a job move, or an imperative health concern -- and you don't have any of the advantages listed above, you may have to settle for a lower price in order to make a quick sale.

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