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How to sell your house

It’s natural to become attached to your home. But especially when it was your first home, that attachment can sometimes cause you to make mistakes when it's time to sell — mistakes that will cost you better offers or draw out the process longer than necessary.

All of that can be avoided with a little preparation. Our seven-step guide will help you navigate selling your home in a way that won’t sacrifice your money, time or sanity.

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1. Determine a timeline

As you would with any major project, it helps to break up the process of selling your home into manageable tasks with set timelines.

If you have an idea of when you’d like to list your home, you can organize your tasks based on how long they’ll take or at what point in the process they need to be done.

Start with:

  • Finding a real estate agent. Give yourself plenty of time to find the right agent for you. Don’t leave this to the last minute and then just grab the first agent you can find.
  • Set a plan. Once you’ve found an agent, work together to set your priorities and develop your detailed plan.
  • Start clearing out your house. Declutter your home and potentially move into storage any belongings you won’t need before the house sells. A clean and minimalistic space will be much more appealing for buyers.

Then, when you’re two to three months out from selling, move on to getting your home ready:

  • Have the home inspected. We’ll get into this a bit more later, but having a home inspection done before you list your home can help identify any major repairs that need to be resolved.
  • Address any issues. Drawing on the results of your home inspection and some input from your agent, spend a little time and money doing a few repairs around the house.

Finally, in the final months before selling, focus on the details:

  • Stage your home. Your agent can help guide you here. The idea is to create an inviting space that’s also impersonal enough that buyers can picture themselves in it.
  • Deep clean. Don’t overlook the power of a clean-smelling, spotless space. Buyers assess homes with all of their senses. If you’ve got the cash for it, hire a professional cleaning service to scrub every surface.
  • Get it photo-ready. Professional photos of your home will be the first impression many buyers will have of your space. After all the time and effort you’ve invested, your house should be spotless and appealing for its photoshoot.

Organizing these tasks based on the timeline above will help you reduce the stress of this process. And don’t be shy about leaning on your real estate agent; agents have been through this process countless times. Yours may have some excellent tips and tricks to help you save time and money.

2. Hire a real estate agent

When you’re selling your home, the first task you’ll want to tackle is hiring a real estate agent. Generally, real estate commissions eat up about 5% to 6% of your home’s sale price. And yes, you’re footing the bill for both your agent and the buyer’s agent.

Homeowners who choose to go it alone through “for sale by owner” (FSBO) will end up investing a lot more time, money and effort into selling their homes than they may have anticipated.

For most people, working with a real estate agent is worth the price. Real estate agents have the professional knowledge and experience to help you list your home at a competitive selling price, market your listing and negotiate on your behalf once you get an offer.

And since they’re much less emotionally involved in the home than you are, agents can help filter feedback from potential buyers and quickly assess the difference between genuinely interested buyers and everyone else.

Finally, once you receive an offer, your agent can help you navigate the complex legal paperwork involved. Doing it on your own can lead to mistakes that may slow or complicate real estate transactions.

Once you’ve decided to work with an agent, you’ll want to make sure your real estate professional is a good fit for you and your home. Look for someone who has experience with your type of home, and with the neighborhood in question.

Don’t be afraid to meet with a few different agents to get a sense of what they can bring to the table. Ask directly about their experience, and do some research online to see what feedback other clients have left.

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3. Determine a competitive selling price

If you’re working with a real estate agent, the agent can help guide you on what a good selling price is. You may have an idea of what your home is worth, but it’s the market that will actually decide.

Your agent will do a comparative market analysis to come up with a realistic price for your home. This report will compare your house with others in your neighborhood that have recently sold or are currently on the market and are similar in size and features to yours.

Sellers tend to inflate what they believe their homes are worth because of an emotional attachment to the space. Your agent should go through the report with you so you can come up with a price together that’s based on facts, not feelings.

In a hot market, you may field offers over your asking price. Or one strategy is to list your home on the lower side to encourage multiple bids, which can then drive up the sale price. You’re not obligated to take any offers you feel are too low.

More: 3 tips to selling your home in a buyer's market

4. Get a home inspection before listing

When you bought your home, you probably had a home inspection done before that deal was finalized. But many homeowners don’t realize it’s worthwhile to get an inspection when you’re on the other side of the transaction, too.

It may cost you a few hundred dollars, but the findings of an inspection could offer you a much larger return on your investment.

How? Well, finding and addressing issues before you list your home will prevent buyers coming back during negotiations and demanding a big price reduction or other nonmonetary concessions.

According to the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), a home inspection will look at:

  • Foundation, structural elements and basement
  • Attic, visible insulation and roof
  • Heating and cooling, electrical and plumbing systems
  • Windows, walls, doors, ceilings and floors

The inspector will walk your property, assessing the home’s condition and looking for health and safety concerns. Once the inspector is done, you’ll receive a detailed report with an itemized list of issues and recommendations for any necessary repairs and maintenance.

Prioritize addressing the big issues that can either scare buyers off or ask for bigger reductions than they’d realistically need for repairs.

If you need help figuring out which issues to focus on, your agent can help with that. But generally, start with anything relating to your roof or electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.

5. Stage your house

Once any repairs have been made, now’s the time to stage your home. Again, start by decluttering your belongings. Then give the place a good, deep clean.

  • Pack up anything you don’t need right now.
  • Give every surface in your home a good scrub. And make sure to shine them all up again for each showing.
  • Consider hiring professional cleaners, especially to steam clean rugs and carpets.

Your home should not only look clean, but it should also smell clean.

Next you’ll want to stage your home. The goal here is to cultivate a space that seems warm and inviting but still impersonal.

Here are some staging tips and tricks to stage a home to sell:

  • Take down family photos. This will help buyers envision themselves and their families in the space.
  • Paint. A few cans of paint doesn’t cost very much but will go a long way toward freshening up your home. Just be sure to pick a neutral color.
  • Clear out closets. Buyers love closets. These storage spaces help create an impression of spaciousness, even in smaller homes, so keep your closets tidy, organized and clutter-free.
  • Increase curb appeal. Spruce up your porch with a fresh coat of stain or a pressure wash, add some planters and make sure your garden is neat and tidy.
  • Highlight outdoor features. If you have a nice backyard, make sure it’s also well-landscaped. Clean your swimming pool before showings. And put away any gardening equipment or tools.

Once you’ve done your big clean and have staged the home, your agent will likely arrange for a professional photoshoot. Photos are an essential component of a home’s listing, so put some time and effort into preparing your home for this.

The day the photos are taken is when your home should be at its tidiest. Make sure you:

  • Put away any toys, whether they belong to your kids or pets.
  • Think about the details: Display some fresh flowers or houseplants. Get some new throw pillows for your couch. Prepare as if Martha Stewart herself were coming over.
  • Put away small appliances and personal items, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. No one wants to see your toothbrush or even your $1,000 blender. Leave countertops clear.
  • There’s no such thing as too much lighting. Bright rooms tend to look bigger, so throw open the curtains and pull up your blinds. Just make sure your windows are clean. Not enough natural light? A well-placed lamp will more than make do.
  • Get rid of the rugs. Rugs tend to not photograph well and can make spaces look smaller. Consult with your agent about which rugs to keep, and get rid of the rest.
  • Toilet bowls are no-no. Make sure all of your toilets (if you have more than one) have their lids down.

Err on the side of minimal here. It’ll make your space look larger and brighter, and you won’t risk overwhelming potential buyers.

6. List your home and be ready to show it

Now that your home is in good shape physically and aesthetically, it's ready to be listed on the market. Once that's done, get ready to start showing it to potential homebuyers.

Living in a home you’re trying to sell can be stressful; your best hope at making it through this process with your sanity intact is having a strategy of staying ready rather than getting ready.

It’s the law of averages that as soon as you lose control of the mess, your agent will notify you of a surprise showing for a couple of very interested buyers. Create a simple morning straightening routine you can run through every day before you leave the house, just in case.

If you have kids, you can make this process easier by asking them to pick a few toys and put the rest away for now. You can always swap their selections out every now and then. And get them involved in the morning routine, too: Give them little tasks they can easily accomplish.

When it comes to pets, they shouldn’t be seen or heard. Find your animals a safe place to stay during viewings, to keep them from getting underfoot and to reduce any stress on them.

Yes, it’s a major inconvenience to clear out every time someone wants to see your place, but try to be as flexible as you can about the showings. Homebuyers often need a little time and space before they can commit to the purchase. Do your best to make that as easy as possible for them.

All that being said, remind yourself that you’re only human. Sometimes things fall between the cracks, but that doesn't mean you have to cancel viewings. Just be sure to warn your agent if your home isn’t in tip-top shape, so the agent can prepare the buyers in advance.

7. Negotiate the contract and close

Finally, all your work has paid off and you’ve received an offer on your house. With that initial offer, you’ll begin the negotiation stage.

What comes next varies from state to state, but your agent will be able to explain the process for you. Once you’ve received an offer, take a look at the following and decide if what the buyer has proposed works for you:

  • Purchase price
  • Closing date
  • Any contingencies the buyer has included (home inspection, financing, appraisal) and their associated deadlines
  • Requests for special allowances on your property, home improvements or closing costs

If it all suits you, great. But don’t fret if you see some trouble spots. It’s common to have a bit of back-and-forth before the buyer and seller can come to a compromise.

This is when you’ll be especially grateful for your real estate agent, who should handle the lion’s share of negotiating.

Once you’ve reached an agreement, you’re almost at the finish line. Just make sure you:

  • Show up to closing fully prepared, with documents and ID in hand.
  • Keep your home insurance up to date until the sale officially closes.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to pack.
  • Prepare for delays. They happen more often than not.

Costs invovled in selling your home

Getting the best possible price for your home means investing a bit of money in the process.

How much you’ll end up paying depends on the size and price of your home, how much work is needed to get the house ready for listing, and the market conditions of your area.

Real estate commission

The real estate commission will cover the fees for the agents on both sides of the transaction. This will amount to about 5% to 6% of your home’s sale price.

Staging costs

Between the flowers, houseplants, throw pillows and fresh paint, there will be some upfront costs associated with staging. The hope here is that you’ll see a significant return on investment in your home’s final sale price.

But until the deal closes, you’ll be carrying the cost for that.

Repairs or maintenance

Whether you catch problems in your own home inspection or the buyer asks you to fix anything before closing, you’re likely to end up paying for a few repairs. As with the staging costs, if you approach repairs and maintenance strategically, you’ll see a good return on your investment once a sale has gone through.

Fees negotiated in the contract

The buyer may ask for a few concessions in the contract. If you live in a buyer’s market, it may be worth it to cover a few fees for the buyer, such as the title search and title insurance to secure the deal.

Tips on selling your house faster

At the end of the day, the knowledge and expertise of a professional real estate agent is your ticket to success in selling your home. Not only will your agent help you get the best possible price, but expert help makes the process go so much faster than when you do it on your own.

But it’s important to make sure you find the right agent for you. A survey from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found that 80%% of home sellers contacted only one agent before committing to a relationship. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a few different individuals to find the right agent to sell your home.

Pairing a top-notch agent with this guide to selling your home, you’re sure to be closing a deal on your home in no time.

More: 7 companies disrupting the real estate market


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Sigrid Forberg Associate Editor

Sigrid’s is Moneywise.com's associate editor, and she has also worked as a reporter and staff writer on the Moneywise team.


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