Hear It From The Sellers

Consumers who've recently sold a home offer candid advice on how you can improve the experience.

June 1, 2011

Sellers are a hard lot to satisfy these days. Is it any wonder they’re taking their frustrations out on you?

REALTOR® Magazine conducted in-depth interviews this spring with sellers throughout the country to learn about the service they’ve received from real estate practitioners. Our goal: To collect knowledge—from the customer vantage point—that you can use to exceed your clients’ expectations and avoid the pitfalls that lead to grumbles.

On the plus side, many sellers said they were impressed by the service they received and would gladly refer their listing agent to others. But those who were dissatisfied said they were just as likely to share their opinions with other potential sellers.

As we sought to collect honest feedback from consumers about various aspects of their selling experience, we agreed not to reveal their name or their salesperson’s name.

We grouped the stories we heard into four key actions that can make or break a seller’s decision to send more business your way.

Be proactive to help sellers understand the status of their listing and keep their anxiety in check.

"We had a showing, and I had to reach out afterward and ask, ‘What’s the feedback?’"

Rita, who’s been trying to sell her Northern Michigan home for 18 months, says she’s had no success in finding a real estate agent who will communicate why the home isn’t selling.

She listed her home in 2009 and, during 12 months, got only one showing and little communication from her agent. At the end of the listing agreement, she chose to list with someone else. Rita did extensive homework to find one of the top salespeople in her area. And before signing a new agreement, she said, she drilled him on how he’d communicate with her and told him she wanted to hear from him regularly about the market and any progress on the listing.

But Rita’s now in the same boat as she was with her first sales associate. "I’m pretty disappointed," she says. "We had a showing, and I had to reach out afterward and ask, ‘What’s the feedback?’ His assistant said, ‘We don’t know.’ My response was, ‘Why don’t you know?’"

Rita’s getting e-mails with market statistics, but she wants insight on how to proceed based on that data. "That would bring my anxiety down 100 points," she says. "It would be good to hear that it’s not our house; it’s the market. Or if it is our house, do we need to drop the price or stage the home? I want to be getting the answers from my salesperson. I’m hearing crickets."

Sue, whose Chicago condo has been on the market for more than six months, has the same complaint. "I wish she’d check in with us more and say, ‘This isn’t working; maybe we could try this.’ It was our idea to lower the price. Even if she said we needed to lower it by another $40,000 and we said no, at least we’d know why it’s not getting sold," she explains.

So what can you do to help sellers feel confident and informed? Cynthia, a recent seller in Willoughby, Ohio, said she was happy with the techniques her agent used—even though it took 42 weeks for the home to sell. "He has four people who work with him," she says. "They were in constant communication by telephone and e-mail," helping her make informed decisions. Another seller recounts a similar positive experience. "Our salesperson was very proactive in contacting us," says Mike, who closed on his Chicago condo in October 2010. "He solicited comments from people who saw the place. He asked not only about our place but also why they liked this particular area and if they had any concerns."

When recommending a listing price, listen to their opinions and show them you really understand the market dynamics.

Troy had lovingly restored his home in Northern South ­Dakota, and when he listed it in 2008, he believed buyers would value that it was move-in ready. He was disappointed when his sales associate did a routine search for comps, averaged them, and suggested a listing price of $131,000, which he considered low.

"We’d heard our community had a housing shortage, and we were also hearing that everything on the market was crap," recalls Troy. "She went too much through her routine without considering the unique factors of our home. But I knew that our home was going to stand out and insisted she list it for $175,000. We sold it for $159,000 in one month."

Troy says his salesperson also did only routine marketing. "Ours was a Craftsman Foursquare home," he says. "The ads said only that it had a lot of charm. She just went through the motions."

How do you show sellers that you’re making an informed price recommendation? It’s simple: Hard work and market knowledge. Laurie knew she’d have to do a short sale because her Medford, Ore., home’s value had dropped more than 40 percent since she purchased it in August 2005. But even in the face of comps that didn’t support their position, every salesperson Laurie interviewed recommended listing at an unrealistically high price. "They didn’t want to look at the possibility that a lot of homes in their area would need to be sold short," says Laurie. "And among salespeople, the reputation for short sales was that they were a whole lot of work and there was zero guarantee you’d be able to close."

Laurie did an Internet search for a short sales expert and found the salesperson who shepherded her home to an August 2010 closing. Laurie says her agent demonstrated his expertise; he landed three offers within two weeks, one above market value. "He listed our home slightly under market value in a way that maximized traffic," says Laurie. "He personally handled negotiations with our bank and communicated with the buyer’s agent to make sure the buyers knew where we stood with the bank at all times. That kept them from backing out of a transaction that took almost six months to complete."

It’s OK to be pushy sometimes, as long as you are working on the same team as your clients.

Have you ever heard consumers bemoaning pushy salespeople? None of the sellers we interviewed had that complaint. In fact, some wanted their sales associate to be more pushy, and others conceded they should have listened when their salesperson did become pushy.

When Linda was selling her condo in Lake Zurich, Ill., which closed in April 2010, she was pleased with her salesperson’s marketing and communication skills. When it came time for price negotiations, Linda’s satisfaction plummeted. "I wish she had been a little aggressive," she explains. "She didn’t encourage us to fight more for our price. The buyer’s original offer was $250,000, and she didn’t really say either way how she felt. Over two days, we came down from $289,000 to $265,000. During that time, I wish she’d have given us more direction on counteroffering and other aspects of negotiation."

To this day, Linda wonders whether she could have pocketed more money, in part because her sales associate had also listed a family member’s nearly identical condo in the same complex. That closing took place just two weeks after Linda’s. "Her condo got an offer for $30,000 more, and our condos shouldn’t have been that far off in price," says Linda. "In addition, on that later sale, the salesperson didn’t even recommend a counteroffer, which I thought wasn’t good."

Giving your client honest advice isn’t being pushy. Just ask Don, who admits he should have listened when his salesperson pushed back against Don’s original asking price on his Studio City, Calif., home, which he sold in January 2010. "He tried to tell us not to price our home so high," explains Don. "He said the market for homes more than $1.25 million was very tight and that there were more buyers in the $1 million to $1.25 million range. I thought our house was worth maybe $1.4 million. But he kept me at $1.35 million, and rightfully so because we eventually dropped the price to $1.25 million and accepted an offer within 10 percent of our asking price."

When you put your heart into your work, it really shows.

Every once in a while, there’s a sale that requires you perform nearly superhuman feats to get it closed. Do that, and the sellers will sing your praises ever more.

Irene’s sale required such efforts. In the span of nine months, her father died and her mother became gravely ill. Using a power of attorney, Irene listed her parents’ Westlake, Ohio, house in August 2010. "I was honest," she says. "I told my salesperson, ‘I’m out of my parents’ money, and we’re still taking care of my mom.’ He didn’t know me, and he just wanted to help."

The house was on the market for months with no takers, but Irene’s salesperson never flagged. "Every month, I’d get a report showing what was selling and what wasn’t," Irene says. "He was always calling me afterward to ask, ‘Did you get a chance to look at the report? This home that sold wasn’t comparable to yours, and these that did sell were.’ "

Irene eventually took out a home equity loan to continue to cover her mother’s $9,000 monthly care costs. In January, Irene’s salesperson—as he’d done when he’d taken the listing—recommended she replace the maroon and emerald carpeting. Irene again hesitated because of the cost. So her salesperson hunted down a wholesale carpet installer who agreed to do the work at a huge discount. "He did that on his own," Irene recalls. "And I finally broke down and paid for the carpeting out of my own money. I was speechless when a week later he called and said we had an offer."

The worst wasn’t over. Before the March closing, Irene’s mother entered hospice care. "When I told my salesperson the news, I said, ‘If my mom passes, I can’t legally sell the house,’" she recalls. "He said, ‘You’re right’ and was on the phone within minutes to get the buyers and the title company to move up the closing. If my mom had passed before the closing, the house would have gone into probate—and I don’t know what would have happened to the buyers.

"If that’s not an awesome sales associate, I don’t know what is," adds Irene. "I was so touched at how my salesperson went out of his way to help me sell my parents’ house. He’s crossed the road and become a friend."

Now Irene says he’ll always be her salesperson, and she’s already referred two people to him. "I also sent an e-mail blast out to the people I know in case others were looking to buy or sell a house," she explains. "When someone gives me great service, I like to tell others about it."

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.