Whistling Past the Graveyard

With 3,209 square feet of new construction, this stunning property in Fort Mitchell, Ala., drew raves from many prospective buyers. But its view of a 100-year-old cemetery was giving some people the creeps.

March 1, 2010

Location: Fort Mitchell, Ala.
Square footage: 3,209
Lot size (square footage): 20,531
Bedrooms: 5
Bathrooms: 4
Year built: 2009
Extras: Two-story great room, fireplace, new construction, and view of a century-old graveyard.

THE CHALLENGE: Frank Potts, the broker-owner of Subdivision Development Services LLC, in Fort Mitchell, Ala., figured he was up to the challenge when a developer asked him to take over the onsite sales and marketing in the newly developed Villages at Westgate in June 2009.

While most of the new homes in this stable market were selling, the house that backed up to a century-old cemetery had no takers. The view of several tombstones from a guest bedroom window on the second floor of the home left most prospective buyers feeling uneasy.

"The cemetery was well maintained and looked as good as a 100-year-old cemetery can look," Potts says. "And we tried to point out some of the positives; at least buyers wouldn't have to worry about the people behind them. 'They stay pretty quiet,' we pointed out."

Humor aside, most people left with one question: Have you got one like this on a different lot?

"More than 90 percent of our buyers are military families with one or both spouses on active duty," he says. "These men and women of our armed forces go on tours to Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular basis. They just don't want anything related to a cemetery around when they are at home relaxing with their families."

The prospect of quiet neighbors couldn't override the tombstone stigma, and the house sat on the market for almost six months and, according to Potts, showed no signs of selling. "We showed it 30 times," he adds.

How did you overcome the challenge?

POTTS: We got the Country Church, which owned the cemetery, to extend the lattice-style brick fence that ran along the front of the cemetery to the side and the back. This helped quite a bit but still, no sale.

Next, we went to the builder and recommended he do some upgrades to make the home show better. He agreed to most of them. First, he put more mature plants and shrubs on the front of the home and added a small flower garden area between the sidewalk and the front porch. We added fresh pine straw and bark mulch in the front of the house around the plants and flower beds. At this point, the home looked great from the curb.

Inside, the builder installed a tiled backsplash in the kitchen and stainless steel appliances to complete the look. Typically, builders don't install appliances until the house is under contract.

We added some beadboard below the kitchen countertops on the sheetrock side and painted it to match the trim. Also, we added 2-inch wood blinds and a fan-and-light combo in all the bedrooms. This made the home look and feel more like the model home we use as our sales center.

Finally, we added a wooden privacy fence around the perimeter of the lot to eliminate the view of the tombstones from the second-floor guest bedroom. With all this done in less than two weeks, we had a contract and the home closed.

What was the selling price?

POTTS: The property listed for $209,900 in June 2009. We sold the home Dec. 4 for $208,900.

What techniques did you use to market this property? And how much did you spend?

POTTS: We featured the home on e-flyers that were sent to the real estate community in the Columbus, Ga., and Phenix City, Ala., market areas. It is hard to put a price on marketing just this home. But I would estimate that our marketing budget for 2009 was around $1,500 to $2,000 per home sold.

What was the housing market like at the time?

POTTS: The market is very stable here and got a boost from the base realignment act revisions under the Clinton administration that brought more military jobs and families to the area. Our neighborhood, an area known as the Oswichee community of Fort Mitchell, a town named after a fort that was active during the Civil War era, averages more than seven homes per month closed.

This subdivision, which had been used for cotton and peanut farming for as long as anyone can remember, benefitted from military growth of Georgia's Fort Benning army base.

The area has seen a lot of growth in the last two years. Most home builders came here from the Atlanta area when the bubble burst in 2007. With a good subcontractor base, these builders can build a new home in 60 to 90 days, start to finish. Most of the new homes in this area stay on the market up to 60 days once completed, 90 days at the most.

How did you find a buyer?

POTTS: We found the buyer through a co-op agent. His client, a young soldier in his late 20s, was relocating from a base in Hawaii with a young family and saw the home on our featured advertisement on REALTOR.com.

What's the biggest factor you attribute to closing the deal?

POTTS: The upgrades definitely helped close this deal. We built the wooden privacy fence, upgraded the kitchen, and paid some extra closing costs for the buyer. It was a win-win for everyone.

What lessons did you learn?

POTTS: I learned that a person buys a home for their own reason, not ours. We present the home, offer suggestions, and answer questions. We point out features, advantages, benefits — and then we shut up. How many times have we all blown a sale by talking too much or talking past the closing stage of the critical path to a sale?

How did you get started in real estate?

POTTS: I got my college degree in finance and worked in the food service industry and as a real estate appraiser before moving into sales in 1990. I started as a new-home specialist for a large golf community developed on the south side of Atlanta. But on-site sales have always been my passion.

What was your closed sales volume last year?

POTTS: I closed about $6 million in new-home sales in 2009.

Do you have a specialty or niche?

POTTS: New-home sales are my niche. I also cater to military clients. With more military installations in every market, this is a strong niche. Whether active-duty or retired, military professionals still have to qualify for loans. But military clients can get 100 percent mortgages because the VA guarantees the loans. So this is a strong niche market.

Anything else you'd like to share?

POTTS: Even with a stigmatized property, whether it's a cemetery, power lines, or railroad tracks, don't give up. There are always properties with issues. But with hard work and persistence you can find a buyer for every house.

So I guess the key is that even if it looks bad or creepy, as in this case, don't give up. Focus on the positives.