Fire damaged home

© Photos Courtesy of Betty Kerr

Out of the Rubble

Even a fire-ravaged home can attract a successful offer, one agent’s determination proves.

January - February
2020

Many real estate professionals would have taken one look at the burned-out, garbage-strewn home and told the seller, “I don’t think I’m the right agent for you.”

Fire damaged home exterior

© Photos Courtesy of Betty Kerr

But I was confident I could sell the dilapidated three-bedroom, two-bath property, which was heavily damaged when the central heating unit caught fire five years earlier. The southern California home was in a lovely golf course community, so the seller was asking for $199,000—even though the house needed to be gutted. Soot stains lined the walls, rats had infested the piles of charred furniture inside, and a large hole poked through the tile roof, where firefighters had broken through to put out the fire. Although the home was uninhabitable, squatters would crash there from time to time.

It was an ordeal that the seller, a woman in her 80s, didn’t know how to handle. She had worked with a handful of agents in the first few years after the fire, but the home failed to sell. I heard the desperation in her voice as she explained that she couldn’t afford to continue paying her property taxes. The city of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., was planning to foreclose on the property and sell it in a tax lien sale. I convinced city officials to give me 60 days to get the home in escrow before they foreclosed, and I told the seller, “Every home has a buyer.”

Fire damaged home interior

© Photos Courtesy of Betty Kerr

I immediately got to work. Luckily, I knew six people in the moving industry who volunteered to help remove the trash that had built up in the yard over the years, including discarded mattresses, clothes, and furniture. One volunteer had a tractor for hauling the garbage, and it still took our motley crew a week to finish the cleanup. Because the clock was ticking to get the home marketed and sold, we decided not to touch the debris inside. My plan was to sell the property as is.

After improving the home’s curb appeal as much as possible, I canvassed the neighborhood to drum up exposure for the listing. This is a process I go through with all my listings because who can tout the neighborhood better than the people living there? I sent out 50 personalized letters to neighbors, investors, and contractors. Then, I knocked on 20 doors a day in the neighborhood for six weeks, explaining the investment potential of rehabbing the property and flipping it or turning it into a rental. But many potential buyers balked at the prospective costs of cleaning up the home’s interior and remodeling.

With about two weeks left to meet the escrow deadline, I met a contractor during my door-knocking campaign who lived two blocks away from the listing and showed interest. He owned three other homes in the neighborhood and rented them out, so he saw the financial opportunity. He could see that he’d have to strip the house down to the studs and rebuild, but he wasn’t daunted by the task. He also agreed to work with the city to ensure the property would be brought up to code.

The seller worked out an arrangement with the city to pay the back taxes she owed. Within days, the property was in escrow, and the seller was able to refocus on her future. Sometimes the perfect buyer is right under your nose—or a few doors down. —Betty Kerr, CRS, RE/MAX Evolution, Newport Beach, Calif.

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