The prospect was a doctor whose interest was sparked in the beautiful brick four-bedroom colonial for sale in the Dorsey Hall village of Columbia. He was interested, that is, until he went inside with his agent and encountered the owner's family.
When the buyer entered, the family's three kids were sprawled out in the family room, the television blaring. Their mother was busily working in the kitchen, running the dishwasher. To add to the picture, the family's dog was meandering about.
"The prospect came away with the feeling that the house was noisy, cluttered and busy. Needless to say, he didn't buy it," remembers Elaine Northrup, the agent who showed the doctor the home.
Sellers seeking to show a house in the best possible light are well advised to disappear when their homes are shown to potential buyers, realty specialists say. All too often would-be buyers feel crowded by the owners' presence. In nearly all cases, it's better to have only the realty agent showing the place.
"I can't tell you what a turnoff it is to trip over sellers, dogs and everything -- especially if there are kids in the home," says Ms. Northrup, who sells real estate through Coldwell Banker's Howard County office.
Not only does a home populated with the owners seem smaller, but the prospective buyers can have trouble picturing themselves living there.
"You want the buyer to mentally move in. He can't do that if there are too many people there and it feels more like 'their house' than 'my house,' " Ms. Northrup says.
The presence of buyers can also inhibit a prospect from pressing for information they need to make a decision about buying a property, says Monte Helme, a vice president with the Century 21 realty chain.
"It's human nature to be a little timid about asking tough questions in the presence of the owners. Most buyers are fearful about saying something that might offend the seller," Mr. Helme says.
Why should you as a seller care if a buyer feels comfortable
asking hard questions about your home? Because otherwise the buyer might go away with misconceptions about the property that would keep him from the home's purchase.
"Having the owners there cuts down the potential dialogue you might have between the prospects and their agent. That can stymie the possibility of the prospect seriously considering the property," says Karl Breckenridge, author of "Staying on Top in Real Estate" (Dearborn Financial Publishing).
To illustrate, Mr. Breckenridge recalls the case of a buyer seriously interested in an oversized, stone ranch house. The buyer was impressed with the home, its several fireplaces and the wall of glass in the rear. Still, he had an extreme dislike for the deep lavender bathroom sink selected by the owners and feared mentioning so in their presence.
It was only after the man scratched the stone ranch house off his list that the agent realized the lavender basin was the cause of the turnoff. After it was too late, the agent discovered the man had thought it would cost $1,500 to replace the sink when $150 probably would have covered it, Mr. Breckenridge remembers.
Only about 10 percent of American home sellers insist on being present when their homes are shown for sale, Mr. Helme estimates. Their reasons vary. Some sellers are simply too lazy to leave. Some sellers think they must stand guard to protect their valuables when strangers enter. And many other sellers, especially elderly ones, simply believe that being there as a source of information will help them sell.
Regardless of the reason, it's almost always a mistake for the owners to hover when buyers come by, realty experts caution.
"If you really want to help, take off and tell the buyer you'll be back in 30 minutes," Mr. Helme suggests.
Realty specialists offer these pointers:
* Convey important facts about your house indirectly rather than directly.
Facts can be how to operate the garage door opener or a Jacuzzi in the master bath. But you don't have to be present to make your points. Better to write down the information and leave it behind on the dining room table, Mr. Helme recommends.
(The only exception comes late in the selling process -- usually within 30 days of a deal becoming final. At this stage, it's appropriate for the buyer and seller to meet face-to-face to discuss almost any aspect of the property that may be of concern to the buyer. The buyer may be worried, for instance, about how to maintain the heated pool. And unless he gets a lesson, the deal could come apart.)
* Remove valuables so you can remove yourself. Does your home contain valuable items such as silver, jewelry or art work that you fear might be stolen? Then it's far better to hide or remove them entirely than to stand guard while the property is being shown. "A good agent will tell you to lock away your valuables," Mr. Helme says.
* Tell your prospects upfront if you must be at the home when they come by.