Cold Spots In A Hot Market

Houses can languish in a bustling market if buyers are put off by the price, locale or something that doesn't smell right.

July 03, 2005|By Ryan Basen | Ryan Basen,SUN STAFF

In June, Karin Batterton came across a "beautiful house" for sale in the North Homeland area. The two-story Cape Cod was in a nice residential neighborhood and, according to Batterton, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, "there's no reason that house shouldn't have sold."

But it did not - for the first six months that it was listed.

In today's hot real estate market, when many houses in sought-after neighborhoods sell in days, there are still houses that defy the trend, remaining on the market much longer than the average listing period.

Among the reasons some houses don't move, say Baltimore-area Realtors, three stand out: price, location and condition.

More than four out of every five Baltimore-area units that sold in May were on the market for two months or less, reported Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. Only 10 percent had been listed for more than four months and overall houses lasted on the market for an average of 39 days.

It is "extremely rare" that a house sits on the market for more than two months nowadays, said Henry Strohminger, a Realtor and president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

But it happens.

The moral, say experts: Just because the housing market continues to defy predictions of a slowdown, sellers shouldn't take it for granted that merely listing their house will ensure its sale.

"You're going to have houses that do not sell even in a hot market anywhere," said David McIlvaine, a broker with Coldwell Banker in Ellicott City. The reasons why, he said, "are as varied as you and I are different.

"We've got a market [in which] sellers are stretching the values as high as they can," McIlvaine said. "Sometimes they're not doing basic things to get the house sold."

Several brokers said overpricing is the biggest reason houses don't sell.

When people put their houses up for sale, they typically seek maximum value. But that's determined by how much buyers are willing to pay - not how much sellers want.

With prices advancing at double-digit rates and stories of bidding wars abounding, some sellers insist on listing their homes at unrealistic levels, experts say.

If a house doesn't sell, "there's definitely something wrong with it," Strohminger said, noting that it's usually the price. "The owners could have so aggressively priced it, consumers are laughing them right out of the market."

That's often the case with higher-end homes, said Tim Rodgers, president of Hill & Co. As of June 29, there were 139 houses listed at more than $1 million in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

"People have gotten a little bit carried away with their pricing," Rodgers said.

Houses priced at "under $500,000 sell like hotcakes. [But] if these properties [priced at more than $1 million] don't sell in the first 30 days, they're usually sitting for a couple of months" until a price drop triggers a sale, he said.

Even moderately priced houses sometimes sit if they are priced out of a desired range, especially in an Internet search that sets targets.

Columbia resident Mary Tompkins, for example, could not sell her 13-year-old, three-story Ellicott City townhouse for three months in the fall at its $294,000 listing price.

So Tompkins reduced the price by just $4,100, to get it under $290,000, and received four offers within a day.

Condition and location can also keep houses sitting on the market.

Stained carpets, peeling walls and antiquated bathrooms, kitchens and appliances can put off buyers who don't want to spend a lot of time, money and effort on fixing a house up, several Realtors said.

"Buyers may have thousands and thousands of dollars to buy a house," Strohminger said. "So they don't have anything left" for renovations.

"Not everybody is interested in taking on a rehab project," said Nishika Jones, an agent who owns Urban Living Realty in Baltimore. "Some properties in Baltimore are scary."

Fixing up a house to augment its condition can yield quicker sales, often for more money. Experts recommend that their clients clean, paint and make repairs. Sometimes it also pays to make larger improvements.

Jeannie Pohlhaus, a Hill & Co. agent, handed a seller in Glyndon a three-page list with instructions on fixing up a century-old Victorian that was shoddy and dirty. The sellers followed her instructions and sold the house for more than the $229,900 asking price last month.

Then there's the mantra "location, location, location." No matter what condition a house is in and how cheap it is, it can have a hard time selling if it is in a bad neighborhood or sits at a busy intersection.

Tompkins' townhouse lasted a lot longer on the market than did some neighbors' homes, she said, because the back of her house is on busy Old Stockbridge Road.

Buyers' perceptions of certain neighborhoods can also make sales more difficult, Pohlhaus said.

"You read in the papers about drug deals and murders," Pohlhaus said. "A lot of people don't want to be the first ones in to re-do areas."

Other reasons why houses sit on the market include odors from pets or smoke, poor presentation for visits ("Do some dishes, pick up your kids' toys," Strohminger said), restrictive viewing hours and uncooperative sellers.

Pohlhaus recommends "packaging" the house, enhancing its image by applying new coats of paint, cleaning out cupboards and planting flowers outside, among other things.

Sellers should especially clean bathrooms and the kitchen, and eliminate odors, McIlvaine said, because they are a big deterrent. In some cases, they should replace carpets if a pet odor is particularly strong. Contractors and some commercial products are available to do that, he said.

"Buyers use every one of their senses to buy a house," McIlvaine said. "If it's an offensive smell, that'll turn them right off."

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