Friday, January 10, 2020

First-Time Home Seller, Part III: The Move

Before you get your home ready to show prospective buyers, the most important thing to realize is that you have terrible taste.  Sure, you love the color scheme in the dining room and it was fashionable, but trust me, those particular shades of whatever paint you used look awful now and your buyers will hate it.  And if they don't like it then the first thing they'll do when they put an offer together is start to take money off the top.  "Well since we're going to redo almost every surface in there, let's drop our offer by maybe two grand.  I mean Jesus. Burnt orange and chartreuse?"  There is a scientific basis for this as well, in that people react differently to colors, but can more easily imagine their preferred color scheme on a neutral surface.

Lesson 10: Paint it white.  Go back and watch the business card scene from American Psycho, write down every "shade" of white that they describe, bring that list to a Sherwin Williams store, and tell them this is your new color palate.

"Look at that subtle off-white coloring..."

This is a good time to remember that all of your furniture is ugly too.  Sure you knew the couch you picked up in college from someone's alley and is now in the basement man-cave should be passed on to the next generation of kids getting their first apartment or possibly destroyed via exorcism.  But everything you bought since then is awful too.  The bench that looked so charming on the Wayfair website was exactly the wrong one, the klibbig och förfallen from Ikea wasn't put together right and it just so happens your prospective buyers are snobby Swedish furniture assemblers and they will notice such things, and let's not get started on those dining room chairs.

Since I bought my new home before selling, I was able to move my furniture out and stage the house.  You may have to put that in storage or get rid of things to make room, but hiring someone to stage your home can help significantly.  A professional stager is someone with better aesthetic taste than your entire family will ever cumulatively have, who can bring in furniture you could otherwise never afford to put in your home, and who can fool the buyers into thinking that they are not purchasing a house from an uncultured slob.  Since the furniture is not yours though, you won't be able to use it or touch it or look directly at it while your home is selling.  You'll essentially pay a thousand dollars or more to turn your household life into a giant game of "Operation" until a buyer comes along, and it will be worth every penny.

Trust me, nothing of mine EVER looks this stylish.

Now that the house is ready to show to people who will actually give you money, let's go over a few basics that often get overlooked.  Keep things clean.  This means wiping down every imaginable surface, minimizing dust, sweeping and mopping, cleaning windows and mirrors, and getting rid of clutter.  If you've staged your house with other people's furniture but still haven't completely gotten rid of your own, "decluttering" is a physical impossibility.  Do it anyway.  Similar to staging, you may want to hire a professional to take care of details you are psychologically incapable of seeing.  When you walk into a home that you're thinking of buying, you might not notice these things.  But your brain does.  The same is true for your home and prospective buyers.  Every time something in a buyer's brain says, "I don't really like this," whether they realize it or not, that action makes it less likely they'll put in an offer and more likely that they'll come in with a lower bid.

Your home has been painted, staged, cleaned, decluttered of extraneous objects and children, and it's ready to be listed!  The big day is here!  What can you expect?

One of the genuine surprises I had during my sale process was how FAST a live listing turns into a request to see the home.  My listing went live at five o'clock and I was still in the middle of wiping down surfaces, decluttering some spots, and replacing some exterior light bulbs.  I figured I would have part of that late afternoon/early evening to make things just perfect.  Oh how wrong that assumption is.  You see, in today's real estate market there are people who have already sold their homes or agreed to move out of their apartment and are now living in a continuous holding pattern, driving around town with their realtor twenty-four hours a day.  When a listing goes live, they will immediately descend on your home like a flock of circling birds, hoping at least for a bowl of candy or some wax fruit from the staging company that they can grab for nourishment.  Within minutes I was getting requests to see the house and the buyers and their realtors were already on their way.  By 5:15, the first round of people were already trundling through my home, and a seller should really never be around when that happens.

Lesson 11: When your listing goes up, the house should be 100% ready right at that moment because buyers are already waiting for their chance to view your home.

If you and your realtor have worked together and done things well enough (in a hot market; as things cool down the listing process takes longer), you may have an acceptable offer within the first few days.  Then it's time to go through the inspection and appraisal processes, and begin packing up the remainder of your belongings so that you can seamlessly transition from one home to the next.  Of course, this will not happen.

When I moved from a two-bedroom apartment into my Minneapolis home, it was unreal how much STUFF I had accumulated.  Once I finally settled in, I remember saying, “If this is what it’s like moving this much crap from an apartment into a home, I hope I never have to move from this house after I’ve filled it with even more stuff.”  Wisdom from the mouth of babes.

Now at first the task of boxing up your entire life will seem huge but manageable.  Thinking you’ll be able to do this without going crazy is your first mistake. You’ll start by boxing up the more commonly used items in your home because those will be the things your brain recognizes as easily categorized.  Ha ha! Isn’t this exciting?! We’re moving to a new home and I can’t wait to unpack the silverware and kitchen utensils and nice china and sit down to a delicious meal! Except now your utensils and silverware are boxed up and at the BOTTOM of all the other boxes you’ve filled because you put those aside first.  I hope you like eating Ramen noodles and using pizza box tops as plates for the next six weeks! You did it for a few years in college, so how hard can this be?

Or maybe you decide to use an opposite strategy, packing up everything you don't use first. So you wander through the house in a helter-skelter fashion, picking up detritus you haven't used in months or even years. But you can only lump in random objects like needle-nose pliers and galoshes and baseball card collections for so long before your waking hours turn into the equivalent of a deliriously lucid fever dream. And just when you think you won't need some old document like college transcripts or income tax returns from seven years ago, your loan officer will call you up and say that underwriting needs the exact hardest document to find right now or your loan isn't closing on time.

Eventually whatever system you have for packing your belongings will break down.  This is inevitable, and if we're being honest here it wasn't really working to begin with. The more often you use or come across something, the easier it is to categorize it and put it in a box that makes sense for how it will be unpacked and utilized in the new home.  Books, kitchenware, furniture, important documents, wall hangings, rugs, pets, most kids, etc. are all easy to categorize. But remember the time you bought a sewing kit before deciding a new outfit was more convenient than reattaching a button?  Or last Christmas when your mom said she had saved your third-grade research project that was basically a plagiarized encyclopedia entry on Portugal but she decided to keep it all these years for you and now you can’t just THROW IT AWAY. And just a reminder, you bought that guitar, fully intending to teach yourself at least a few chords because how hard can it be?  Or the shoebox full of poems you wrote about your high school crush and even though you’re Facebook friends now and it’s clear you really dodged a bullet on that one those things still have sentimental value. You were going to use the guitar to put that to music, remember?

Your house is FULL of these things.  You may not have thought about them for the better part of a decade, but they have not forgotten about you.  After a while, those will be the only things left unpacked. They will sit out in the open, staring at you, defying you to try and make sense of your life, and then they will scurry off into random drawers, only to resurface just when you thought you had all your belongings boxed up.

This is a good stage to figure out which box has your tablet and a charger, plug those in to watch some Marie Kondo on Netflix, and the load up your car with things you don't know what to do with and bring them to Goodwill. Those sweaters your aunt gave you for three straight Christmases that you never wore, the questionable artwork you couldn't put up even BEFORE your walls took on an unblemished eggshell patina so forget it NOW, your least favorite child, and so on.

When it comes to packing up your life's belongings, the next lesson in moving comes from an adage I've heard home rehabbers use often. The hardest fifty percent is the last ten percent. When your system for organizing and boxing things up breaks down, those last few things are the hardest to categorize and pack.

I went through all of this with just a dog.  As long as I had a few toys and her food and water dishes out, she handled the chaos pretty well.  I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to handle this Herculean cleaning-of-the-stables task with kids in tow - even if you made sure they had toys and food and water dishes.  So anyone trying to juggle a home sale with being a responsible parent, there’s really only one piece of advice I feel qualified to give.

Remember when you were a kid and you went off to summer camp and you had this paranoid thought, Oh my god, what happens if when I get back from camp, I go home and find out that mom and dad MOVED?  As an adult, I’m telling you, this is probably the way you want to do it.

Another item - your house WILL start to behave in different ways.  There WILL be things that happen that never happened in the years that you lived there.  Some of it makes sense when you think about it. Imagine if you and your spouse work the same shift and then for a while suddenly one of you has to work nights.  The things you do with and around each other change because your schedules change. The same is true with your house. You start to use some rooms more and others less; you put strain or stress on the home in a way that you hadn’t before, so in that respect it shouldn’t be surprising that the house acts differently.  Or maybe it’s just a side effect from a random and merciless universe, you decide.

But these things absolutely will happen, and probably AFTER you've had all the relevant inspections and disclosed everything possible to your new buyer and now you have to make them wonder what kind of shabby and decrepit house it is that they're buying.

Right before my house sold, Minneapolis had an unusually late and large snowfall and quick melting.  My basement flooded, and so did basements for people who hadn’t seen condensation for decades. Even though my basement was dry for years and I'd just repainted it with a specific seal to keep it that way, prospective buyers balked at the once-in-a-decade wet conditions. And then the week of the open house, a colony of ants decided to announce their presence. Seven years and I had never seen an ant infestation like this before.  So be prepared to wonder if you have picked up a poltergeist during the moving process, and hopefully that will stay in your old home instead of following you to the new one.

But now...FINALLY you're in your new home! You can start to unpack and begin a new chapter in your life. This is going to be great. And with all the lessons you learned from selling and moving for the first time, you'll be sure to do things that will make this easier in a few years when you move again. Right? ... RIGHT???

I hope you saved that shoebox full of high school love poems. Spread those out on the fancy new desk that the next buyers are sure to love when you sell this place. You're going to need a reminder from time to time of precisely how foolhardy and unattainable your dreams really are.

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