What your real estate seller may be thinking

In the end, business is done between people, however many barriers we place between ourselves. Since people have feelings and opinions, how we act toward each other can/might affect the transaction. A hobbyhorse of mine is the constant mantra about customer focus, customer service, “the customer is always right,” all that stuff. There is a fine art to being a good customer, and it doesn’t happen just by showing up. To their detriment and discredit, most people seem to expend no effort in that direction.

As an editor, I will reject a potential client who I deem is a problem. Intensely neurotic? Needs a therapist, not an editor. Control freak? Needs to find an editor willing to indulge that. Cannot write at all? Needs to find an editor interested in teaching remedial writing to someone likely to ignore the lessons. Cannot handle honesty? Needs to find a better liar than me. If I lie, I am not doing my work.

But isn’t the customer always right? Not when my name will be credited, she isn’t. The client has every right to disregard any of my advice. I have the right to ask not to be print-credited. I have done Alan Smithees, and I didn’t like doing so, but it’s better than having readers shake their heads at the ‘incompetent editing’ that they imagine was my doing.

In recent months, for the second time in life, I have gone through the process of selling a home. In both cases, the experience filled me with contempt for the buyer. That did not work to the buyer’s advantage, because I had wanted to share a lot of knowledge and kindness. In both cases, I chose not to volunteer that guidance, which could have saved each buyer thousands of dollars and dozens of hours of irritation. I chose not to volunteer it because I was pissed off.

As a real estate buyer, of course, you do not know much about the seller. You could be the world’s best buyer, and have cast your pearls before swine. That wouldn’t be so bad, because here is the basic logic: if you do things right, at the very least you do your own cause no harm, and at the very most, you may gain greatly. If you do not, you eliminate potential benefits. So let’s talk about how to be a good real estate buyer, seeing the transaction through the seller’s eyes.

So you’re shopping, and a place looks appealing. How long has it been on the market? The first three days are the hot period, in which there will be lots of activity unless it is badly priced or marketed. If those have elapsed, and it’s still available in a market with any level of activity, the seller is concerned. The seller must be ready for the property to be shown at any time, which can mean great disruption to normal life. (A seller finding ways to discourage showings is too stupid for a realtor or buyer to deal with.) Thus: if it’s been on the market a while, there’s a reason. If it’s a fundamentally slow market, such as a small town or depressed area, it could be no one is buying. If it’s a busy market, and it’s not selling, it is either too expensive, or there’s something else causing a problem. In any case, if it’s hot, if you want it, you must act. If it’s not, you have more leverage, but may not find out why it wasn’t selling until you go into contract. If it’s hot, the seller has the leverage, but the seller also wants the deal done and over with. If it’s not, the buyer has the leverage, but the seller may be a donkey or a fool. Having been that sort of a fool once in life, I cannot blame the buyer.

Negotiations: once this begins, the seller is in a difficult position. More offers might come in…or not. The house is still showing…and it may all be for nothing. If you require a very tight time window as a buyer, the seller may not be able to respond in time. In any case, you make an offer. If you cannot provide proof that you qualify financially, you are peeing into the wind. No amount of having your agent natter about how you are a young couple and excited, but need a discount because of youth poverty, is helpful to you. A sensible seller will look at that and suspect that your financing may fall through. So: if you want a property, offer what you would be willing to pay. The back-and-forth is excruciating to the seller, and may lead to a better offer making yours irrelevant. If the seller wants more than you will pay, fine; reject it as something you can’t afford. This is your first interaction with the seller, and s/he is taking note of how you behave. If you want it, behave like a serious buyer. If your seller doesn’t behave like a serious seller, well, now you know at least partly why it hasn’t sold.

In contract: okay, agreement has been reached, subject to whatever conditions. The power shifts to the buyer, who orders an inspection and completes the application for financing. Is this buyer a flake who will argue with the lender about documentation, or slack off providing it? What kind of home inspector will the buyer hire, and on what will he focus? The buyer can destroy the deal at any time simply by presenting unreasonable remediation conditions. The seller has removed the property from the market, which means that if this doesn’t work out, that magical first few days of listing can never return, and s/he will have to begin all over again. As buyer, do you prefer your seller relaxed and cooperative, or frightened and defensive? If you want him or her frightened and defensive, you can arrange that, but bear in mind that the seller has the power to cause you unlimited future headaches if s/he wishes. Do you really think the seller’s loathing of you works to your benefit? If so, well, have fun. If not, then do this: arrange the inspection as swiftly as you can. Through the agents, consult the seller about convenient times for inspection, and try not to throw your seller out of bed at an ungodly hour without need.

And get your financing act together, immediately. You can’t know how well the agents communicate, but at the very least, you can require your agent to notify the seller’s agent of every milestone. You don’t think your seller cares that you have just been told you have submitted all documentation to your lender in satisfactory form? Oh, s/he cares. That tells your seller you are not a flake. That means your seller is more confident about the deal. That means your seller has more to lose by not pleasing you. That means your seller will, unless stupid, do his or her best to make the deal go well for you both. Push comes to shove, your seller owns a file and knows where the pipes are, and if you make him or her angry enough, he or she might weaken one. (No, I did nothing of the kind. But I have known people who would.)

All right. The inspection has happened and the seller is nervous as to what you’ll ask for. Newsflash: inspections are not simply a means to an automatic discount. Inspections are a means to learn if the property has serious problems, which I would define as issues costing over 1% of the selling price to remedy. If the seller is sensible, s/he has already had it inspected, and has remedied all important issues. If not, no mercy on him or her, because it’s the seller’s job to deliver the property in good condition. So if your inspection disappoints you by not offering enough problems to milk another grand out of the seller–whom you have at a vulnerable point, and will remember and may resent leverage applied without good cause–consider that the best possible result, and think about waiving the contingency. You want the property. A qualified professional has just advised you that it is in great shape, with only petty issues. Either you doubt your inspector’s competency, or you are greatly reassured. If the former, why did you hire a fool? And who is the fool who does so? If the latter, now is a great time to make points with your seller by waiving the contingency, assuming you haven’t changed your mind about the deal. Once you do this, your seller sighs in relief, and has more incentive to please you.

Financing: your seller would like to know, the minute you know, that your financing is approved. S/he fears that somehow the deal may flounder because of your credit, or because you hired an incompetent financing source (commercial banks are the worst, credit unions are typically best). Your buyer’s agent works for you, but the seller pays her. You have every right to expect your communications and status reports to be sent to the seller. If your agent (or the listing agent) is lazy, you can advise her you will contact the seller directly. The seller’s email address is probably on the paperwork; push came to shove, you could simply drop by. What’s your agent going to do? Turn down her commission? Require your agent to forward your communications to the seller, and expect assurance that this has been done. Not long ago, I was a buyer in a deal where the seller was wonderful but somehow had used a dickish listing agent. We just went straight to the seller with updates. The seller was delighted, and our consideration motivated her to do us a great deal of good. Having seen the deal through her eyes, she wanted to see it through ours.

Walkthrough: it is normal for the buyer to have a final walkthrough, the stated purpose of which is to assure him/herself that the property remains in the condition presented to him or her. However, that is when you might start to see the payoff.  Your seller doesn’t have to meet you; he or she simply has to cooperate for the walkthrough. You would very much rather your seller was eager to meet you, and to share with you the most important information about the property. That’s your time to ask any question, learn about good vendors, foibles, best solutions to endemic issues. And if you annoyed your seller, s/he has no obligation to do a single thing except permit the walkthrough in absentia.

You think that doesn’t matter? Consider this. I had prepared a long document with a core dump of everything useful I knew about this home, which I will vacate within thirty-six hours [this was drafted as I was preparing to leave the home]. I went so far as to print .pdfs of documentation on appliances I had dug up, at great effort, for which our own seller provided us none. I was excited to answer any question the buyer might pose, and eager to offer her a personally guided tour. I can tell you right now that, within the first month, her dog will cost her several hundred dollars she could have avoided with my help. And even though I surrendered some very precious time with my wife in order to be present for the walkthrough, this buyer did two terribly foolish things. First, she showed up with an entourage of no less than six people. Herself, her fiancé, and her daughter–those I understood. The rest were just friends or relatives wanting to lookylou. It unsettled and annoyed me. What was more, they determined that they didn’t want much information from me. They were sure, I guess, that they knew all they needed to know.

Very well. I’ll just chill over here. In plastic-smile silence, volunteering nothing.

After they left, having allowed me to waste my time and having made the experience disappointing for me, I went to my computer and deleted the document. They wanted no information? Wish granted. I also made the decision that, for the short remaining time I was here, I was exempt from any obligation to clean the place up. So long as I delivered per the contract, that was all I need do. I considered tossing the spare filters for the air cleaner, but I didn’t. I thought about tossing the paint cans most relevant to the current situation, though I didn’t. I lost all interest in not leaving clutter in the garage, or sweeping. I would not mow again. The six spare keys? Pitched them. Lawn stuff I wasn’t taking? Couldn’t leave clutter laying around, now, could we? Obviously, I would not and did not harm the property, as I was obligated to deliver it in the proper condition, and I did just that…but no contract requires me to go the extra mile and make decisions in the buyer’s favor.

I wanted it to work otherwise, but for most of the process, as seller, I was over a barrel. And when it came down to it, the buyer managed to communicate to me that I didn’t matter. Appointments occurred with zero choice on my part as to timing. I offered some items for free; the buyer accepted those and then had the nerve to ask for others as well. Seen through my eyes, I had prepared gifts, and they either were spurned, or spurred requests for additional gifts.

Very well.

Ah, perhaps you think it’s always that way? Think again. The house we bought? The sellers chose us, the lowest offer, because they liked us based on how we presented ourselves. I realize it’s un-American, but not everyone is a greedy bastard; some people make decisions for reasons other than the monetary religion of the land. The sellers, unprompted, spent $1000 having an appliance inspected, repaired, and brought to good function. The sellers, when we waived the inspection contingency (less than 0.5% of the property value needing addressing), offered us any and all furniture in the house. They were most reassured by our steady informing them of milestones. When we held the whip hand, we did not use it, and they knew it, and they wanted to leave us the best possible outcome.

And they did. They were my wife’s tour guides on the walkthrough, had already told the neighbors great things about us, and left us a number of happy and kind surprises. We all felt great about the transaction. As buyers, we treated our sellers with courteous respect and consideration, and they repaid us handsomely. We had many chances to destroy that atmosphere; we just knew it was not in our best interests, beyond being just bad business conduct. Showing consideration for your seller is like being courteous to the cop who stopped you. You might not help your case, but you can be sure you did not harm it.

Houses cost six figures, most places. I think it is wise to improve one’s odds in every possible way when paying such a sum for any item. And as a wise man long ago taught me, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line except when dealing with people. The roundabout, wavy line is the one where you see the world through someone else’s eyes, and seek to make that person’s experience better where you can.

Your seller could still be a jerk immune to good behavior, or unable to believe it could mean a considerate buyer. Those are the risks one runs. But I would rather be a very considerate buyer, and at least create the option for an excellent outcome, then be inconsiderate–and never know what I cost myself until the contractor’s invoice arrives, long after the property has recorded.

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