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Originally published Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sellers of million-dollar homes test the for-sale-by-owner market

For-sale-by-owner deals have traditionally been in the lower price points. But mortgage meltdown has pushed owners of luxury mansions to try to make deals on their own or with limited help of a real-estate agent.

Special to The Seattle Times

What if ...

You try to sell your house yourself.

× Clean and organize your home before putting up a "For Sale" sign. Advertise and market aggressively. Know housing laws and market conditions. Consult a real-estate lawyer and financial adviser.

You hire a professional agent to help you.

× They understand market conditions, legal and financial issues and how to negotiate the highest possible price. Take advantage of technology and listing services to put home in best possible light.

— Detroit Free Press

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David and Lana Keller are interested in selling their custom-built home on Lake Tapps in Bonney Lake. The couple would like a shorter commute to their collectibles store in Federal Way. So they've posted the five-bedroom, 6,300-square-foot home on several Web sites with an asking price of just under $1.5 million. The twist: They're selling the property themselves.

There's a new sign dotting some well-manicured Puget Sound lawns in our current housing market: For sale by owner — million-dollar home.

In the past, ads like this were virtually nonexistent. For decades, the FSBO — for sale by owner and pronounced "fizbo" — was almost entirely a cheap-home phenomenon. For instance, the median FSBO price last year was $153,000, compared with $211,000 for homeowners who hired an agent, National Association of Realtors data show.

That's changed. A growing minority of high-end homeowners have decided they'd rather pocket the Realtor's commission — a savings that provides a partial balm against lower home values — and market their property themselves. Besides, they say, the market's so slow that it's not as if they'll be contending with droves of prospects, so it's not a big burden.

A search in April on Zillow.com for FSBO homes in King County priced more than $1 million turned up nearly 100 responses, of the more than 1,900 homes in that price range on the market in the county.

National Association of Realtors spokesman Walter Molony calls the emergence of a luxury-home FSBO niche in the Seattle area "unusual and a bit surprising," but likely driven by mortgage-lending difficulties.

"That end of the market is absolutely dead in the water, with the freezing of the jumbo loan," he says.

Some high-end FSBO sellers tried using a real-estate agent first. Custom-home builder Dan Wozniak had a real-estate agent market his Kirkland home for a year without success before he decided to sell it himself. He says he felt bad that the agent was spending money marketing the 10-year-old, 4,900-square-foot house when the market was so slow. Over time, the property's value sank until having a real-estate agent no longer penciled out.

As lending grew tighter in the past 18 months, Wozniak borrowed heavily against his custom-built, fairy-tale-cottage-style home for the capital he needed to build other homes. Now, he's hoping to sell his property himself for $1.4 million, pay off his debts and build a cheaper home nearby with the remaining cash.

"Now, I'm basically selling it at my cost," he says. "I can't let it go for any less."

Likewise, Lana Keller says she listed her Victorian-style, three-story home with a real-estate agent for several months in the summer, but there weren't any nibbles. Now, she's trying it on her own. The Kellers haven't made a firm decision to sell, so the FSBO route allows them to evaluate offers without committing to pay roughly $90,000 to a real-estate agent.

"We're in sales; we like talking to people," she says. "And it only takes one person that's interested."

Gordon Holmquist says he's not opposed to showing prospective buyers around his $8.9 million Mukilteo estate, which offers water and mountain views and sits on more than 10 acres. His daughter is a real-estate agent, but he says he doesn't see the need for an agent now.

"I'm not pressing to get it sold, I just want to get some exposure," he says. "If someone came along, we'd talk seriously about it."

Conversely, some luxury FSBO sellers end up hiring a real-estate agent. Nationally, the National Association of Realtors reports 3 percent of all homes sold through a real-estate agent started out as a FSBO.

Barbara Hoess is hoping she'll have better luck with a real-estate agent. She tried for 18 months to sell her parents' 1918 four-bedroom home in Kirkland on her own. She got a couple of solid prospects for the $2.4 million property, but none passed muster, in part because the family is good friends with neighbors and wants to ensure the nearly one-acre lot isn't overdeveloped.

Hoess finally signed up in May with a neighbor who's a real-estate agent, in hopes a more-aggressive marketing effort will find her the right buyer.

"We're ready to move on and sell it," she says.

Another Kirkland homeowner, Lonnie Benson, enjoys showing families with children around his four-bedroom home, which has secret passageways and a treehouse. He swallowed his pride and adorned a balcony with a 6-foot-long "For Sale" sign, but after four months, he's switching to using a low-fee real-estate agent. His agent priced the home at $1,990,000, down from the $2.4 million he was asking as a FSBO.

"I just wanted to try it myself," he says, "and maybe save a few dollars."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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