Andrew Wetzel's Musings

June 14, 2017

Selling a vacant house? Read this

Filed under: Uncategorized — awetzel @ 10:24 AM

People sell houses for a variety of reasons; some are occupied by the owners or tenants while others are vacant or become.  In the “good old days” a vacant house may not have been so obvious!  In my market (southeastern PA) the MLS used to allow ONE picture of a house and it was typically an exterior shot.  Then the number grew to 6, then 12 and now 25.  Along the way we started using “virtual tours”.  This was all done to “better promote” our “product” AND because the public wanted to save time that might have been spent touring “mystery” houses:  the ones you would not want to see but had no way to evaluate without actually going inside.

Frankly, I did not adjust well to showing interior pictures of my listings.  I spent a few years working in the security industry (the rent-a-cop version, respectfully, NOT the financial) and was struck by what I considered an invasion of privacy coupled with a feeling that you really had to walk the house to evaluate it rather than reducing the buying process to a passive one like e-Bay or Amazon (there is a reason there is no “shopping cart” in Real Estate!).  I had an epiphany one day when a fellow agent said she had someone who might be a “match” for one of my listings but they wondered if the interior showed so poorly that I did not post pictures.  Knowing I had to relent, I started to take interior photos (I still think “virtual tours” are better suited to larger houses as they make “average” or smaller ones look like phone booths (how many even know what they are?)) although I am conscious of what I am displaying and generally avoid showing interior views when a property is tenant-occupied.  The bottom-line is that most sellers prefer a buyer to be “pre-qualified” before being shown their house but we have no control over who is looking online and whether they are prospective buyers or have other things in mind.  Selling a house is NOT the same as living in it!

I have listed and sold a number of vacant properties and I am usually asked if that will help or hurt their prospects for selling.  There have been times when my clients owned two houses or had recently purchased their next house and they wondered if they should wait to move.  The irony is that one house or the other will most likely be vacant.  Some have moved and left some furniture in the house to be sold.  Does a vacancy help or hurt?

As an aside to avoid the issue, some like to rent furniture (“staging”) to make a vacant house look occupied/ “show better”.  Staging can also be done to occupied houses as well as being done virtually with vacant houses.  I respect staging professionals but there is a cost which some will not consider.  As far as houses that are marketed as vacant, here is a brief breakdown of both sides.

The “positive“:

  • some people need to move quickly.  Sellers looking for a new house need time;
  • a vacant house hides little.  Occupied houses may look worse on settlement day when seen empty for the first time.  The pristeen carpet that sat under furniture makes traveled areas look terrible.  What sits behind the pictures on the walls?

The “negative“:

  • some may try to take advantage thinking your “urgency level” higher.  I am a firm believer that nothing sells until people start talking so this can be positive;
  • owners have to maintain their vacant houses and that is the point of this post.

Vacant houses pose two concerns.  The primary one is that it is easy to neglect them.  I will get around to it!  Cutting the lawn/ shoveling the snow are likely to get less attention than they should.  What about those nasty circulars that can pile up telling the world that a house is vacant?  You cannot stop online lurkers but it is very important that you take care of your property so that it shows as best as possible and to minimize the chances of it becoming obvious that it is vacant.  I encourage absentee owners to visit regularly to see what is going on, to make sure that the doors and windows are locked, to make sure the lights are off (if they decide to leave some “on”, they should check that) and to stay on top of any required maintenance.

Equally if not more important, vacant houses pose two primary risks:  theft and attracting squatters.  Even if a house has nothing to steal, someone may break in to take a look.  I have had two serious issues in the past few years with people trying to steal the copper pipes.  How pathetic and how costly!  I also had a squatter in a house.  While the easiest answer may be simply staying on top of your vacant house, perhaps an alarm system can provide added security.  On a related note, does your homeowner’s provider know that the house is vacant?  I have been told that some will not insure a vacant house while others will raise the premium.  Whatever they do, there are those who will insure a vacant house but I do not know if an insurer will pay a claim when they learn that a house was vacant without their knowledge.

My last point is this.  I have worked with a number of sellers who lived out of state.  At the very least I ask for a spare key.  Keys get lost and sometimes they get locked in a house.  Ideally, the seller has a family member or friend in the area who has a key and is willing to stop over periodically.  Of course, the better a house is priced and marketed, the more likely it is to sell quickly and minimize some of the challenges!



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