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January 10, 2009
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Realtors' No. 1 wish: a restored housing market in 2009
Karen Odom

At the top of every real estate agent's 2009 wish list is a pickup to the economy and a resurgence of a healthy housing market. In the meantime, they're getting creative, stepping up their game and adopting unique approaches to move houses in a challenging economy.
When the economy took a downturn, owner-broker Mary Ellen Bickler of Brown-Bickler & Co. in Harrison turned to professional stager Marlene Gold for help.

"We're actively using staging, and I've used Marlene in some way for just about every house I've had on the market for the last year and a half since the market downturn," Bickler said. "Before the market downturn, I didn't feel staging was absolutely necessary. But now I think it's critical."

Bickler believes that staging combined with a well-tuned house and the right asking price sends the right message to frightened buyers.

"I've always used a handyman to fix up little things here and there and to paint," she said. "But now you need to go a step beyond. It's a scary market. Only the best, well-priced houses are selling. If the house needs a significant amount of work, the buyer will discount deeper than they would have in the past."

Bickler recalled an example of a house with an overabundance of wallpaper and an older kitchen. Enter stager Marlene Gold.

"Marlene worked with a handyman to remove the wallpaper and make changes to the kitchen - painting the cabinets, adding new hardware, picking up the wall-to-wall carpet and exposing and refinishing the wood floors - cosmetic things without doing an entire makeover," Bicker said. "Painting the outside and clearing some of the overgrown landscape made the house look so much more inviting. It was already in a great neighborhood, but the staging increased the value of the home by 5 percent or 10 percent. It was definitely worth doing.

"I've seen it make the difference between getting $640,000 instead of $620,000," Bickler continued. "The choices are taking the price you can get or see what you can do to improve the look."

For Bickler, the latter is the only way to go: "The cost of work is far less than the return. About $4,000 to $5,000 spent on staging will come back to the owner many times over."

According to professional stager Marlene Gold, who after 15 years in the home furnishings industry formed Marlene Gold Home Staging and Design LLC, staging costs can range from $450 for a consultation and report with a detailed assessment of what needs to be addressed and specific recommendations that guides the homeowner to complete the staging themselves to $1,500 for a basic professional staging of repositioning furniture, hanging artwork, adding accessories and arranging for painting, repairs and storage, and up to $4,000 or more for complex projects.

Costs can increase depending on the size and scope of the project, number of rooms to be staged and whether accessories and furnishings are rented (charged separately) or only the items of homeowners are used.

"You're paying for our expertise," said Gold, admitting that unlike Realtors, staging can be a hard sell for homeowners.

"Staging is very personal," Gold said. "It can be very difficult and emotional for homeowners, especially if they've lived in their home for a long time. They love the way they've set up their house and they wonder why it's necessary to move a rug or put a treasured collection away.

"In the past, we might edit what a homeowner had - paint, declutter and depersonalize. Now we really need to appeal to the buyer's fantasy," Gold added. "Buyers are so nervous about making such a major purchase, they need to be excited about it. A house that does not show well will sit and sit and sit. In this difficult economy, not only does a house have to be in impeccable condition and the pricing just right, but it has to get the buyer emotionally invested immediately."

In addition to a focus on staging and a good price point, Carole Novick, founder and owner of Carole Novick Realty in Pomona, is relying on the tried and true approaches she has used in slow markets in past years, including extensive one-on-one networking (even contacting "This Old House" when appropriate), an informative monthly newsletter, a self-designed customer registry to track clients, advertising responses and holding auctions using sealed bids at the property.

"Sealed bid auctions are likely to draw more than just investors if the house has a good calling card. My customer registry helps me identify which clients might be a good fit for a new office listing," Novick said.

New Rochelle-based Century 21 Marciano Real Estate is taking a three-pronged approach - offering a bus tour to agents for open houses of the firm's current New Rochelle listings, participating in a special Century 21 program to keep first-time homebuyers out of foreclosure, and in a move that may seem counterintuitive, acquiring another realty office to expand listings and bring in more agents.

"Basically, we're doing a lot of little things," principal broker Anthony Marciano said. "There's no silver bullet - it's a combination of different ideas for buyers and brokers to get us through the tough times."

In September, Marciano partnered with Joan Godfrey, director of New Rochelle's Pre-school Kindergarten Learning Center, to offer a unique opportunity for agents to tour listings in one day.

"Joan Godfrey provided the yellow school bus and we provided the agents," Marciano said of the five-hour event that included about 20 or 25 open houses from Marciano's listings and a guided historical tour along the way courtesy of Godfrey - long-time resident and unofficial New Rochelle historian.

"It was an efficient and fun way for the agents to become quickly familiar with our listings, as well as find out more about New Rochelle and its services," Marciano said.

Acquiring Beryl Z Realty, also of New Rochelle, rounded out Marciano's listings with rentals and condominiums.

"I felt it was time to make a big move and this was a perfect fit," Marciano said. "Now we have a blend of everything and almost every facet covered, including commercial properties. I couldn't be more pleased about the transition."

Participating in a Century 21-sponsored "Save the Dream of Homeownership" outreach program has provided Marciano, a local franchise holder, a tangible way to help first-time homeowners save themselves from foreclosure.

"We're trying to keep people in their homes," said Marciano, who is encouraging each of his agents to provide one family with information and guidance. "Not only does it help get people out of a predicament, but they will remember us and, hopefully, give us their property as a listing in the future when the market is better."

By asking more pointed financial questions, Marciano's agents have helped with tax grievances, qualifying for the New York state School Tax Assessment Relief (STAR) program and avoiding potential disasters at closings.

Annette Reynolds of Coldwell Banker Ye Village Realty in Dobbs Ferry has stepped up her marketing and mailings to keep her name in front of potential buyers and calling expired listings to introduce herself, contacting past customers for referrals by e-card. She also plans a door-hanger campaign.

"I'm creating door hangers with bag clips and an attached card that reads, "Keeping things fresh in real estate."

Her agency's manager, Terry Rittenberg now gears one-on-on,e coaching and role-playing sessions toward managing challenging situations and encouraging agents to be more proactive with pricing. "In this environment instead of setting a price, then waiting to see if we sell it, we're being proactive in pricing so buyers perceive a value immediately."

Staying ahead of the game, Chappaqua-based Prudential Holmes and Kennedy Real Estate had the good fortune of launching a Web site for its agents six months ago that has gotten a good workout and has helped keep the agency competitive in a tough economy.

Prudential Holmes and Kennedy now arms each of its 150 agents with a customizable, interactive Web site containing a detailed community profile, in-depth school statistics, current and sold listings, and the agent's bio. The agents can personalize as they see fit with blogs, favorite charity activities, RSS feeds, tips on going green and other useful features.

"We believe the agent's presence on the Internet is as important as the customer's presence," Ted Holmes, broker and vice president of operations, said. "Ninety percent of people looking for a house start with the Internet. The agent is the first point of contact for the consumer and should have the same tools and information and content that the company does."

According to Holmes, a focus group of agents showed that more than 84 percent of the agency's business came through the Internet.

"Buyers typically incubate on Web sites at least six months to a year," Holmes said. "The Web site gives agents tools to keep their name in front of buyers in cyberspace and buyers, in turn, are much more informed by the time they're ready to look at houses. ... Ultimately, we're able to provide better information so sellers can make more informed decisions in a challenging economic environment."

Tips for homeowners

Marlene Gold, professional stager

"When you're preparing your home to show, try to give every room one purpose. If you set your bedroom as a bedroom/office or your family room as a den/playroom, mentally, it says to the prospective buyer that there's not enough space here. It becomes a distraction and takes away from imagining themselves in the space."

Carole Novick, Carole Novick Realty

"It's really a combination of factors that make things work. Hire a broker with a good reputation who really works hard on their listings. Look for quality and an honest opinion - don't hire someone who just tells you the price you want to hear. The sold properties make the market price, not the agent."

Mary Ellen Bickler, Brown-Bickler & Co.

"Staging helps you put your best foot forward. In this economic environment, you need that extra little boost to make the house that much sharper, that much more salable - you need every advantage you can get."

Annette Reynolds, Coldwell Banker Ye Village Realty

"If your house is vacant, for $400 or more, consider attaching a house warranty during the listing period and continue it for the new buyer. It's a great perk and a nice security blanket."

Ted Holmes, broker and vice president of operations, Prudential Holmes and Kennedy

"In this market, it's very important to have a house that stands out against the competition - if not in price, then in condition and curb appeal. Curb appeal gives the buyer the first impression - if it's well-landscaped and there's no peeling paint, it says to the buyer this house has been taken care of. If you have an older house, you might want to consider having an inspection completed before putting your house on the market. This will help confirm that your house is in good condition or give you the opportunity to deal with issues you may not have known about."