In this day and age of discount brokerages and newfangled online real estate platforms, buyers and sellers have a multitude of options. They may be tempted to try and save some commission or realize promised efficiencies from an online tool. There’s the pull and tug of those ads telling you that you can save 1 to 2% off your sales price, get a refund of thousands of dollars or that if your home doesn’t sell in 30 days, it will be purchased by your agent.
After three years in this business, I’m here to suggest that buyers and sellers should resist any such temptation! I’ve come to understand the difference in service level between a full-commission realtor and a discount agent. There is one. I’ve also come to appreciate that technology can never replace the human touch required at key inflection points of a transaction.
My goal in this blog is to go behind the scenes, to give you a sense of where your realtor can really add value, advocate for you and ensure your best interests are always represented. I’m going to focus specifically on key aspects of the real estate journey for buyers. I’ll share examples here of how having a dedicated commission-based realtor can save buyers money, headaches and complications, sometimes without them even knowing it.
A picture isn’t always worth a thousand words
Before the proliferation of Internet-based realty sites, a property was typically judged by its “curb appeal”. Today, realtors know that prospective buyers will judge a property by the pictures presented in the listing. It’s all about “photographic appeal”. That’s why realtors generally include professionally taken photos – the shots will usually have excellent lighting sometimes taken with a wide-angle or a “fish-eye” lense. The goal is to make rooms look as bright and large as possible while minimizing any negative aspects of the property.
What you won’t see in pictures of the inside – if it can be avoided – are scuffed floors, stained carpet, old fixtures and cracked walls/ceilings. On the outside, you’ll generally never see a picture of the next-door neighbor’s house, the street in front of and around the house, up-close views of the outdoor systems (i.e., roof, condenser unit, gutters, driveway) and views from the house to the front and back. A picture can be worth a thousand words – that is, unless a realtor wants it not to be!
Having boots on the ground is essential to seeing past the photographic fluff. More times than I can count, I’ve discovered that a house that looks to be on a flat property from the pictures is on a street with a steep grade, unsuitable for kids’ safe outdoor play. When a picture shows the back of the house from the back yard rather than the other way around, that often aims to hide what’s behind the house – like the large apartment complex, commercial building or unsightly neighbor’s junked car collection. Or the time I discovered that the driveway-less property had street parking designated handicap only, thereby precluding anyone from parking in front of the house without a handicap placard. Road noise is another big one that eludes pictures – in densely populated areas like Northern Virginia, it’s hard to escape but many people want to try.
Pictures help but they’re not the whole picture!
Finding the “clouds” on title
As soon as a buyer client expresses serious interest in a property, I always reach out to my go-to title company and ask them to do a preliminary search in the land records (and beyond) for anything of concern. The nature of the search may depend on whether the house is a teardown, new construction or an existing home sale but some of what I’m looking for includes:
(1) Are there any easements or encumbrances that would affect a client’s ability to do what they want to do on the property? For example, if there is a stormwater easement in a location where a client wants to install a shed, that might be an issue.
(2) Are there any building code violations or mechanics liens on the property? This may be an important issue if my clients are purchasing a house as-is and giving up the right to require the seller to address any building code violations or liens.
(3) Is there a plat of the property showing easements granted to adjacent properties for any reason? A property a client was seriously considering had a parking pad in its front lawn. The seller assured us that the neighbor had the right to park there. Only after a title company physically went to the courthouse and dug up a copy of a plat recorded over 50 years ago, was it confirmed that the adjacent property owner did indeed have that right in perpetuity.
Another important consideration for any buyer client is to have a survey of the property. I always ask a listing agent whether they have a survey they can make available to my clients. From that, we can quickly divine whether there are any fence and/or driveway location issues or other concerns. While it’s important that my clients have a recent survey of the property (though not required by lenders), an old survey can still be useful preliminarily. In one instance, a client ordered a survey that surfaced that the neighboring property had an asphalt parking lot that encroached by over 12 feet on my client’s prospective property!
Inspecting to inspect
Since Virginia is a buyer beware state and sellers have very limited disclosure obligations, the inspection is a critical opportunity for a buyer to assess the condition of a property and learn what, if anything, needs to be repaired. I am an active participant in the inspection. I don’t view it as an opportunity to kick back and review emails and catch up on other work. My job is to accompany the inspector around the property and serve as an additional set of eyes and ears (and a nose!).
Do I have the expertise of an inspector? Absolutely not. But I do have the ability to ask questions and learn about the property along with him/her. This is especially important when I’m serving clients who are overseas and unable to be at the inspection in person. My philosophy is that I’d rather have the inspection be comprehensive and accurate even if alarming. Why would I want a client to purchase a home that has issues more extensive than they’re willing to take on or that are more significant in scope than reasonable given other factors? Putting my head in the sand or encouraging an inspector to do the same is not only unethical in my view but shortsighted. It’s to the benefit of everyone involved in the transaction that a buyer be as informed as possible about the property. Deal with the hard stuff upfront, even if time-consuming, and a buyer will be thankful later on.
One man’s junk is not another’s treasure
By the time a buyer gets to the walk-through of the property that they’re purchasing, they’re often tired. They’ve made it through the inspection, the appraisal and finance contingencies and they feel like they’re on the homestretch. The last thing they worry about is that there might somehow be an issue with the property right before they’re supposed to close. But, in fact, there is reason to focus on the walk-through. The Virginia residential sales contract requires that a seller delivers a property “free and clear of trash and debris, broom clean… “.
From this language, it’s clear that the expectation is that a property will be move-in ready for the buyer, clean and devoid of the previous owner’s personal belongings and trash. Yet, in about 30% of my walk-throughs (generally done no more than 24 hours before closing), I find the very opposite. From a stash of broken fluorescent lightbulbs poorly concealed in trash bins to old mattresses in attics to unused roof shingles from a previous roof stacked in a garage, I’ve come across a lot of unexpected items. Typically, I encounter these unwanted treasures in crawlspaces, attics and garages. Whether forgotten or overlooked by the seller, or left there with the hope that the buyer might simply absorb and deal with them, trash and debris left at properties is an issue.
My job as an advocate for my clients is to ensure that their best interests are represented. Unless my client tells me that they’re in love with grandma’s broken chandelier tucked in the nook of a crawlspace, I’m going to ensure that the seller has it removed. Sometimes, this means that the seller has to hire a junk trunk in a pinch to clear out the house. Other times, it results in the listing agent having to go to the house themselves and fill their car with their clients’ personal effects. Regardless, I ensure that the property my clients are buying is indeed free and clear of trash and debris and broom clean. Recently, a listing agent got heated with me when I demanded a proper cleanup prior to closing – he argued that I shouldn’t expect things to be “perfect”. No, not perfect…just what is required under the contract.