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Originally published Friday, January 14, 2011 at 7:00 AM

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Straight talk from someone in the market to buy a home

If we could sell our home in Florida during a dismal market, you can sell yours, too. But to succeed, you've got to be at least a little bit smarter and more determined than the many other sellers competing for our business.

Special to The Seattle Times

My husband and I are ready to buy a home after renting in Seattle for four years.

If you're a seller, we may have been in your house.

One reason we're still looking is that many sellers have not been doing the best possible job of marketing their property. That goes for real-estate agents, too.

You say this is a lousy time to sell real estate? Tell me about it. We sold our home four years ago in Florida after the real-estate market there began tanking, and I know how stressful it can be.

You may feel like nobody is willing to buy at a reasonable price these days. It felt like that to us, too.

In selling our home, we learned some lessons, and I believe they made a big difference. What I've been seeing in Seattle the past few months makes me believe many sellers here could benefit from these lessons.

I don't have any flowery marketing hype to offer, just some straight talk based on real-life experience. Remember, my husband and I are the ones you (or your real-estate agent) invite into your home every weekend. We both have good jobs and good credit.

If we could sell our home in Florida during a dismal market, you can sell yours, too. But to succeed, you've got to be at least a little bit smarter and more determined than the many other sellers competing for our business.

Here are the things we did that helped us sell our home in a difficult market.

1. Get serious

Adopt the attitude that selling your home is the equivalent of a new full-time job. You are the one with the most at stake. If you're casual about anything that's under your control, potential buyers will know it.

If you don't occasionally feel exhausted, discouraged and frustrated, you probably aren't giving it your total effort.

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This important step also may require you to spend a little money, even if it's the worst time for you financially. Your competition probably is doing that.

And speaking of competition, save some time and energy to visit other open houses. Everybody else sees what else is out there. You should, too.

In Tampa, I learned a valuable lesson after walking down our street to an open house. The house had the same floor plan as ours and had been built at the same time. But the owners had furnished it in a way that made it appear more spacious and inviting.

After I went home and moved some furniture around, the difference was immediately apparent.

2. Truth to owner

Find somebody you trust to tell the truth about what they see when they visit your home. Ask them for a candid report — to look around as if he or she were a buyer.

It's possible that long ago you made peace with signs of dry rot on the deck, big scratches on the floor or stains in the shower, and now you may not notice them. But I guarantee you potential buyers won't take that attitude.

A few months ago we visited a home with an asking price of more than $750,000.

It looked lovely from the outside. But once inside, we could hardly wait to leave. Inside we found grease on the stove top, doors that didn't close properly, door locks that didn't work, a few rotting window sills and dog hair throughout.

We walked on a deck that felt like it might crash to the ground any second, and unpleasant odors seemed to follow us wherever we went.

If you haven't done so, ask your real-estate agent to help you identify things that need attention. This economy has left lots of contractors and handymen looking for work. Help them and yourself at the same time.

My husband and I have been astonished at some of the signs of neglect we have seen as we visited places for sale. Do the sellers think we don't notice?

If you want to gain our confidence, don't give us reasons to wonder what else you're hoping we won't pay attention to. With so many homes to look at, it's easy to move on to the next one.

3. Better to be smart

Do your best to be smart, not greedy. Four years ago, some of my neighbors in Florida "knew" how much their houses should sell for, and they wouldn't budge on price. Many of those neighbors wound up waiting several years before they sold their homes for 30 percent less.

If you bought your home years ago and have lots of equity, congratulations. Decide how much cash you need — this is different from what you would prefer — to have in hand as you walk away from the closing, and set your price accordingly.

Don't be afraid to reduce your asking price, but do so without advertising. Signs saying "New Price" and "Make an Offer" tell me you're desperate.

In Florida, we dropped our asking price every couple of months until our place finally sold — a gut-wrenching experience.

The most successful sellers are willing to accept this piece of reality: At any given moment, your home is worth what a buyer will pay for it, no more.

4. Be demanding

If you're using a real-estate agent, make sure to get the most for the commission you will pay.

Take a critical look at online photos of your property. Are they high quality? Do they show your home at its best? If not, insist that your agent get better shots.

Also be sure that buyers can take a virtual online tour. Any good agent knows how to make that happen.

Think about the features that attracted you to the home in the first place, and make sure they are highlighted in your advertising. Ask for more frequent open houses, and get yourself and your family away whenever one is held.

There are many outstanding real-estate agents in the Seattle area. If you aren't getting the results you need, when your contract is up ask neighbors and friends for recommendations of agents who specialize in your area.

Property is property, but Leschi is different from Ballard, Redmond is different from Renton, Issaquah is different from West Seattle.

5. Stay current

Conduct online and offline research every few days to be sure you know your competition. Drive past every comparably priced home within a mile or two and attend open houses when you can.

You can be sure that smart buyers know how to use websites like zillow.com, cyberhomes.com and trulia.com. You should, too.

Although none of these sites is perfect, they can give you a rough idea of what homes are selling for on a square-footage basis, how many nearby foreclosures are for sale, and the inventory of homes in any given neighborhood.

If you wait for your agent to do this easy research, you may miss out on important insights that people who look at your house will have.

6. Know your options

If you are in the unfortunate — but common — position these days of owing more money on the house than its market value, make sure you understand your options.

Unpleasant as it might be, you should not ignore the realities of credit ratings, short sales, foreclosures and even bankruptcy. In this case, what you don't know could hurt you.

7. Keep up appearances

If you have moved out of your home, keep it looking lived in and cared for. An empty house screams desperation.

Pay somebody to keep the yard trim and tidy. Replace burned-out light bulbs. Keep the utilities turned on. No one wants to linger in a dark, freezing home.

Make sure somebody picks up fliers, phone books and other things that, if neglected, will make it obvious your place has been abandoned.

If you're still reading, you know I've unloaded a lot in this open letter. But all is not bleak.

Home prices are not going to zero. In my Florida neighborhood, home prices stabilized in about three years. Since that bottom, the average sales price has actually risen by about $40,000. I know this from doing a bit of the online research with which you should be familiar.

It may not seem like it, but there are still people in the Seattle area who are seriously looking for good homes.

They know mortgage rates are low and they're ready to buy when they find what they're looking for. My husband and I are among them.

Do everything you can to attract us to your home.

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