No matter where you live or what kind of shape your home is in, this guide on how to
sell a house will help you navigate the entire process.
By Homelight Set
You’re ready to sell your home so you can embark on some new, exciting chapter of life. Maybe you’ve recently changed jobs, hope to be closer to your grandkids, or like many recent sellers, want a roomier abode accommodative of a home office and outdoor living space. The only rational choice is to sell the house, but that doesn’t make the process of selling a house any easier (not to mention, emotional).
On top of parting with the countless memories you’ve built here, you may need to address some needed repairs and get the house ready for showings. Perhaps the roof is dinged up from a past storm, or your carpets carry lingering smells. Given that people stay in their homes an average of 10 years, clutter tends to stack up in forgotten closets and drawers. Where to begin?
One good place to start is by requesting a home value estimate to see what your home is worth in today’s market. HomeLight Set can assist by providing you with a preliminary estimate of value in under two minutes, using details like recent sales record, your home’s last sale price, and market trends data.
As you gear up to sell your home, you’re likely curious to know how much it’s worth.
It used to be that the only way to find out the value of your home was to call up an appraiser, wait for them to run an analysis and perform an onsite visit, and pay several hundred dollars for their professional opinion.
Nowadays, however, you can plug your address into an online price-check tool and get a free home value estimate faster than your next Amazon Prime delivery.
What’s nice about HomeLight Set Home Value Estimate tool is that we pair housing market data with your own personal insights about your house.
We figure since you’re the one living there, you probably know things about your home that the internet does not — like whether it needs a little or a lot of work.
So, before we run any numbers, we’ll actually ask you 7 simple questions to understand your home type and what makes your property unique. We then combine your answers with data from multiple trusted sources to come up with a real-world valuation. Using this method, we can predict your home’s current value with far greater accuracy.
Keep in mind, however, that online tools won’t offer you total precision, and the accuracy of your home value results will depend on the availability of real estate data in your locale. That’s why these tools are considered to be a good starting point, though not the end-all-be-all for pricing your home.
Now would also be a good time to estimate your home equity, which is the value of your home minus your mortgage payoff (a number representing total principal and interest owed on the home). Nationwide, the average homeowner with a mortgage gained $33,400 in equity between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021, a remarkable boost, according to data from real estate analytics company CoreLogic — so running this calculation may make you even more excited to sell now.
Home equity is not the same as how much money you’ll pocket from the sale. To get a ballpark figure of your net proceeds, you’ll need to also account for selling expenses, including agent commissions, taxes, and fees. Our easy Home Sale Calculator is a great tool to help guide you through this approximate calculation.
Packing? Already?! Trust us when we say it’s never too early to start boxing up items you won’t need until you move into your next place. Moving always takes longer than you think it will, and you’ll need to pare down clutter for showings anyway.
After you’ve run your back of the napkin math and confirmed plans to sell, consider moving excess towels, out-of-season clothing, bulky kitchen appliances, and memorabilia on shelves and walls into places like closets or the garage.
If you don’t have enough free space in storage areas of the home, you could always rent out a climate controlled unit for some extra breathing room in staging the home. Now would also be a good time to line up a dumpster rental if you have lots of old furniture or accumulated junk to toss.
Once you’ve completed this preliminary work, it’s time to find a qualified real estate agent to guide you through the rest of the process. Agents typically advise reaching out around two to three months before you plan to list, especially if you plan to do any repairs or updates to the home.
Companies like HomeLight Set have made the search for a great real estate agent or Realtor® fast and easy with the development of free agent-matching services. These platforms elevate top-of-market performers and tailor agent recommendations to a client’s priorities. Winnowing down the agent pool is a critical development; there are over two million active real estate licensees nationwide.
Using an agent-matching platform saves you time while leading to a more effective search of the best local agents you can meet with. You may be wondering, does it really make a difference if you work with a top agent versus one who seems friendly and experienced enough?
Having matched over 1 million clients with top agents since we started our agent finder business in 2012, HomeLight Set can definitively say the answer is yes. According to our transaction data, the top 5% of agents sell homes for as much as 10% more on average.
HomeLight Set makes it easy to review several agents in a short amount of time. Once you fill out a short questionnaire to narrow down the search, you’ll receive a list of your recommended agents and a summary of their experience. From there you can interview each agent over the phone or in person and determine who you’d like to work with. A conversation will give you the chance to see if you jive with an agent’s personality and communication style.
Pay attention to stats like how many sales an agent has done, and where their deals usually take place. Look at their average days on market compared to the area norm. Confirm that they’re familiar with selling your property type, whether it be a single-family, condo, or townhouse. Check for an agent’s designations in a particular niche as well. For example, an agent with the “RRC Digital Marketing” certification will be savvy in social media, while an MRP (“Military Relocation Professional”) will be equipped to find housing solutions for military service members.
Once you know who you want to hire, you’ll sign what will likely be an exclusive-right-to-sell listing agreement. This agreement serves as a contract between you and the listing agent, wherein you agree to compensate the agent’s efforts and to work exclusively with this professional for the purpose of selling your house. If the house sells before the agreement expires — usually a timeline of around six months — the agent will collect a commission fee at the specified rate. HomeLight Set Agent Commission Calculator shows the average national agent commission rate to be 5.8%.
Maybe you’ve looked over the totality of this guide and thought: I wish there was an easier way to sell a home. And we’re happy to share that there is. If at any point during the selling process you are ready to throw in the towel, you can opt instead to request a cash offer for your home online. This can be an attractive route for sellers who need extra cash now, are moving for a job, or don’t want to deal with the stress of showings.
Your first reaction to working with a house-buying company or getting fast cash may be skepticism, but you’re not crazy to consider selling your house for cash. In recent years, technology has made it easier for companies like HomeLight Set to provide cash offers for homes and improve the selling experience with technology. Our Simple Sale platform makes it easy and safe to get a competitive cash offer.
Getting an online house value estimate was only a starting point. Now that you have a real estate agent and are closer to putting the house on the market, you need to set an accurate and strategic price for your home that the market will support.
One study found that homebuyers on average negotiate for $14,000 worth of repairs. To avoid setting a house price at one level only to have it knocked down ten to twenty grand later, you can opt to order a pre-listing inspection for a more accurate picture of your home’s condition. An inspection will cost about $330, but it will provide the information you need to either make repairs ahead of time or price down while conveying to buyers that the cost of repairs is already reflected in the asking price.
Online home value estimators are just that: estimates. While the accuracy of these tools has certainly improved over the years and is only getting better, you shouldn’t use an estimate to set an asking price for your home without bringing in an expert’s opinion. Real estate agents are familiar with your local market and will provide you with a comparative market analysis (CMA) for your home as part of their services.
With a CMA, an agent will round up recently sold properties in your area and compare them to your home in order to calculate its fair market value. A CMA involves analyzing raw data such as your home’s square footage and bedroom count along with the less tangibles, such as your property’s proximity to noisy streets or local attractions, to give you a full pricing picture.
“We can see online estimates that come in both high and low,” explains Sandra Rathe, a top real estate agent in Miramar, Florida. “For example, those systems can’t take into account lake views, that’s the big one we see in South Florida. To an extent there’s intrinsic value in that, not necessarily appraised value. We have to know that market and what people are willing to pay for that type of yard or that type of view.”
The right market research will be essential to ensuring you don’t overprice or underprice your home. A spot-on pricing strategy also makes it likely that your home will sail through the appraisal with flying colors once you get to closing. For unique homes or those without sufficient comps, another option for sellers — though rare — is to obtain a pre-listing appraisal from a professional home appraiser.
Now that you’ve hired the best real estate agent for the job, it’s showtime. Stop thinking about the house as yours and start treating it like a product on display for the world to see. Buyers will examine every room, every surface, and every shelf with a magnifying glass, so you need to prepare for their judgment. Every house and real estate market is different, but top agents stand by certain rules of the game for getting your home ready for buyers.
Before you go into total demolition mode, consult with your real estate agent so you don’t waste time and money on needless projects.
“Many times, sellers get this bright idea and they start doing a bunch of things that they think need to be done to their home,” says Mary Jo Santistevan, a top real estate agent in Phoenix, Arizona. “Sometimes they do more than necessary or they make wrong selections as far as finishes or cosmetic touches.”
Home repairs and updates add up fast — a mid-range kitchen remodels only recoup 57% of the cost, according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2021 Cost vs. Value Report. Not all renovations, repairs or updates show a positive return on investment, and there’s no guarantee you’ll make back the money you spend. But if you leave must-fix items untouched, they will show up in a home inspection and send buyers running.
“Here’s a rule of thumb. Anything that is structural in nature or mechanical in nature should be fixed if they know that it’s a defect,” says Karen Russo, a tp agent who works with 75% more homes than average in Worcester, Massachusetts. “If a seller is willing to do repairs on things, it’ll help it get sold faster.”
To declutter your home, get several rolls of large heavy-duty garbage bags and start sorting into a few main categories: “store,” “sell,” “donate” and “toss/recycle.” You can sort further into subcategories like electronics recycling, curbside pickup, and hazardous waste. Get your personal items out of sight and toss them into the bags, donate them to your local Salvation Army or Goodwill, or put them in a storage unit until you can move them to your next residence.
If you’re overwhelmed by this process, communicate with your agent. A great agent will step in and help you get the job done no matter the work involved.
“We had one seller — they had stuff everywhere, it was super dirty, the furniture wasn’t working the way they had it. But the house was over a million dollars. We went through the whole process of making a list of things that they needed to do,” shares Rathe of her experience selling the home of a client in South Florida.
Rathe also encourages sellers to make use of existing storage space in the home. “People don’t care about seeing the garage and closets stacking boxes in closets or garages,” she explains. “And it doesn’t cost the client that much to box up things and put them in a closet. We can have a handyman and organizers come out if that helps. This particular client had a lot of paperwork from their business. So we called in our intern; we bought a shredder and sent it over with the intern.”
If you’re living in your home while it’s on the market, you’ll need to clean prior to showings and make sure to make beds, put away dirty dishes, and give the counters a spray down. But quick clean-ups will be a lot easier if you’ve deep cleaned ahead of time. Follow the ideal order of operations for a deep clean:
Did you know that giving your curb appeal a little TLC can boost your property value? 75% of top agents agree that well-landscaped homes are worth anywhere from 1% to 10% more than homes without landscaping.
The good news is that sprucing up your curb appeal can be a quick project. We’ll argue you can achieve a curb appeal makeover with just one weekend of hard work. All you need to do is:
“A lot of times when an agent is opening the lockbox, the buyer is standing in the entryway kind of looking at things,” Santistevan says. “So you want to make sure that there are no cobwebs hanging from the carriage light or the ceilings.”
Buyers look for homes that are bright, airy, and open. Here are some ways to create a bright space, even if your house is small and compartmentalized:
The next step is to photograph your home in all its glory. This is where your hard work decluttering, cleaning, and staging pays off. Gladys Blum, a top real estate agent in Salem, Oregon, says that professional, high-quality pictures are critical for every room.
“I’ve seen beautiful homes that just don’t get any attention because they’re not photographed right,” she says. “I mean, if you do dinky little pictures of unorganized rooms, you won’t have a second look.”
No matter how fancy your smartphone is — this is a DSLR, tripod, professional photographer or bust kind of situation, all at no additional cost to you. You’re paying your agent to market your home, and that includes stellar photography. You can count on them to hire one of the top-notch photographers in their network to get the job done right. Your listing photos are the centerpiece of your listing.
As Santistevan points out, “everyone starts their [home] search online,” and your photos will be the single biggest reason buyers shopping on the web either drop everything to book a tour, or cross your address off the list. While the magazine-worthy images draw buyers in, your agent’s creative listing description should highlight your home’s best features, name drop swanky appliances, mention unique architectural details, and tell the story of your home.
With that, you’ll have the makings of a professional-quality property listing your agent can blast all over the most popular real estate websites and social media channels.
Next, it’s time to launch a comprehensive marketing plan to give your home the widest possible exposure. Your agent will develop a well-rounded strategy to reach buyers at multiple touch points — in person and on the web.
You can count on your agent to:
In summary, you want to hit buyers from every possible angle with a 360-degree marketing approach. You never know who’s going to be the one to make that offer you can’t refuse—the casual online browser clicking through listings on their laptop one evening, or the couple taking a Sunday drive who notice the big sign in your front yard.
As much as an exhaustive real estate marketing plan can drum up interest around your home, buyers likely want to see it in person (with their very own eyes!) before making any kind of commitment. That’s where house showings come in.
Buyers interested in touring your home will ask their agent to book a tour through your agent, so you don’t have to manage any communication or scheduling with buyers directly. A good real estate agent will help manage the showings with your schedule. You do, however, need to be flexible and accommodate tours within reason.
Some showings pop up without much warning, so if you’re still living in the house, be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice so your agent can show the house. (Under no circumstances should you stay in the house during a tour). Here are some ways to make that process less frantic
It’s tough to show a home while you’re still living in it. But make it easier to accommodate viewings with this pre-showing checklist:
It could happen the day your home hits the market, or 30 days down the road after dozens of showings. Whatever the case, you’ll rejoice the moment your agent calls and says, “We’ve got an offer!”
If you’re lucky, you’ll get more than one buyer chomping at the bit for your home and trigger a bidding war. Your real estate agent will help you weigh the strength of an offer and walk you through which offer to sign (if there are multiple on the table).
“If multiple offers come in, then we send [the seller] a spreadsheet so they can see what the differences are in the offers and what the nets are back to them,” says Shawn Maxey, a top real estate agent in Frederickson, Washington.
Once you’ve accepted an offer, sign the offer agreement and submit it to the escrow and title company. The escrow company or title company (depending on the area you’re in) acts as the third party to gather documents and payments between you and the buyer.
Then, you’ll need to take care of clearing any contingencies the buyer has included in the contract, which will likely include an inspection and appraisal. You’ll also need to clear title and pay off any hanging debts on the property that are discovered.
Let’s review each closing milestone in further detail.
The buyers will order the home inspection on your house within 10 days of putting the contract into escrow. In accordance with the state’s standards, the home inspector will come to your house to identify any health, safety, or major mechanical issues and write up a report on their findings.
A typical home inspection takes a few hours for an average sized house. Then the report takes about 3-4 days to complete. The home inspector will go through the interior and exterior of the house to record any broken, defected, or hazardous issues with the house and the area surrounding the house.
Buckle up, because the home inspection is the first big hurdle of the closing process (issues found during the inspection cause 16% of closing delays). Your contract will likely be contingent on the home inspection, which means the buyers can walk away if the inspection goes awry. No home is perfect, so you can expect to receive a laundry list of issues in the inspection report, most of which will be minor.
Buyers are mainly concerned with any problems that could pose a health or safety risk. So it’s only if the home inspector finds any of these seven big issues in your home that you should prepare for some tough negotiations:
It’s up to the buyers to request any repairs based on the inspection report. You’ll consult with your agent on their requests to weigh your options:
Once you’ve completed the home inspection and settled the repair negotiations, the buyer’s mortgage lender will order an appraisal on the house. The appraisal essentially determines the fair market value of the home, and verifies that the buyer isn’t paying more for the house than it’s worth.
The buyer’s lender will order the appraisal and (don’t worry) the buyer will foot the bill. Here’s what you should do to avoid any issues with the appraisal:
Get ready for appraiser’s onsite visit
Appraisers are not going to devalue your home because you left some clothes on the floor or because the bed isn’t made. But it never hurts to make a good impression during an appraiser’s onsite visit.
Spend an afternoon sprucing up the yard, clear the dishes from the sink, and secure or remove your pets. Avoid watering the lawn right before the visit, though. The appraiser will need to assess the outside and will want to avoid tracking mud into your home.
Let your agent be there
Homeowners are not required to leave for the appraisal, but it may be for the best — that way you won’t be in any of the photos or getting in the way of any measurements. If you do stay in the house while the appraiser is there, that’s OK.
But know that you could be making the appraiser’s job tougher. They’re doing focused work, so your being chatty can be a little distracting. However, it’s a good idea for your agent to be there for the onsite visit. He or she can answer questions about your house such as “Was this garage permitted?” and “Are the solar panels leased or owned?”
Provide appraiser with resources
While your home appraiser aims to be objective, they don’t know every little detail about your house, its history, or the surrounding area.
Especially with the rise in automated appraisal assignments through management software, appraisers may be most familiar with a different neighborhood and totally different kind of housing than yours.
So draw up a fact sheet (it can be paper or digital) with your agent to list out top home improvements you’ve made, and information on schools and walkability. Your agent should also be ready to provide their full comparative market analysis in support of your home’s price.
These details offer the home appraiser insight into the many variables that go into calculating your home’s value.
Respond to a low appraisal if necessary
According to real estate experts, most listings (about 80%-90%) will appraise at or above the contract price. If the home appraises for less than the amount you and the buyer agreed upon, you and the buyer will need to work out who’s going to cover the difference. Your options are to have the buyer bring more cash to the table, for you to reduce your price, or both (to meet somewhere in the middle with the buyer).
In rare scenarios, get a reconsideration of value
If the appraisal came in under contract, your gut instinct may be to call up the appraiser and ask about how they came up with that number. But appraisers can’t talk to you about the value of the home you’re selling (and they can’t talk to the buyers, either). The challenge to the appraised value has to originate from the lender, and better yet if you can bring evidence to the table in the form of comparable sales.
Before the sale can close, you’ll need to clear your house title. This requires a process called a title search that involves sifting through local records and other sources to confirm that the property is, in fact, yours to sell and that there aren’t any other outstanding claims against it. Problems that may be uncovered during a title search include:
If any of these claims are identified, you’ll need to pay them off as soon as possible. It’s not unheard of for title issues to hold up a sale considering that title and deed issues made up 13% of the contractual problems in delayed settlements as of April 2021. Thankfully, to get ahead of title issues, you can order a preliminary title report.
“We order a preliminary title right away,” says Maxey. “There’s some things that come up on the title that could take us a couple months to clear up. If we’re able to give the buyer that expectation, it’s just a smoother process.”
Once you’ve settled the title issues, gone through the home inspection, and received the results from your appraisal, you’ve made it through the hard part. “We feel like the chances of the sale falling apart at that point are pretty minimal,” says Maxey.
It’s during this period during the sale when you need to hire professionals to complete any repairs you agreed to following the home inspection. Keep all the paperwork and receipts related to the work on your home so that you can show the buyers that your record of the repairs lines up with their requests.
Once you and the buyers agree on a closing date, you’ve set a hard move-out deadline. Unless you make special arrangements in the contract to stay in the house after closing, you need to be totally out by that date or you’ll be in violation of the contract. Make sure that everything will be out of your house and into your new house or transferred to a storage unit by the agreed-upon move-out date. Double check closets, cabinets, and crawl spaces. Once you hand over the keys, anything that’s left inside will be owned by the buyer.
The final walkthrough is not an official inspection, but it is the buyers’ last chance to perform a checkup and make sure there’s no surprises that go against the terms of your contract.
You’re obligated as a seller to leave the house in “broom clean” condition when you move out, which means swept, vacuumed, and free of debris or excess stuff the buyers haven’t agreed to keep.
If you fail to meet these standards, buyers will bring it to attention before the deal can close and you’ll have to come to an agreement to remedy the problem. Ultimately, issues that crop up during the walkthrough could cost you in the form of closing delays or a hit to your bottom line.
Prior to closing, you’ll need to look over your settlement statement provided at closing. A settlement statement is an itemized list of fees and credits summarizing the finances of an entire real estate transaction. It serves as a record showing how all the money has changed hands line by line.
It details the funds owed to real estate agents collecting commission from the sale, local governments owed taxes and recording fees, and final charges going to the lender.
Though this list is not entirely comprehensive, here’s a breakdown of common fees encountered in a home sale — and who typically pays for what.
Typical cost or percent of sale
Who usually pays for it?
Split between buyer and seller
Once you and the buyer have signed the final settlement agreements, you can collect your proceeds from the escrow company. Congrats on making it to payday!
“Typically once the loan funds and records, they can pick up a check. Most of the time the check will be ready that day at escrow,” says Maxey, who works with clients on Pacific time. “If they decide to get wired funds and it’s past 2 p.m. Pacific time, the wire cut off time is 5 p.m. Eastern time and all the wires go by Eastern time zone.”
“This is important for sellers to know because if they’re wiring funds and it’s past 2 p.m. on Friday, they’re not going to get the funds until Monday,” he says.
To avoid having to pay capital gains taxes on your home sale, you’ll need to have owned the home and lived there for at least two of the five years leading up to the sale. As long as you meet these criteria, you can exclude up to $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re married and filing jointly) of “capital gain” on your main home.
If you do owe capital gains taxes on the sale, you can work with a tax advisor to reduce your capital gains tax by accounting for capital improvements and selling expenses, which add to your cost basis. Either way, tax experts recommend reporting the profit to the IRS using a 1099 form issued by the title company.
Top-selling Charlotte, North Carolina, real estate agent Leigh Brown routinely offers clients an easy rule to follow: “My advice to sellers is always to have your utilities on until the next business day after closing. I had a closing on a Friday at 4:30 p.m. Well, at 4:30 p.m. the house isn’t going to record, which means the house is still in the seller’s name over the weekend.”
Ideally, your utilities are never shut off — as can happen when you don’t pay the bill — the accounts are rather transferred to the new owner. Once you turn off your utilities, turning them back can take 24-48 hours minimum for some companies. A technician may need to come to your home to physically get things back up and running.
If anything gets delivered to your house once the new owners are moved in, you may never get it back. Update your address using the official USPS Change of Address website. Make sure you forward all of your mail ahead of time. It’s recommended to change your address at least two weeks before moving day.
In addition, be sure to notify creditors, subscriptions, family, and friends of your new address. Say goodbye to neighbors and make sure your friends and family don’t show up at your old house on Thanksgiving!
While selling a house is rarely an easy feat, you deserve to have a great selling experience and walk away happy with how everything went, especially given the amount of money on the line (houses aren’t cheap!) And like tackling any complex job, the key to selling a home is to avoid treating it as one giant mountain to climb; instead, take it one baby step at a time.