How to sell your house

Brian Acton


Brian Acton

Brian Acton

Contributing Reporter

Brian Acton is a contributing reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance news. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA Today, MarketWatch, Inc. Magazine, and HuffPost. 

Published March 4, 2019 | 13 min read

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Updated July 10, 2019. When it comes to selling your home, there are several factors, including your neighborhood, the condition of your home and the housing market, that can affect the value of your property. There are also many steps in the home sale process. The complexity of the whole thing can be overwhelming.

Luckily, you don’t need to be a real estate genius to sell your home. Knowing how the process works can help you plan more effectively and get the best offer. Here’s how to sell your home.

Determine the right time to sell

One important decision to make early in the process is when to sell your home. First, you’ll need enough time to get ready. Zillow recommends giving yourself at least two months of preparation time. Keep in mind, your home may sit on the market for a while, and it can take more than 30 days to complete a sale even after you receive an offer.

There are also many personal factors that determine when you should sell:

  • Lifestyle changes: A new job, a growing family or the need to downsize are all good reasons to sell your home. Some lifestyle changes, such as a new career, may put you on a stricter timeline.

  • Financial goals: You may want to time the sale of your home to align with other financial events, such as buying a new home or retiring.

  • Living arrangements: Your motivation to sell quickly may depend on the availability of a new home to move into (there are contingencies you can put in place when selling and buying a new home to avoid being homeless - more on those in a bit).

Beyond personal circumstances, you should try to time your sale to get the best offer. According to Zillow, the best time to sell a home nationwide is the first half of May, when sellers can maximize the offers they receive and minimize the time their homes sit on the market. Your specific region may differ based on local factors such as home availability, the job market and other conditions.

It also helps to sell in a seller’s market, when there are more buyers than available properties. You can use that scarcity to your advantage and receive a better offer.

In short, you need to balance your ability to sell your home against your need to move out. If your ability to wait is unrestricted, you should sell your home at the ideal time to make the most money. If you need to unload your home quickly, you may not have the luxury of waiting for the right time.

Decide whether to hire a real estate agent

There are websites that allow you to sell your home yourself, without the assistance of a listing agent, the real estate agent who represents the seller. These sales are known as “for sale by owner,” or FSBO. The biggest advantage is you can pocket more money from the sale because you don’t pay a commission to a listing agent.

But good listing agents put in a lot of work. They can help you price your home correctly, market your home on multiple platforms, show your home to potential buyers and help negotiate the sale. They’ll be with you throughout the process. A good agent will be a valuable resource. Unless you have a lot experience and time on your hands to devote to the sale, you’re probably better off outsourcing that work to a professional.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume you’re hiring a real estate agent.

Hire the right real estate agent

Don’t hire a listing agent based on the first ad you see. Carefully evaluating candidates and hiring the right person will pay off in the long run.

A good listing agent can find potential buyers through the multiple listing service, local ads, online tools and their own network. They’ll help you price your home correctly, make you feel comfortable and ensure you understand the sales process. They’ll also facilitate showings and open houses and act as an intermediary for negotiations, helping to advise you on how to get the best offer.

Make sure to interview multiple agents. Pick one who knows their stuff and is responsive to your questions. Remember, listing agents get paid when you complete your sale. A good agent will be motivated to work hard for you.

“You should always interview more than one agent to get a feel for their marketing strategy and knowledge of your particular market,” said Beverly Burris, agent at William Means Real Estate in Charleston, S.C.

Get your home ready for showing

Now it’s time to start making your home appealing to potential buyers. This will be a two-part process: making updates and repairs and staging your home for showings.

1. Make updates & repairs

You’ll want to make updates and repairs to your home to make a good impression on buyers. Potential improvements include:

  • Landscaping and yard maintenance to improve curb appeal and make a good first impression. This may involve yard cleanup or a total overhaul of your outdoor space. You can do it yourself or hire landscapers to make your yard pop.

  • Fresh coats of paint on the walls. Neutral, soothing colors are best. Dark, dramatic colors may fit your personality but potential buyers might hate them.

  • Cleaning or replacing old carpet.

  • Repairing holes in your drywall and other visible signs of wear and tear.

You should also start working on repairs that might be flagged during the home inspection. This is when an inspector walks through your home to flag problems for the buyer. If you know of potential issues, you can get a head start on fixing them now. Some sellers do a pre-sale inspection to identify needed repairs before they put their home on the market.

Hopefully, your home doesn’t have any major problems, like roof damage or plumbing issues, that could scare off potential buyers. If it does (or you just don’t want to make any repairs), you’ll have to decide whether to fix problems up front or sell your house as is. While selling your home as is can speed up the sales process and reduce your upfront costs, you could receive much lower offers. Selling as is doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to honestly disclose information about the home.

2. Stage your home for showing

You should also stage your home for showings as you approach the listing date. This involves making your home as aesthetically pleasing as possible to a wide variety of buyers. Potential staging ideas include:

  • Cleaning your home from top to bottom, removing clutter and making everything shine. This could be a DIY job, or you could hire professional cleaners.

  • Removing personal items such as family photos and using neutral decorations (avoid highly personal or stylized items) so buyers can better project their own ideas onto the home.

  • Arranging furniture and objects in a way that creates the impression of space.

If you’re in a competitive buyers’ market, you want to sell quickly, or you just don’t want to do the work of staging yourself, you can hire professional stagers to help your home make a great impression. The cost of professional staging includes the stager’s services and the rental of any furniture or objects they place in your home.

If your home takes a while to sell, staging is more than a one-time job. You will want to regularly keep up with maintenance and cleaning to make sure your home continues to make a great impression.

Choose the right list price

It's important to list your home at the right price from the beginning, when it’s getting the maximum amount of exposure. If you price your house too high, it may sit on the market for too long and you’ll have to drop the price. If you price your home too low, you could miss out on a significant chunk of cash.

Whether you’re extremely attached to your home or you can’t wait to move out, pricing your home from an emotional standpoint could cause you to miss the mark. A comparative market analysis can help you identify a logical list price.

Your listing agent can put together the CMA, a report that contains data on recent home sales in your area, to give you an idea of what similar homes have sold for. Comparable homes should be close by, around the same age and have a similar square footage. The data in the CMA can help you and your agent decide on a realistic list price.

You’ll also need to keep the time of year in mind, and whether you’re in a seller’s market, a buyer’s market or a neutral market.

Sometimes sellers hire an appraiser to assess the home’s value, but this may be overkill in many cases. Buyers may not trust your appraisal and the bank that’s providing the mortgage loan will request their own appraisal anyway.

Put your home up for sale

Once you’re ready to put your home on the market, it’s time to list it for sale and start scheduling showings.

1. List your home

Your home should be listed across multiple real estate websites and channels. The more places your home appears for sale, the more interest you’ll get. Your real estate agent will help set up and manage your home’s listing.

For most buyers, the online listing is the first impression they get. Professional, high-resolution photos can do a lot to show off your home, so consider hiring a pro to take your pictures.

The listing description should be short and sweet, but should highlight your home’s selling points, which may include your outdoor space, school district, proximity to public transportation and other benefits.

Don’t forget the For Sale sign in your yard. It will entice interested buyers who are checking out your neighborhood.

2. Schedule showings

Next, it’s time to start scheduling showings with potential buyers. Your agent may want to schedule an open house to get a lot of foot traffic in a single day, schedule individual showings, or do a mix of both. To generate the most interest, schedule as many showings as you can. This will require you to be flexible with your schedule.

“Once the home is listed, you will have to coordinate with your regarding showing availability. You will want to be flexible and allow as much accessibility to buyers as possible to give yourself the best chance at a successful sale. This will mean having to be ready to leave the house when a requested showing pops up. This can certainly be inconvenient while living at the house, but most definitely worth it,” said Jonathan Faccone, founder of Halo Homebuyers.

Your listing agent should keep track of showings, gauge interest in your home and provide a way for potential buyers to leave feedback. The agent should keep you informed of how the tours are going, and if there are any concerns with specific aspects of the home.

After a period of showing, you should expect some offers to start rolling in if your home is priced fairly. If your home isn’t getting any offers after repeated showings, you may need to lower your price or make some property improvements.

Receive an offer

One of the biggest hurdles of selling your home is receiving an offer. Once your agent receives offers from a buyer’s agents, the negotiation process begins. Offers will state the amount the buyer is offering for your home and a time limit for making a decision. You can decide to accept an offer, reject an offer, negotiate or let the offer expire.

If the buyers are offering less than you’re asking for, you may be able to counter with the list price. Some negotiating tactics to help you get the offer you want include offering to cover the buyer’s closing costs or leaving some appliances or furniture behind. You could split the difference between the offer and the list price to meet in the middle.

If you end up in a bidding war between motivated buyers, you’re in a strong negotiating position. Your agent can help you play competing buyers off each other to get a stronger offer, but don’t spend too much time renegotiating. Buyers can always change their minds. Some buyers may try to sweeten the deal by paying cash, waiving certain contingencies or agreeing to a shorter or longer closing period.

The buyers might write you an offer letter telling you why they want to buy your home. While their attempts to pull your heartstrings shouldn't deter you from seeking the best offer, it may help you make a decision between two motivated buyers.

If you’re in a strong negotiating position, consider making a counteroffer that states your home sale is contingent upon you buying a new home. This will ensure you have a place to live while you seek out a new residence.

Your agent will act as an intermediary in these negotiations, and can help you and the buyer reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Once you get an offer you’re comfortable with, it’s time to accept and move forward.

Move through the escrow period

Once you and the buyer have reached an agreement, you’ll both review your contracts and sign documents stating your intent to move forward with the transaction, the intended closing date and other necessary terms and conditions. Remember, the closing date is only a target, and it can change.

Your home sale is by no means a done deal at this point. You now enter the escrow period, which can often take up to 45 days (or more), during which the sale of your home can fall through at any point.

“The typical time from ratification to close is 45 to 60 days when a buyer is getting a loan. If a buyer is paying with cash, it can be much quicker,” said Burris. “Your contract will either have a repair clause or a due diligence contingency. A due diligence period is a time when a buyer can essentially back out of the contract if they discover something that is not to their liking about the home.”

There are several steps the buyer must go through before closing. While the details vary from state to state and from contract to contract, here’s a high-level overview of the typical process:

  • Home inspection: The buyer will hire a licensed home inspection professional to check your home from top to bottom for problems. They will present their full findings in a report to the buyer. The buyer may ask you to make repairs or back out entirely. You might have to negotiate a lower selling price to move forward if you don’t want to deal with the repairs yourself.

  • Appraisal: The buyer’s lender will order an appraisal (paid for by the buyer) to determine the value of your home. This step is intended to prevent the buyer and the lender from paying too much for the home. If the appraiser finds your home isn’t worth what the buyer is offering, the buyer will either need to put down more money up front, negotiate a lower price or walk away from the deal.

  • Title search: The buyer’s title company will research property records to make sure you legally own the home and can legally transfer it to the buyer.

  • Securing financing: The buyer must secure financing from their lender. During the mortgage underwriting process, the lender will evaluate the buyer’s finances to make sure they meet the loan requirements. If the buyers can’t secure the loan they want, their offer could fall through. This process can drag on if the buyer is applying for mortgage assistance or working with programs that require additional financial scrutiny.

  • Final walkthrough: On closing day, the buyers will do a final walkthrough of the home to make sure the property is in the shape they expect and that any requested repairs have been made.

Move out

Burris recommends that at 30 days before the closing date, sellers should start preparing to move out, with the actual moving date occurring a few days before closing. This will give you enough time to prepare for moving but allow you to stay if something falls through. When moving out, there are several considerations:

  • Hiring movers vs. DIY: You’ll probably be responsible for packing up your personal items, furniture and other belongings (minus anything you agreed to leave behind for the buyers). If you’re moving yourself, start calling friends and family for help and arrange to rent a truck. If you can afford it, professional movers can load up everything and take it where it needs to go.

  • Arranging storage: Can’t fit everything in your new home, or need a temporary place to store stuff? Make sure to arrange storage space ahead of time.

  • Canceling utilities: You should arrange to pay utilities until you’re out of the house. Burris said it’s common practice to leave utilities on until the day after closing.

  • Forwarding mail & updating addresses: Make sure you update your addresses with your employer and the organizations and companies you will continue to do business with. Ask the post office to forward mail to your new address.

  • Cleaning: The final walkthrough of the home will likely occur after you move out. Leave your home in good shape. You might want to hire professional cleaners to make sure it’s spotless.

Timing your move with the sale of your home can be difficult. If you don’t think you can get out of your home by the time of closing, you may want to negotiate a post-closing agreement called a “rent-back agreement” which will allow you to stay in the home for a predetermined amount of time and pay rent to the new owners. This should be a last resort and negotiated as soon as possible.

Fulfill closing obligations

Now comes the final step: closing day. On this day you will complete the process of transferring your home to the buyer, and receive any proceeds you get from the sale of your home. If you’re using these proceeds to fund the purchase of a new home on the same day or shortly thereafter, it’s important to make sure this process goes smoothly.

The closing may take place in the office of the buyer’s title insurance company, the lender’s office or an attorney’s office. The specifics vary from state to state. In some states, there must be witnesses present and all parties must be in the same location. In other states, sellers can pre-sign certain documents over the course of a few weeks. Make sure you understand the closing process ahead of time so you know what’s expected.

After closing you will need to turn over your keys to the new homeowners. The deed will be transferred to the new owners, your remaining mortgage balance will be paid off and you will receive the remaining profits.

Remember that you will be paying any closing costs you are responsible for at this point. For sellers, closing costs typically range from 8% to 10% of the sale price of the home (though this can be negotiated during the offer stage). These costs will be deducted from the proceeds you make from the sale of your home.

“On the closing day, your attorney will receive purchase funds from the attorney. That party then picks up the deed and records it. Once the deed is recorded, your sale proceeds are disbursed,” said Burris. “Keep in mind that there are multiple moving parts to the process ... so you’ll want to account for the potential of any delays.”

Learn more about the home selling process from these other resources:

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