Sellers who skip brokers may be losing their edge

Lew Sichelman, United Feature Syndicate Published March 5, 2006


This is "The Case of the Missing 10 Percent." It's a tale of lost millions, and it

stars a cast of thousands--the thousands of owners who sell their houses without

professional help.

It seems that in their desire to save the 5 to 7 percent fee that agents charge for

their services, FSBOs--as in for sale by owners--get 16 percent less than owners

of comparable houses who put the transaction into the hands of an experienced

agent, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors.

Colby Sambrotto of, an online marketplace where do-ityourselfers

list their properties and pick up valuable tips on going it alone,

disputes that figure. "It just doesn't jibe with our experience," he said.

"We haven't put together a big study like [NAR's]," Sambrotto conceded. "But we

ask all our sellers if they were successful, and 65 percent say they were. And we

ask if they sold at or near their selling price, and 85 percent say they do."

But the 1.2 million-member NAR says it has the research to back up its claim. In

what it calls the "largest and most authoritative" survey about how people buy

and sell houses, a poll of 7,813 recent buyers and sellers through county deed

records found that the median price achieved by sellers with agents was

$230,000 versus $198,200 for sellers without agents.

That's a difference of nearly $32,000, or 16 percent, with no significant

differences between the types of homes sold.

NAR isn't alone when it says the desire to save the commission can backfire on

sellers. Research by two University of Texas instructors found sellers realize little

net gain when they turn to limited-service agents to perform some--but not all--

the tasks needed to bring a contract to closing.

The study found limited-service listings sold for 1.7 percent less than full-service

listings and took 17.1 percent longer to sell. Additional research may be

warranted, said James Ford, a lecturer in the College of Business at the

University of Texas at San Antonio, and Ron Rutherford, a professor of finance.

But for now, they say, it seems that limited-service brokerage offers "no dollar


Of course, not everyone does worse in the attempt to go it alone. At the top of

the market, where even fixer-uppers are selling within hours, it's tough for sellers

to make a mistake.

But forget for a moment that NAR's findings might be seen as self-serving. For

argument's sake, let's say the Realtors are right, that in the effort to save 6

percent--the reason cited most frequently by what NAR calls "unrepresented

sellers" for selling their homes themselves--sellers lose 16 percent.

The mystery here is this: If you figure that would-be buyers automatically knock 6

percent off their offers to FSBOs because they know there's at least that much fat

in their asking price, where goes the remaining 10 percent?

One glaring clue appears to be the inability of FSBOs to market their houses as

widely or as professionally as, well, the professionals.

Nearly two-thirds of the unrepresented sellers in the Realtors' study used yard

sales to alert would-be buyers that their homes were on the market. And almost

half used word-of-mouth. Some also advertised in their newspapers or for-saleby-

owner magazines. A third held open houses, and a small number used direct


These are all good tools. But fewer than one in five listed his or her home on the

Internet, either with its own Web site or on one such as

Yet, the NAR study found that three of four buyers--77 percent--went house

hunting on the Web. So go-it-alone house peddlers are missing a big part of the


Virtually everyone who uses the Internet to house hunt is in the game, the survey

found. They're not tire kickers; they're actively looking for properties for sale. And

they want photos, detailed property information, virtual tours, interactive maps

and neighborhood information before they make that first phone call or hop in the


Internet users in the survey visited more houses than nonusers--a median of 11

versus 6, with 1 in 10 touring at least 25 properties before making a decision.

And once they jumped behind the wheel, three of four went to see something that

caught their attention while online.

Interestingly, the sites used most frequently by home searchers are controlled by

brokers., NAR's official site, was visited most often, followed by the

sites operated by local multiple-listing services, real-estate companies and realestate

agents. Of course, to list a property on these sites, a seller must sign up

with a broker, a full-service office at full commission or a discount firm that

charges a smaller fee.

FSBOs in the NAR survey also said they had more difficulty in completing the

necessary paperwork, preparing their homes for the market and setting the price

than they did in attracting buyers.

It's hard to see how handling the paperwork affects the selling price, but staging

the house so prospects see it in its best light and determining the correct asking

price can have a profound effect.

Face it, many folks don't know how to make their homes show well. They fail to

remove the clutter, for example, or put away all those personal items that distract

visitors. Mostly, though, they cannot view their places as the commodities they

become once they are on the market. To them, the house is wonderful as it is, so

they don't look at it through a buyer's eyes.

If there is a fatal mistake, though, it's probably that FSBOs don't price their

properties correctly. Sambrotto contends they tend to price their houses too high.

But too high or too low, do-it-yourselfers simply don't have the resources to

determine a fair asking price.

While there are a number of Internet sites--Sambrotto's is one--with valuation

tools to help owners determine what their homes are worth, most agents have

the best tool of all--the multiple-listing service.

Agents aren't always right. Indeed, they can misread the market too. But they

have a sense of the market that nonprofessionals can't match.


Write to Lew Sichelman c/o Chicago Tribune, Real Estate, 435 N. Michigan Ave.,

4th floor, Chicago, IL 60611. Or e-mail him at