What if, while cruising around the neighbourhood on your bike, you spied a Private Sale sign on the lawn of your perfect home? What if, when you called the number, it turned out the sellers were in their 80s, had wildly overpriced their home and had been struggling to find a buyer for the past six years? Notice any red flags?
Buying a For Sale By Owner house
Stephanie Barker did, but the senior vice president at Arm Energy also recognized a big opportunity to own the house of her dreams—a four-bedroom, custom-built, one-owner with a large backyard and a converted attic office space. An Internet search, a generic sales contract and a lengthy phone call later, Barker and her boyfriend, Rob Maykut, became the proud new owners of a beautiful Canmore, Alta. family home, located just north of 8th Street. Were they mad?
For some, the idea of buying a For Sale By Owner (FSBO) home conjures up the image of a penny-pinching, emotionally charged seller flogging a defect-laden house. But if you’re in the market for a new home, choosing to avoid FSBOs may mean eliminating up to 25% of the homes currently listed for sale. Not a smart strategy. Instead, would-be FSBO buyers can learn a thing or two from Barker—and realize that, just like all real estate transactions, buyers of FSBOs simply need to do their own homework.
First: Know your market
Barker didn’t bat an eye when she heard how much the sellers wanted for their home. She already knew it was too high. “I’d watched the sales activity in the neighbourhood for at least six months. I knew what homes in that area were worth.” So Barker went in with an initial offer that was 50% less than what they were asking. “They didn’t even counter our offer,” recalls Barker. That didn’t stop her. “We had wiggle room, so I called the sellers.” For 45 minutes Barker discussed price, timing and conditions. “That conversation helped me appreciate where they were coming from and helped them appreciate where I was coming from,” she says. Once off the phone, Barker drafted a second and final offer. This time the sellers accepted. “I paid just a little over half of what the seller’s originally wanted and I’m sure we would never have reached a deal had we not been able to talk.”
Next: Get the right papers
Since the sellers were in their 80s, Barker took it upon herself to find a home sales contract online. “I didn’t want them to feel the added stress of trying to find a contract,” says Barker. She got lucky, says Jeff Kahane, a Calgary real estate lawyer. “At the end of the day a spit and a handshake is sufficient to close the deal, as long as nothing goes wrong,” Kahane says, But when things do go drastically wrong, it can be devastating. For instance, the bank can refuse to give you a mortgage if the home has a lien against it, if there’s a health advisory, the owners owe back taxes or the house is deemed overvalued by the appraiser. Quite often, even the seller is unaware of these potential pitfalls. “The sad fact is, it costs as little as $400 to get a sales contract from a lawyer, but you can pay $40,000 or more in fees to get out of a signed deal.”
Then: Do some digging
Getting an iron-clad contract is just the start. There are other pitfalls that can occur within a real estate transaction, explains Monika Furtado, a Calgary Re/Max real estate agent. For example, Ontario buyers can take legal possession of a property without a survey, but in Alberta a buyer must have a Real Property Report—a legal document that shows the location of visible improvements relative to property boundaries. “Neglect to ask for one and the buyer will have to pay $1,000 for the report to close the deal.”
Then there’s the measurements of a home. “Most sellers don’t realize that we have standards when recording home measurements,” says Furtado. “Like, the bottom level of a side-split shouldn’t be included in the total square footage because it’s below-grade living space.”
And what about a title search? While anyone can go to the land records office and pay for this document, not everyone understand what to look for and why it’s important. Furtado will often pull this document during the early stages of an offer. “I want to verify ownership, check setbacks and confirm there’s enough equity in the home to sell it,” explains Furtado. She’s known cases where sellers, caught with little or no equity, stay put in a sold house, refusing to vacate the home because they have no money to move.
Finally: Buy some advice
The big reason why a seller chooses FSBO is to save money on realtor commissions. “Nothing wrong with that,” says Furtado, “but because the house listing hasn’t been vetted by another realtor it often means a lot more work for me or the buyer.”
The key, says Kahane, is to get professional, knowledgeable advice. At the best of times sellers tend to inflate the value of their home, because of all they’ve put into it, while buyers struggle between emotion and logic. “You may go into Sears or Ikea 20 times before picking out a bed, but spend only 40 minutes before signing a contract to buy a home.” It’s one reason why Kahane is a strong advocate for representation—a real estate lawyer, a real estate agent and a home inspector. “These professionals have obligations and responsibilities to help and protect you.”
That’s exactly how Barker handled her last purchase: “I took my signed contract to my attorney. He looked it over and, once satisfied, we finalized the deal.” That’s how most transactions go, says Kahane.
But on those occasions when things don’t go so smoothly you have a choice: Pay a little bit of money for some good advice in advance, or pay a lot to fix a problem that could have been avoided in the first place.