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Block-party Poopers: How to Overcome the Neighborhood Eyesore When Your House is for Sale

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By Rachel Koning Beals

RISMEDIA, July 30, 2007—(MarketWatch)—Fresh paint, a new front door and colorful landscaping are often sure-fire ways to tease potential buyers over the threshold of a home for sale. Yet sometimes, no matter how perfect your pansies, nothing can draw their gaze past the tired-looking two-story buried in weeds next door.

More than 60% of 900 people surveyed by contractor-referral site ServiceMagic.com said they have or have had neighbors who make the street look bad by not taking care of the outside of their homes (21% admitted they were the culprit). Common problems: tall weeds and grass, imposing trees or a dying lawn; piled-up junk, particularly old cars; and peeling paint or a visible defect in the exterior, such as a broken window.

Sloppy properties aren’t exclusive to older dwellings in established or up-and-coming neighborhoods. Bad habits are on display in new developments too, say real estate experts.

Neighborhood eyesores aren’t a new or uncommon problem. But curb appeal, yours and the neighborhood’s, takes on greater significance in a nationwide buyer’s market. For buyers, eyesores may present yet one more negotiating advantage. Remember, appraisals factor in the condition of nearby properties.

Michael Lee, a realty broker for 30 years in the San Francisco Bay area and author of “Black Belt Negotiating,” says sellers near eyesores “don’t have to have a fire sale, but do need to put their listing at a price that attracts plenty of traffic … or risk having a home that just sits on the market.”

“That is death,” he says. “It becomes the tainted house.”

The National Association of Realtors says an eyesore can shave about 10% off the value of a nearby listing. Most real estate experts, though, stress that there are market-by-market differences that can affect that percentage and a wide range of situations, from a seemingly benign overgrown lawn across the street to a boarded-up property right next door.

“If there are or were other similar eyesores in the area but the market is heading up, it’s likely that the home will get fixed up or torn down sooner than later. If it’s the only house in the area that looks bad, it can have a greater impact on the resale of neighboring homes,” said Bob Golden, a 20-year Atlanta agent with RE/MAX.

Size up the situation

Approaching a neighbor can be uncomfortable to say the least. In the ServiceMagic survey, 75% of respondents said they’d made no direct contact with their neighbors over the issue; 18% said they confronted their neighbor, it created tension and the house still looked bad; 4% said their talk produced a satisfactory outcome all the way around and another 4% said the problem was fixed but it created lingering tension.

Neglected properties likely belong to one of two types of people: those physically or financially unable to keep up with the work and those who purposely buck social norms, said Oakland, Calif.-based Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a broker, author and creator of female-focused resource site rethinkrealestate.com.

Knowing what you’re dealing with is the key.

“In ‘Black Belt’ we talk about ‘spying’ on your opponent, true in martial arts and in any negotiation situation,” said Lee. In some cases, the homeowner may have just taken on new responsibilities and has fallen behind — for example, started a new job — or is facing unexpected health issues. Bringing your concern to their attention may do the trick. Stress that keeping up the condition of the neighborhood helps the value of all properties.

Think: What’s in it for us. Not what’s in it for me.

A group effort may pay off. Some local branches of the National Association of Realtors have created funds that help older or otherwise incapacitated homeowners keep up their exteriors. Getting other neighbors to collectively rally behind your cause may bear more fruit and may come across as neighborhood improvement projects not the ranting of a picky neighbor.

Absentee owners — say, if the property is rented out — may require plenty of correspondence, so don’t wait until right before you put your home on the market. If the out-of-town party is agreeable to changes, it may make sense for the local seller to offer to secure contractors or other necessary laborers.

Ask for more than you think you’re going to get, says Lee. Your fallback position, then, is that you will take care of making the fixes, either financially or doing the work yourself.
The unexpected sweat equity to resolve someone else’s problem may seem more hassle than help, but that first impression is everything these days. Consider this: Lee admits he once took a pass on a $750,000 listing just because the sellers refused to repaint their dog-scratched front door.

Call in the authorities

If personal negotiation stalls, or if hostile neighbors become threatening, residents can sometimes lean on existing municipal laws, administered through the building department, health department or similar entity, to get neighbors to clean up their act, said Neil Garfinkel, a Manhattan-based real estate attorney with Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson LLP.

Some areas levy fines for keeping around piles of wood that attract animals, as one example. Municipal codes can be dense, if not interesting, reading. Nelson said that her home city of Oakland includes an antirooster ordinance on its books.

Asked about bringing in the authorities, some 20% in the ServiceMagic survey said they “snitched” on their neighbors, another 20% said they intended to bring in the authorities but hadn’t yet, while 14% said someone else in the neighborhood beat them to it. The remaining 41% said they just put up with the nearby eyesore.

Getting results can be frustrating. The government is most likely to act only when a particular property’s condition risks public health. The process of resolving a complaint can be long and time consuming, the real estate experts said.
Eye of the beholder

Kina Lane, principal in Sunshine Development Partners, which buys and sells property in Chicago, in Wilmington, Del., and in her own neighborhood of New York’s Harlem, stresses that eyesores are subjective. Real estate, like any investment, carries risk and reward. Proximity to eyesores may present a buying opportunity to some and keep others from even getting out of the car.

Some buyers, like Lane, see a mix of fixer-uppers and ongoing projects as a fruitful challenge; others can’t get past what’s likely to be daily construction noise over several months or years. Urban house-hunters might be more tolerant of an eclectic mix of building style and range of condition compared to suburban or rural buyers, she added.

Eyesores aren’t restricted to homes, said Lane. The mix of nearby commercial properties may not fit everyone’s sensibilities — a liquor store at the end of the block, for instance. Other potential buyers may, in fact, enjoy the proximity of retail stores whatever their offerings.

Empty industrial or retail buildings can have a negative impact as well. A potential buyer is left wondering if an area is on the rise or on the decline. A seller setting a listing price must keep the entire feel of the neighborhood in mind, Lane added.

Sometimes the house down the street is in good condition but its purple facade and lawn sculptures don’t speak to everyone’s taste. Whether homes need to conform by city ordinance to the general architectural feel of a particular street varies by area, so check the rules.

In this case, says Lee, expand beyond conventional marketing venues to go after potential buyers who would welcome living in an eclectic neighborhood. Post your listing in galleries and restaurants, in independent newspapers and on personal-ad Web sites such as Craigslist.

Develop a buyer profile and then go after that buyer, he says.

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