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Real estate agents work harder to clinch the deal

December 06, 2008

By MELISSA KOSSLER DUTTON

For The Associated Press

Real estate agent Sharon Zunkley has taken some unusual steps this past year to sell houses:

She hired a cleaning lady to teach one male client how to clean his house before showings. She paid to have a stove fixed when the buyer and seller couldn't agree on who was responsible for the repair. She hung artwork from her own home in a client's house to make it more attractive.

Despite her efforts, her median selling price has dropped $20,000, to $180,000.

"We're all taking a hit," said Zunkley, whose office is in Mentor, Ohio. "We're hoping when this is over and things start to go back up, we'll have survived."

Real estate agents across the country are having to work harder in one of the worst markets in years. They often must spend more to secure a deal at a time when houses are on the market longer and selling for less.

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Rande Friedman in Tampa, Fla., creates expensive promotional videos for the houses he has for sale.

Brian Copeland in Nashville, Tenn., has a feature on his Web site that lets potential buyers send instant messages to his phone.

"The more you can do to generate interest in a property the better," said J. Parrish, a director with the Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

U.S. home prices decreased 9.5 percent in the last year, according to the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C. Agents typically earn a 5 percent to 7 percent commission on the properties they sell; the money is generally split between the buyer's agent and the seller's agent, with both paying a percentage to their agencies.

"This is the year of how creative can you be," said Zunkley, who has sold real estate for 22 years. "It's also the year of going back to the basics."

That means "pricing and presentation," said Elizabeth Blakeslee, a Realtor and a vice president of the national association.

Real estate agents need to warn sellers that overpriced houses will get overlooked when there's a glut of properties for sale, she said, and they need to be firm about what must be done to prepare a house to go on the market. Buyers have no use for dirty or cluttered homes, she added.

That's why Friedman, in Tampa, pays professionals to help sellers ready their homes. He has a cadre of interior designers, photographers and videographers who help him produce the videos of each property. He spends $2,000 to $3,000 for those service per home, but it pays off, he said.

"Yes, it's into my bottom line," he said. "But when you're selling houses, at least your bottom line is there."

Friedman also uses creative open houses to try to attract buyers. When he has waterfront properties for sale, he provides fishing poles or kayaks for potential buyers to use during the showings.

Copeland concentrates on making himself accessible to buyers and making his sellers visible on the Internet.

"I'm finding it's taking a lot longer, which creates more work," he said. "If it were a different market my days on the market would go down."

It takes about 10 to 12 weeks to sell a house in today's market compared to 4 weeks during the peak sales of 2004 and 2005, according to the Realtors association.

When Copeland receives queries about his Web site, he responds right away.

"I'll pull over on the side of the road and talk with you immediately," he said.

He also tries to attract buyers by posting high-end photos and videos of properties on Web sites frequented by house hunters.

"There's no room for poor photography," Copeland said. "We are now in a beauty pageant and a pricing war."

He recently paid to have a gas line installed in a fireplace, and said he does everything he can to keep buyers and sellers at the table.

"You have to be nicer than you used to be," he said. "Your goal is keep people in the deal."

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