Homeowners Looking to Sell Face Tough Market In a buyer's market, homeowners are going to extreme lengths to sell their houses: offering free plasma TVs, Jacuzzis, even a car to fill half of the two-car garage. Housing experts talk about the challenges that homeowners face when they are trying to sell.
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Homeowners Looking to Sell Face Tough Market

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you're looking to buy a house, you're in luck. This is, by any definition, a buyer's market. Inventory continues to pile up, prices continue to drop. And you're probably in a position to sniff at those new granite countertops, wave away the Jacuzzi and ask, what else can you do for me? If you're in the market to sell, you're in for a challenge.

Sellers, what have you offered as an inducement? Buyers, what's the craziest thing you've been offered? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later this hour, our regular Wednesday visit with political junkie Ken Rudin. And this week, Andy Kohut joins us with a new poll about the issues Americans care most about. What issue or set of issues would sway your vote? E-mail us now. Again, the address is talk@npr.org.

But first, the buyer's market in real estate.

Patty Rooney managed to sell her house, finally. It was on the market for several months. All it took was a little luck or as she sees it, divine intervention.

Patty Rooney joins us from the studios of North Carolina Public Radio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. PATTY ROONEY (Human Resources Supervisor, School of Education, University of North Carolina): Hi. Thank you.

CONAN: And I know you put your house up for sale in Graham, North Carolina. And not a whole lot happened.

Ms. ROONEY: No, it was on the market for about five months. And my new husband and I had already moved into another house. We're carrying both mortgages, and it was getting a little scary.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So what did you do?

Ms. ROONEY: I had a really good real estate agent. But she was trying everything. Nothing was happening. And being a good Catholic and being a little tiny bit superstitious, I buried St. Joseph in my front yard.

CONAN: You buried - wait a minute, you buried an image of St. Joseph (unintelligible)?

Ms. ROONEY: Yes. Well, it's like a four-inch statue, a little plastic statue. And it seems kind of crazy and - but I always thought that if you put good thoughts out there and sent an actual heartfelt prayer northward that it would actually work, and it actually did. And within several weeks, we had an interested party. In less than a month, we were closed. So…

CONAN: Well, congratulations on the sale.

Ms. ROONEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Have you freed St. Joseph?

Ms. ROONEY: No. As soon as the closing was over, my daughter and I went over and tried to find him. And we couldn't find him and we couldn't see where anyone had bothered or disturbed the land. So…

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. ROONEY: …I have no idea where my little plastic statue went. But I'm supposed to put it up on my mantel as a thanks to him. But he's not there.

CONAN: Well…

Ms. ROONEY: So…

CONAN: …explain to us, the origin of this idea. Does burying an image of a saint in your yard will help you sell your house?

Ms. ROONEY: Well, just like you, I wondered about the same thing. I Googled him, St. Joseph, and the underground real estate agent that he is, and sent - I can't remember, I think $10. They sent me a little package with a little prayer I was supposed to say.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. ROONEY: And my husband was such - he just cannot believe I was doing it. He made fun of me, and wouldn't stand there. Well, I said my prayers or buried St. Joseph.

So - but he wasn't laughing in two weeks when we got our offer and closed on the house. So we're very happy to be out of the house, to be - have it sold, and the people who bought it are thrilled. So something happened there.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, much of us, of course, recognize St. Joseph as the patron saint of children's aspirin. Other than that, what gives him dominion over housing sales?

Ms. ROONEY: Well, I wondered that, too. But I think he's supposed to be patron saint of carpentry or something. So maybe that's what it is?

CONAN: It could be.

Ms. ROONEY: Whatever - it worked.

CONAN: He was a carpenter, at least that's what it says.

Ms. ROONEY: Yes, that's what it says. Whatever - I don't know if it was the positive thoughts or fate or what. But it worked, and I'm very happy about it.

CONAN: And how close to your original asking price did you get?

Ms. ROONEY: Well, actually, pretty much we got the asking price and sold the house as is. So it was a very good thing.

CONAN: Ah.

Ms. ROONEY: So…

CONAN: Well, congratulations.

Ms. ROONEY: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Patty Rooney is - joined us today from the studios of North Carolina Public Radio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, not far away from where she sold her house after burying St. Joseph in the yard where he still remains.

Elizabeth Razzi, her story - as is asking price, not so bad.

Ms. ELIZABETH RAZZI (Author, "The Fearless Home Seller"; Real Estate Columnist, The Washington Post): Well, that's not bad at all, especially five months in -the way this market is, that's really not bad.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: And she didn't have to do any fix-up either. And St. Joseph conveyed, I believe.

CONAN: Elizabeth Razzi, the author of "The Fearless Home Seller" and a real estate columnist for "The Washington Post" is here with us in Studio 3A.

Others though, Elizabeth, are having to go to even greater measures to try to move their property.

Ms. RAZZI: Some places it's just, you know, it's extending to a year or longer. And the problem is there's just so much supply, especially if you're in a community that has had a lot of building, a lot of foreclosures or a lot of brand new homes that become unsold.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: A lot of the buyers cancel the contract.

CONAN: Back out.

Ms. RAZZI: Yeah, they're backing out. Putting a lot more supply on the market than people thought there was. The new homebuilders are able to just flush their prices and throw in all kinds of goodies to make their stuff move. The problem is for a resell owner in that neighborhood is the only thing you can compete on is price.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The only thing you can - because the new homeowners, they can throw in those granite counters, I was so - mocking.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, they throw in the granite counters. They throw in, you know, finished basements. They throw in all kinds of stuff. And they'll help buy down the interest rate. They're doing everything they can think of. Half-price sales on all the options…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: …all kinds of stuff. And there's a bias toward new for most people. An awful lot of people love to be the first one owning a house, the first one to turn on the range, and the first one to use the bathtub. And so the resell owners in those areas, where there's a lot of new supply, really aren't in tough straits.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What's the situation where you live? What are you, Mr. Seller, dealing to try to induce some buyers? What are you, Mr. and Mrs. Buyer, what are you being offered in the way of wacky inducements? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And, Elizabeth Razzi, the market couldn't be more different than it was, what, three, four years ago.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, three, four years ago was a really, really strange market. It was a bubble that was really difficult to buy a home in. If you stop and think back to it, there were so many people who are so frustrated because they're making full price offers on homes as soon as they came up for sale and they would get outdid by someone else.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROONEY: We now figured out that a lit of those people who won those bidding was - were using very crazy mortgages to make the deal happen. But a lot of, you know, good, sensible homeowners who just wanted a place to live were frozen out of the market because of those prices.

CONAN: They'll find themselves buying a lot - spending a lot more money in the house than they ever planned for it.

Ms. RAZZI: Oh, yes. I mean, if people are - some people are driven to interest-only mortgages and short-term adjustable rate mortgages because they simply couldn't win a house any other way.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: And now, of course, the tide has completely turned. Buyers have as much selection as they have time to look at.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. 800-898-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org.

We'll begin with Susan(ph) who's calling us from Louisville, Kentucky.

SUSAN (CALLER): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, there.

SUSAN: I just want to make a comment. We just moved from the worst - one of the worst real estate markets in the nation, Detroit, Michigan to Louisville, Kentucky. And I just wanted to say that I think a lot of people make the mistake that they don't look at their house as a business transaction. We were able to sell our house because we bought in a very desirable area. We sacrificed square footage. We set our price at a - actually, only at a couple thousand dollars more than what we had paid for four years ago. We took a small offer on the house. We buried St. Joseph, too. But we were able to sell it.

And I think a lot of people miss the mark that they buy farther out in cities to get larger homes and so on. And what we ended up doing in Louisville was we bought a house that was actually a foreclosure in a very desirable neighborhood, in a great area. We didn't go with a new builder, because we were afraid of the builders potentially going out of business and having lots of open lots. And we, again, looked at this as a transaction that, hey, we might not live here forever and we have to do the smart thing.

CONAN: Hmm. It's probably a good advice for a lot of people, Elizabeth Razzi.

Ms. RAZZI: I think she made completely the smart move. And it is right that - there are so many people who are frightened out of the market right now because they have been seeing prices come down. But if the house that you're buying goes down as much or more than the house you're selling, you're not hurt really especially if you plan to live in the place five years or longer, as you should be when you're investing in real estate. It's not a quick investment.

CONAN: But as she suggested, they just bought their house in Detroit four years ago and did not take a total bath(ph) when they got out.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, unfortunately, Detroit is one of those markets that didn't see a big run-up in prices like some of the others. They didn't have prices peeking in 2004 the way some of the other places did.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: But there's just a tremendous inventory in the Detroit area so she's fortunate that she was able to get rid of it. But the key was that she had it in a desirable neighborhood.

CONAN: Location, location, location.

Ms. RAZZI: That still matters even in a buyers' market right now.

Conan: One other question about Susan's call. She bought a foreclosure, is that less expensive, generally, than going through the regular market to buy a, you know, a previously lived-in home?

Ms. RAZZI: Well, you have a seller who's not emotional. You've got a bank selling this property and they want to get rid of it. They're not emotional about it. They didn't raise their babies there. They didn't do any of that. They just want to move it. And so if you have the temperament to deal with a foreclosure and you have some cash-in reserve to bring it up to today's standards, if necessary, it could be a good investment.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. They're not going to remodel it for you.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, not only that, it's not a happy scene when people are losing their house to foreclosure. They didn't have money to make the mortgage payment. You can be sure they didn't have money to do the little fix-ups for a while. And sometimes, people actually damage a home when it's going to foreclosure. This is a very, very traumatic, unhappy time for people and sometimes they take it out on the house before they turn it back over to the lender.

CONAN: It's also the - the new owner might be well, feeling a little dubious about, you know, profiting on someone else's troubles.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, by that time, by the time it's come to foreclosure, you're profiting from the bank's mistake. You're not - the original owner is out of the picture already and so you really don't need to feel guilty about that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. That's happened, that's over and done.

Ms. RAZZI: It's happened. You had nothing to do with it. You're just buying a property. It's just a matter of dollars and scents now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, but Susan's advice, you know, think about this as a business transaction. From the get-go, it's - yes, of course, it means a lot to you. Houses have tremendous emotional freight as well as the biggest investment most of us will ever make.

Ms. RAZZI: Oh, absolutely. She made another good point about trading the quality commute versus square footage.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: And especially with gasoline prices rising these days, people are really putting a premium on close and easy-to-commute neighborhoods. We see it here on the Washington, D.C. area that the properties inside the Beltway are holding up relatively well versus some of the ones in the far-out developments.

CONAN: Hmm. We'll be back with more in just a moment.

Susan, by the way, thanks very much for the call.

SUSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the buyer's market and what lengths people will go to to sell their homes. Give us your story, 800-989-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org.

And later, we'll be talking to the host of TV's "My House is Worth What?" She tells us about the biggest mistake sellers make. So stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We'll get to Ken Rudin in our Political Junkie segment in a few minutes and talk about last night's Democratic debate and new poll numbers out today about the issues voters say will sway their votes. That's later this hour.

Here's some news that will be of interest to these people interested in the subject we're talking about this hour, which, of course, is the buyer's market in real estate. The Federal Reserve Board has decided to cut a key interest rate, the federal funds rate, by one quarter point, that's the second rate reduction this year, the second consecutive rate reduction and it'll eventually affect the real estate markets, which is what we're talking about.

Kitchen upgrades aren't cutting it anymore. Sellers, what have you offered as an inducement? Buyers, what's the craziest thing you've been offered to get your bid? 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. And you can tell us these stories also on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Our guest is Elizabeth Razzi, author of "The Fearless Home Seller" and real-estate columnist for the Washington Post. Joining us now is Kendra Todd, a real estate agent in Florida and the host of "My House is Worth What?" That's a program on the Home and Garden network. She joins us by phone from Stanford, Connecticut where she's shooting an episode. And Kendra, we know you're busy. Thanks for taking the time out to speak with us today.

Ms. KENDRA TODD (Host, "My House is Worth What?"): Oh, it's my pleasure. I love talking real estate and you know, particularly, given the current climate and the big question mark, the (unintelligible), you know, everybody wants to know, is it a good time to buy? Is it a good time to sell? What's going on in the real estate?

Mr. CONAN: Well, it's a tough time to sell because there are many more sellers than there are buyers. Is there one particular mistake that you see sellers make on your show?

Ms. TODD: Well, we can talk about the show, but really, the biggest mistake I see people making in the real world in real estate is lowering their expectations of what their house is really worth today.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. TODD: People have got to realize that housing prices in most of the country have fallen and that your home is not worth today what it was a year ago in a lot of areas, and sellers are still holding out for those higher numbers and higher values and homes are sitting in the market longer. And, you know, we're so spoiled, I think, over the last few years thinking that we don't have to do all of the upgrades to our house…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TODD: …and still command the price. Well, it's a shame, but people are finding out now that you've got to really stand apart from the rest. You have to have the best curb appeal. You have to renovate on the right areas. And you have to also make your price point that you're going to sell for a lot more attractive in order to get the buyers through the door.

CONAN: And what areas of renovation do you recommend as the most profitable?

Ms. TODD: Well, I would say the most profitable is going to be focusing on the kitchen and on the bathroom. You know, those features nationwide, you know, buyers are looking for, and they don't have to come into fixer-upper and do it themselves. They have the luxury of picking from enough houses on the market that are turnkey. So, you really want to go the extra mile in the kitchen and the baths, and also the curb appeal, because, of course, we make our decisions, you know, about what we think of a house before you even walk in the front door.

CONAN: That means what the front of a building looks like, the landscaping, that sort of thing?

Ms. TODD: That's exactly right. And so, usually, your money will really be maximized if you put it in the right place. And sometimes, it just requires a fresh coat of paint, new brick work on the driveway, or even a flower trail that you put in the front yard. I mean, sometimes it can even cost you under 100 bucks.

CONAN: Now, should people every consider throwing in perks, you know, the Plasma TV, the granite countertops?

Ms. TODD: Well, it smells a desperation. And if you are desperate, go for it. I mean, in my market in South Florida, people are giving away Jaguars with houses and cruises. And, you know, you have to do what you have to do. If every single home in your neighborhood is for sale, yes, you might have to go to drastic measures like that. But it all depends on how quickly you need to move that property, but don't do it just to do it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Kendra, thanks very much. We know you're extremely busy and we appreciate again you taking time out to speak with us today.

Ms. TODD: Absolutely.

CONAN: Kendra Todd hosts "My House Is Worth What?" on the Home and Garden Network and head to the Kendra Todd Group, a real estate company in South Florida. She joins us by phone today from Stanford, Connecticut where she's hooting an episode of her TV show.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jason(ph). Jason with us from Grass Lake in Michigan.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead please.

JASON: Hi. I just wanted to tell you about my house. I live in a suburb -Redford, right outside Detroit, and there I was trying to offer three cars with my house.

CONAN: Really?

JASON: I was just trying to just want to start over and just get rid of everything. I tried three months on my own, I couldn't do anything.

JASON: Then, three months with the realtor didn't do anything and finally a lady came that looked at a few months earlier and bought it. I lost about $10,000.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JASON: And now, I live in Grass Lake and I have a cottage and I'm in the same situation. I have electric car. I'm trying to give way with the cottage and two boats. And I'm in the situation as before.

CONAN: So, desperate times for you?

JASON: Yeah. Just kind of do what you going to do.

CONAN: Have you tried the St. Joseph idea?

JASON: No, no. I heard it and I'm definitely going to give it a try.

CONAN: All right. Well, good luck to you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: As we get to this question of, you know, what should people do to raise the value of their houses, at least in the eyes of a buyer, to somewhat close to what they think the house is worth it.

Ms. RAZZI: Well, first off, I'm really skeptical about things, like offering cars and boats and…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: …vacations and that sort of thing along with the house. Because, you know, buyers are not dummies. They know that that money is coming from somewhere - that means you can take less for the house.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: …you know, sell your boat yourself and let me just talk about the house. Plus, you can run into some problems getting the appraisal on the house, getting it - so that the appraisal is high enough. They should know that this price also includes a car and the boat and a vacation.

CONAN: Certainly. Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: So I'm skeptical about that. But what buyers really need to do in any market, especially now, is you've got to make your best effort right out of the gate. Because you want - when your home will show up as a new listing and you'll and they get e-mailed out there to people who are watching the market, you get only that one time to make a good impression, so you want to price it as low as you can bear.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: And some people, unfortunately, who bought fairly recently can't imagine that they might have to actually take $10,000 to the closing table to pay their lender because the house didn't sell for as much as they bought it for. The other thing is that turnkey idea.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: You have to have that done right away. And so, I've always - whenever a house comes up for sale that I might be interested in - not that I buy many - but I look at a lot, I drive by in the evening before.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. RAZZI: I don't even ask the real estate agent to show the house to me unless it passes that first drive-by test. And so, that was the curb appeal means, and that means having the landscape nice. It has to be tidy. Anything that's wrong has to be fixed. Buyers now - if you don't fix it before you put it up for sale, they'll just going to require that you do it before closing anyway. And most likely, they're just going to pass you by and choose to make an offer on something that's more turnkey.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Melissa(ph). Melissa with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MELISSA: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MELISSA: We bought our house in '03, January '03, and it was the house that I expected to die in.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: And then about, hmm, a year ago, my husband came home and said we're moving to Anchorage, Alaska.

CONAN: Ha.

MELISSA: You know, right as the market was starting to just plummet. It's been on the market since March - yeah, February, March, lots of people looked at it, it needs a granite countertop kitchen. That was our biggest comment, feedback.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: So, we're like, we'll get it off the price, you know? Let's cut the price. We'll give you what it would cost to do the kitchen and people kept saying to us, but we don't feel like doing that.

CONAN: Yeah.

MELISSA: Because we can go down the street and we can buy a house that already has granite countertops. So, one day, I went to work, I came home no wall in my kitchen. My husband started to remodel it. So that's what our plan is now, to remodel the kitchen - granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hopefully, we'll take it off the market for a couple of months. Hopefully, we'll put it back on and it will sell in the springtime.

CONAN: And have you looked - taken a quick look at the market in Anchorage? What's that like?

MELISSA: Well, you know, I don't know, because I have to sell my house here first. I can only take one huge, you know, stressful thing at a time. It's expensive up there.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: It's much more expensive up there than it is here. Lots - we looked at lots - we live on three acres here in Louisville, a less than one acre lot up there is about $260 right now.

CONAN: Wow.

MELISSA: So, yeah, we're looking at a big change. You know, we want to get the most out of our house. I will not give this house away.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MELISSA: Luckily, my husband is a pilot. He can commute to work. It's not ideal for our family life, but given the housing situation that's just - that might be what we'll have to do for the next, you know, couple of months anyway.

CONAN: Well, good luck breathing in the dust.

MELISSA: Yeah. Thank you. Well, you know, you live with a hot plate for a couple of weeks, and you know, hopefully, it will help us sell our house. And - but I will be planting a statue of St. Jo on my front yard…

CONAN: Okay.

MELISSA: …as soon as I can get up there.

CONAN: Clearly, we should have bought St. Joseph (unintelligible).

MELISSA: Yeah. Exactly. I think that's a great idea.

Ms. RAZZI: I admit, I did it myself.

CONAN: You did it yourself?

Ms. RAZZI: I did it myself a few years ago in the early '90s. And I am Catholic, I felt a little bit sacrilegious putting the little statue on the ground…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: …but, you know, I said a prayer and told myself my motives are pure. And I would've taken him with me after the house sold, but the ground had frozen, so I hope the new residents dig him up.

CONAN: I thought you were supposed to dig him up and put it on your mantle.

Ms. RAZZI: The ground is frozen, I couldn't…

CONAN: Oh, well.

Ms. RAZZI: It had to go with the house.

CONAN: Excuses, excuses.

Ms. RAZZI: I know.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's talk with Jason(ph). Jason with us from Corvallis in Oregon.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jason. You're on the air.

JASON: Yes. I just wanted to throw my two cents in. I'm a builder here in the Mid-Valley in Oregon and we're seeing a lot of builders adding design features into their homes, especially spec homes that aren't pre-sold, energy and power(ph) construction, high-energy efficiency, mechanical equipment that's higher in efficiency. And also, the DreamBuilt homes are things that help sell the house.

CONAN: That's what gives them that special distinction, especially in that market in Oregon.

JASON: It is, and it seems to be important to people, Eugene in Portland in particular.

CONAN: So, the Viking range less important than something that's energy efficient.

JASON: Correct, yeah. It lowers your utility bills and, you know, that's one thing people think about with gas and their commuting. They're paying a lot for gas and maybe they can save some money with more a efficient home to live in.

CONAN: Hmm. That's interesting. Thanks very much, Jason.

JASON: Sure, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And that's the builders, as you're talking about, they have greater scope to add features to their houses, especially as Jason was saying, the spec houses, the ones that aren't sold yet.

Ms. RAZZI: Right. And a lot of buyers are not willing to pay too much more for those features, but they do like to see them if they can get them for a reasonable price.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's a question from Amanda(ph) via our blog. So, how much lower than asking price on average should you offer as a potential first time homebuyer? I'm seeing homes still listed quite high and they're just sitting there. I'd like to make an offer. How low can I go?

Ms. RAZZI: I get that question a lot and there is no percentage that you can apply, certainly not nationwide. What you have to do is a little bit of homework. You have to really research - and an agent should help you do this. Research the actual sales price of recent homes that was sold recently, and that's very important…

CONAN: And nearby.

Ms. RAZZI: …nearby. Yes. And you can always, you know, negotiate. You can underbid that a little bit and see what happens. You can't raise your price after your first offer so, you know, get in there and negotiate, but it would be awfully handy to have such a percentage, but there is none.

CONAN: There's no rule of thumb there. But, in other words, you should not look at that asking price and fear that you can't go below it.

Ms. RAZZI: No, you shouldn't, but you - who knows, you may run across that unusual seller who actually did try to price it to move. So, you have to see how reasonable that starting point was and then, really, think about your own bottom line. What are you willing to really pay for that house and don't go above it, because they'll be something else.

CONAN: Hmm. Our guest is Elizabeth Razzi, the real estate columnist for The Washington Post and author of "The Fearless Home Seller."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Bill(ph), is it? Bill in Bend, Oregon.

BILL (Caller): Yeah, how you doing today?

CONAN: Okay, I'm good.

BILL: I thought I could share a comment on this. We're trying to get creative. We've got a house on the market for about six months now and it's coming up on winner, so we're getting a little nervous it's going to get harder to sell. So about two weeks ago, we put on the market or put it in Craig's List in the local papers as a lease to own or rent to own. And that's kind of new to us. I was just wondering what your comments were on that.

CONAN: Lease to own or rent to own, that's an option that some sellers offer.

Ms. RAZZI: And that's a smart thing to try. You need to decide - and a real estate agent or a lawyer can help you figure this out, too.

BILL: Yeah.

Ms. RAZZI: You can attribute some of the monthly rent toward the eventual down payment and you and the renter or buyer have to decide whether you agree on the price now or whether you would agree on the price, say, a year from now. And so, there's everything is open to negotiation. But just think it through.

BILL: Absolutely.

Ms. RAZZI: And, you know, the more people that you can expose your house to, the better off you are.

CONAN: Hmm.

BILL: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we're thinking that it can work for a variety of situations. If you don't have a lot of money to put down, maybe you can put down a little bit more on the monthly payment. We can put more towards the purchase price, if you were able to do that. So, I think it opens the door a lot more people.

Ms. RAZZI: It does. And especially the way lenders are right now, they've tightened way up on making those low and no down payment mortgages. And so, buyers now have to come up with that old fashioned thing, the down payment…

BILL: Yeah.

Ms. RAZZI: …which is always been the most difficult thing for buyers to come up with.

CONAN: And it's still 10 to 20 percent?

Ms. RAZZI: You can - with FHA, you can get as low as three percent. You can get less than 10 percent if you have good credit. You'll need mortgage - a private mortgage insurance if you do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: A big key is credit. If you can demonstrate that you have good credit, you can get a little bit of a lower down payment. But 10 percent is a pretty good ballpark to aim for.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. And PMI is no fun.

Ms. RAZZI: PMI, it is not, but again, I've paid that as well. It's expensive, it's now tax-deductible…

CONAN: Ah.

Ms. RAZZI: …which does help and that's likely to be continued in the future. It can get you in a house.

CONAN: Hmm. Anyway, Bill, good luck. Thanks.

BILL: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Rod(ph) in Washington State. Our house has been on the market since April 2006. It's a special house with fantastic views and a geothermal heating system, but we have had no offers and only a few serious lookers. We now have offered to selling real estate agent a seven-night vacation to either Hawaii or Mexico and dropped our price by $37,000 to $562,900.

And so, people are having difficulty. Is a high-end house, which that sounds like, a little bit more problematical than something a little bit more lower priced?

Ms. RAZZI: Well, they can be, it depends on the market, but it also - I mean, for example, in the Washington D.C. market, some of the priciest neighborhoods in the district are moving the best.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: So it's not necessarily a price thing. It could be that this house is a little bit idiosyncratic, you know? If it's a little bit of an oddball house, and I can't tell from here if it is, that will make it's market smaller in good times or bad times. And, unfortunately, offering those kinds of incentives to the real estate agents may get it a little more attention.

CONAN: May get it a little more attention.

Ms. RAZZI: It just may, I mean incentives…

CONAN: So, you're not offering the enticement to the buyer, you're offering it to the agent.

Ms. RAZZI: To the agent, who should tell the buyer that…

CONAN: That they're being…

Ms. RAZZI: …they're getting…

CONAN: …a sweetheart deal.

Ms. RAZZI: …exactly.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. RAZZI: But, it is likely to get a little bit more attention from the agents.

CONAN: And still, a lot of people are trying to cut out the middleman, don't have an agent, and sell the house themselves. Is that wise in this market?

Ms. RAZZI: I don't think so. I mean, people do that - in this kind of a market, you need a really good agent and not just any old agent. If you have - I think buying with - selling without an agent works best if you have a really attractive property. If you have the kind of skills that it takes and you're bit of a salesperson…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. RAZZI: …and not too emotional about it, you have the time to deal with it. You have the wherewithal to follow the contracts and the numbers and all that.

CONAN: That's a lot of ifs.

Ms. RAZZI: It is a lot of ifs. But there a lot of people who are cut out for it, you know, they do that sort of thing in business. But, if you aren't that kind of person, and if there are a lot of houses for sale in your area, you really need a very good agent, and not just one of the rookies who got into the business a year or two ago.

CONAN: Hmm. Elizabeth Razzi, thanks very much. It's always good to see you.

Ms. RAZZI: Oh, you're welcome.

CONAN: Elizabeth Razzi is a columnist for The Washington Post, where she writes about, guess what, real estate. Also, the author of "The Fearless Home Seller." She joined us here in 3A.

When we come back, it's time for Ken Rudin and the Political Junkie, and we'll talk about last night's democratic debate. And talk with Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Council, about new poll numbers out today - out, in fact, thus hour -not just about the candidates and their standing, but about the issues that people care about in the next election. What issue would sway your vote? 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan and this is NPR News.

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