Rising prices pushing more people to sell their own homes

Rising prices and online real estate sites push more people to sell their own homes to maximize profit.
Published August 28 2015
Updated August 28 2015

With its stunning view of St. Joseph Sound, the Key West-style home in north Pinellas County would have been a dream listing for any real estate agent.

Owner Vickie McCloy, though, decided to sell the house herself.

"Commissions are a lot of money and I needed to get the biggest bang for the buck,'' McCloy said. So she spent just a few hundred dollars to have photos and a description posted on the Multiple Listing Service and online real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia.

Five months and a lot of lookers later, she and her husband have a contract for $730,000. And if the deal closes they'll have $40,000 more in the bank than they would if they had worked with a Realtor.

Drive though almost any Tampa Bay neighborhood and it won't take long to spot a sign proclaiming "For Sale By Owner.'' Commonly called FSBOs — pronounced "fizz-bows'' — they represent a gamble on one's ability to do what a professional does but at far lower cost.

While sales by owner remain a small part of all home sales, they are getting a boost from the soaring use of online real estate sites and the steady increase in housing prices.

"The market is good and we have less inventory than in a normal market so it's a seller's market,'' said Barbara Jordan, president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors. "During bad times we never saw them because the market was mostly short sales and foreclosures.''

Before widespread use of the Internet, people who wanted to sell their homes without an agent were pretty much limited to yard signs and newspaper ads.

As more Americans gained Internet access in the mid 1990s, websites like ForSaleByOwner.com and Owners.com began offering heavily discounted services. These online brokers complained, though, that industry practices kept them from making full use of Multiple Listing Services, which give Realtors detailed information on properties and facilitate sales.

In 2005, the Justice Department sued the National Association of Realtors, alleging that its policies were stifling competition and hurting consumers. A 2008 settlement allowed brokers who aren't members of Realtor organizations to use the MLS without fear of having their listings blocked.

Now, online sites enable home­owners to be their own agents.

ForSaleByOwner, part of the media giant that owns the Chicago Tribune, offers packages ranging from $99 a month to a one-time $649 fee for "maximum exposure'' including MLS listing, video upload and yard sign kit.

Perhaps the most popular option is Zillow, started in 2006 by two former Microsoft executives. Homeowners can post up to 20 photos along with a detailed description for free.

Andrew Webber went that route when he decided to sell a rental property he owns in Tampa's Bon Air neighborhood, just north of Kennedy Boulevard. Moderately priced homes like his, listed at $184,900, are in high demand there and in South Tampa.

"When you're in a good market you really don't need a Realtor," Webber said, "and the market is so good now that's kind of the main reason we went this way.''

During the six weeks the house has been on Zillow, Webber has received several calls from prospective buyers. He is considering an offer from an investor.

Although sellers like Webber balk at 6 percent commissions, they often specify in their listings that they will pay 3 percent to an agent who finds a buyer.

"That way you don't lock out the Realtors,'' Webber said. "The downside of listing on Zillow is that I'll get a call every other day from a broker trying to get me to give them an exclusive listing.''

Zillow can afford to offer free listings because it charges real estate agents big bucks to advertise on the site.

Realtor Georg von Greiff pays Zillow $8,195 a month to have his name appear on listings in certain South Tampa ZIP codes. When a consumer clicks on a button to request more information about a home, his or her contact information is automatically relayed to von Greiff or another of the many agents who advertise on Zillow.

"They are making so much money it's ridiculous,'' he says of the website, "but they are one of the dominant players. If we're not on Zillow and don't spend that money we probably wouldn't have a business. That's where most consumers go.''

Surveys have shown that 80 percent of all home searches now start online. But it's hard to tell how many of those searches result in sales by owner.

Owners.com says 33 percent of homeowners sell without a traditional agent. The National Association of Realtors, though, says FSBOs accounted for 9 percent of sales in 2013, the most recent year for which it has figures.

The association also says that the typical FSBO home sold for $184,000 compared with $230,000 for agent-assisted sales.

Pricing a home correctly is one of the reasons to hire an agent, industry professionals maintain.

"You may think you're saving $40,000 on a commission but maybe you sold the house $72,000 cheaper than it should have sold for,'' said David B. Bennett, president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization.

Bennett, working with an agent, bought a FSBO himself. Because there was just one agent involved, the owners paid only a 3 percent commission but confessed that selling had been tougher than they expected.

"They just didn't realize that people would be knocking all day on Saturday and all day on Sunday and on Monday at 9 after people get off work,'' Bennett said. "The walk-through process, setting the price and negotiating with a buyer — those are the things with FSBO that you've got to deal with.''

Chuck and Denise Brooke are willing to deal with those — at least for now.

The Brookes are selling their four-bedroom home in northeast St. Petersburg because he has Parkinson's disease and the house is too big for just the two of them. Instead of hiring an agent, they erected a huge sign in the yard and put a listing on Zillow.

In the past two weeks, the Brookes have received several calls from the Zillow ad and had two appointments to show the house. But they've also heard from real estate agents, including one who dropped by twice with a market analysis suggesting their $290,000 asking price is too high.

If that's the case, they're willing to come down. They just want to avoid that 6 percent commission.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.