It’s emotional, time-consuming and closes a chapter in your life
By Mary Bart
No one ever looks forward to selling their parent’s home. But at some point, this task may be yours to tackle. Perhaps a parent is moving to a care facility, in with you or has passed away. Selling their home is a lot of work and often more complicated and emotional than parting with our own homes. For those families who get along, agree on most things and work together as a team, consider yourselves the lucky ones. Others are not so fortunate which makes the process of listing and showing the house or condo harder than ever.
It helps to be mindful that the selling of a parent’s home often leads to a form of grieving. Perhaps it is fond childhood memories, the loss of what used to be, or knowing that your parent has lost some of their abilities or passed away. It’s the closing of this chapter in your families’ life which makes this milestone even more physically and emotionally taxing for some of us.
To agree or disagree
Times like this can put the best of family relation-ships to the test. For better or worse, your siblings may be your business partners. Agreement on the selling price, what updates or repairs (if any) are needed or even when and if the house should be sold can be hard to achieve. Some trustees, or the individual with power of attorney, opt to rent the home for a year or two to let tensions cool down. Rarely is it that the work or the assets are divided equally. And, even deciding what to do with valuable possessions or decades of miscellaneous “stuff” can be overwhelming and cause distrust and tension between siblings.
Linda is overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her mother, Carol, who died three weeks ago. In addition to being the executor of her mom’s estate, Linda now has the responsibility to sell the family home. To further complicate things, her two siblings are disagreeing on which realtor to use and the price. This tension is not new.
Despite the stress and fighting amidst the grief, Linda has started to make a list of what needs to happen to start the process and is considering hiring a mediator if she cannot find common ground with her siblings. She has the will and the death certificate but here are some of her ongoing action items:
• Secure the house. It needs to be safe and still maintained. Change the door locks (you never know who your parents gave keys to), put the lights on timers and keep the heat, AC and water going. Linda does not want to deal with frozen pipes in the middle of winter or mold growing in the summer because the AC was turned off. She will keep the internet on so that she can have security cameras installed both inside and outside to keep an eye on her siblings and the house remotely.
• The three siblings have at least agreed to hire an appraiser, a lawyer and an accountant to ensure everything is done correctly. Linda needs to find a team they can agree on.
• Private sale, or hire an agent? Picking the right, local agent will be the key to successfully selling the house in a timely fashion. Linda plans to interview a few and select one with not only good experience and a track record in the neighbourhood but also one that has both patience and empathy. This will be a long, emotional journey for her family and the agent needs to understand and respect that. In addition, she’ll be researching neighbourhood market trends and getting a professional appraisal in an effort to avoid arguments about what the home is really worth.
• Legal and financial situations have to be reviewed. Her sisters think the home is paid off but she believes there is a first and second mortgage. Are the house taxes, home insurance and utility bills paid up? Whose name is on the deed? She needs to find all the paperwork for the bank and investments accounts so she can continue to pay household bills.
• Decide which repairs to do pre-sale and get her sisters to agree to the budget. Linda will document everything that has been repaired, replaced and added, including all upgrades such as new lighting, flooring and appliances. This will take time but they all feel it will be worth the effort.
• Remove the valuables. Before listing the house, Linda will remove all important pieces of art, jewelry and legal documents. Valuables also include pieces that have no real monetary value but have sentimental value.
• Memorabilia: Each sibling has agreed to bring a box and fill it with family photos, a favourite tea cup and items personally important to them. Deciding who gets the furniture, who cleans the home and who gets it ready to sell are a whole other set of issues for them to work through. All of this will take longer to do and Linda expects the fists to be flying over those decisions.
• Clean up…who does what and when? Decide and document each person’s responsibilities and try and find as much common ground as possible when it comes to clearing out the home. What to do with the things from both her parents and grandparents that are stored there is challenging. This is a tough one because it brings back a lot of memories tangled up with the practical need to empty out the house and to divide everything up. She has been advised to divide things into five categories: KEEP, SELL, DONATE, RECYCLE OR TOSS.
• Stage the house and continue the property maintenance. They will clean out what is not really needed, keep the grass and bushes cut and regularly pick up the mail and continue to keep the property working well and looking good. Presentation is everything, especially when selling a house.
It’s been four months since Roger had a serious stroke and had to give up riding his motorcycle. He doesn’t want to move and prefers to be cared for at home. Mike, (his son) who lives 2000 miles away could barely believe his dad was in the hospital. When Mike arrived in town, he was stunned when the doctors told him that his father would need 24/7 care and suggested a long-term care facility. Mike reluctantly agreed.
He also knew that his dad was never coming home again and he would have to sell his dad’s house in order to help pay for his new living expenses and extra care. Roger’s home has been on the market now for over two months and it is still not sold. Mike acknowledges that he was in a rush and that the clock is now working against him.
At first, his mind was on the care of his dad and not on how to get the house ready to sell. The house is now looking unkept and dirty. Mike has learned that it takes a lot of work and planning for a house to sell. Here are some of the things that he must now address in order to get his dad’s house sold.
• Being over confident. Mike thought that everyone would just love the house and it would sell itself. Mike is now more realistic about the selling process and has developed a plan with timelines and budgets for getting the house better ready for sale. He now knows that his pride, vanity and unrealistic selling price cannot get in the way of selling the house. This is business and it is the buyer who perceives the value of the house, not what Mike thinks it is worth. It is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay.
• He hired the wrong real estate agent. The current agent is not marketing the house well and seems to think that lowering the price is the only way the house will sell. Mike is now looking for a new, local agent with a good reputation, good social skills, who uses social media and who is prepared to work hard to sell the house.
• The house does not show well and needs TLC. The house needs some basic updates to make it look better. Mike will invest in painting the rooms, having the carpets and windows professionally cleaned and will remove outdated wallpaper. He will also hire a lawn service to improve the curb appeal by keeping the grass cut, bushes trimmed and the flower beds weeded. He now knows that if the house is not in great condition, he should not expect top dollar.
• Declutter. Reducing the amount of stuff in the house will make it look bigger and not so dated. Mike plans to give away most of the furniture and household items to make it more appealing to buyers.
• Setting the selling price. Once he hires a new agent, they will work together to set a realistic selling price that reflects the local market and fair comparables.
• Insufficient marketing and poor photographs. In addition to being on an MLS listing site, Mike will use his own social media resources to help promote the sale of the house, especially for weekends and open houses. When people are looking at houses online, Mike now knows that they pass judgment in seconds. Potential buyers may instantly reject the house or take a few more seconds to give it a second look. Lots of professional photos make all the difference. If people cannot envision themselves living there, they will move on. A picture paints a thousand words. What do your photos say about your house?
• What’s that smell? Stinky houses don’t sell. There could be cigar, cigarette, pet urine and old musty furniture smells in the house. Mike will find and eliminate the sources of the odours and when possible, open windows, bake some cookies and add a few scented candles for the open houses.
• Outdated appliances. People like to buy houses with new stainless-steel appliances. Just watch any home decorating show, almost the first thing potential buyers on these shows notice and mention are the appliances. Invest a little to get you that much closer to selling the house.
• Buyers are savvy. In today’s competitive market, buyers have done their research and know what is a fair price for a home. Assume potential buyers know the market as well as you or your agent.
• Your home is different. Perhaps your home is in a rural community, or is very large or has some unusual features. These unique properties may have great appeal to some but often take longer to sell. Houses out of the “norm” don’t sell in the normal timeframes that cookie-cutter houses do. Showcase the unusual features as positives to attract potential buyers looking for what you are selling.
• The house is too dark. People like to see open and bright homes with lots of sunlight coming through. Dark walls and furniture make rooms seem smaller and depressing. Mike plans to open the curtains up, move the bulky furniture into storage and repaint the kitchen cabinets white.
• Staging is important. When buying homes, people do judge the book by the cover. As a seller, Mike’s goal is to help potential buyers imagine how their things will look in the house. Mike will remove personal photos, awards and valuables in order make the home look welcoming, clean and updated.
• A wrinkle. When COVID 19 started, Roger decided that he wanted to come home and spend six months there. He was afraid of catching it and not having proper care in LTC. As the house had been tidied up for sale, this proved easier than Mike thought—although not without its stresses. Mike arranged care, opted to work remotely from his Dad’s house so he could help out and put the selling plans on hold until the pandemic was over. His Dad is too much to handle at home full time on an ongoing basis but for now it’s working with 24/7 nursing support.
Every situation is different
These are changing times and sometimes an about face is necessary. What’s important to keep in mind is what the best and safest solution is for all concerned and to respect your loved ones wishes whenever possible.
Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.