Winter has arrived in the Middle Atlantic much earlier than we wanted it, and the slick sidewalks and front steps that remain in evidence more than reasonable time after the last snowfall have reminded me that colder weather puts an added burden on the listing agent.
After all, even as the market slows for the holidays, real estate agents remain busy, because there are serious buyers to be dealt with. But the cold weather brings with it the added responsibility of making sure that extra steps are taken to ensure that the houses left in their charge don't hold any surprises.
For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine relocated to the West Coast before he was able to sell his house. When January rolled around, the house had been empty for a couple of months and wasn't being shown often.
In mid-January, shortly after a spell of very cold weather and a heavy snow, the real estate agent brought a prospective buyer to see the house. Somewhere along the way, the furnace had developed a problem and stopped working. Opening the door, the agent and the prospect were greeted by a pond in the middle of the living room where water from one of several burst pipes had settled.
There was six inches of water and mud in the basement, and wet floors and walls everywhere. The buyer was unwilling to go any further, and the agent had the task of telling my friend that his house, already a tough sell in a slow market, needed nearly $10,000 in repairs.
Insurance paid for some of the work, but my friend ended up swallowing a considerable part of the expense. In addition, although the insurance carrier met its mandated obligation, it declined to renew the policy for what was unoccupied property. Frankly, when you considered what had transpired, it was hard to justify a renewal.
What went wrong? The agent should have at least checked up on things periodically, no less than once a week, especially in the winter. Or the broker should have hired someone, or at least contracted with someone, to check this and other unoccupied properties periodically, just to be sure that the problems didn't go unsolved for weeks at a time.
The issue could be as simple as shoveling snow or as complex as ice dams developing on a roof in the aftermath of a heavy snow. In many municipalities, homeowners are responsible for clearing the public sidewalks in front of their houses within a reasonable time after a snowfall. Fines often accompany noncompliance, and if someone falls on the sidewalk because it wasn't cleaned, there are insurance issues as well.
This should be basic stuff that agents and brokers should know but often don't wish to acknowledge. If a house is going to be empty for long periods when it is on the market, the brokers and agents need to develop a routine to ensure that the property is maintained and secure. If the recommendation is that the furnace be set at 55 degrees so that pipes in the walls don't freeze, then that recommendation should be followed.
If the owner has moved, then the listing agent should be responsible that the sidewalks and steps are cleared and the house is secure as long as it remains on the market. From a marketing point of view, I think that this makes sense because empty houses tend to be more difficult to sell than occupied ones, and making sure the house looks well-maintained obviously helps mitigate that feeling of emptiness.
The security issue is obvious. Even if the seller has vacated and removed everything he or she has owned from the house, there are still things that remain attractive to thieves, especially copper pipes and fixtures. If the entrance to the house remains unshoveled, burglars know the place is an easy target, and usually can get around most alarm systems -- especially those that aren't tied into a central monitoring system. It would be wise for the agent or broker to let the police know that the house is empty so that they can check on it periodically or at least investigate when lights are on or there appears to be some questionable activity at the house.
The agents I know are divided on whether empty houses take longer to sell because they are empty. Some even recommend that the client agree to pay for renting a few pieces of furniture just to give prospective buyers an idea what the place might look like when there are people living there.
It all comes down to service. That's what agents and brokers are selling. And that's what sellers and buyers expect.