Do you really need a real estate agent’s help to sell your home? Maybe not, according to a 2007 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The NBER compared sales of single-family homes in Madison, Wisconsin on a local for-sale-by-owner website with agent-assisted MLS listings and found no statistical difference in selling price. Because listing agents typically take 3% of the final selling price, sellers who forgo agent representation may come out ahead.
When a home hits the market without a listing agent, it’s known as “for sale by owner,” or FSBO (pronounced “FIZZ-boh”). FSBO listings are more common today than in 2007, thanks to consumer-facing listing platforms such as Zillow and easier access to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for non-agents.
But FSBO is no walk in the park. A 2017 Zillow report found that 36% of homeowners attempt to sell their homes without an agent, but only 11% actually complete sales themselves. In other words, more than two-thirds of sellers who try FSBO fail.
Think you have what it takes to join the ranks of sellers who close FSBO deals? Here’s what you need to know about selling your home without an agent — and how to determine whether it makes sense for you.
What Do Professional Listing Agents Do?
Before you decide to forgo representation, understand what you’re giving up. The principal duties of professional listing agents include:
- Helping the Seller Set a Realistic Price. Assuming you use a local agent with experience selling houses like yours, they should know the market well. They should also know how to interpret comps, or recent comparable sales, and recent sales patterns. They can then take into account your objectives and motivations, such as how fast you want to sell, and help you set a realistic list price.
- Preparing the Home for Sale. An agent casts an objective, even critical eye over your home, identifying issues to address before listing or which discounts to apply to the list price in light of issues.
- Staging the Home. Your agent should help you prepare your home for listing. That usually involves a thorough, systematic cleaning and decluttering process and strict rules for maintaining order while the home is on the market.
- Listing and Marketing the Home. Before listing, your agent should commission or take professional-quality photos of the home’s interior and exterior, produce a comprehensive description of the property, and add the home to the MLS. In sellers’ markets, your agent may shop the home around to buyers’ agents and potentially attract offers before it officially hits the market.
- Facilitating Home Showings. Your agent is the primary organizer of and point of contact for home showings and open houses. They act as an intermediary for buyers’ agents; if your agent does their job well, you may never see a prospective buyer or buyer’s agent.
- Facilitating Negotiations. Your agent also receives prospective buyers’ offers and acts as an intermediary in negotiations. Sales experience and local market expertise come in handy here; a competent agent can help you sort long-shot offers from quality ones.
- Assisting With the Closing Process. Your agent should accompany you to closing, which is usually organized by a settlement agent or title company and may also involve a real estate attorney, depending on the laws and customs in your jurisdiction. For inexperienced sellers, the presence of an agent at closing is a major confidence-booster that may mitigate last-minute disputes or legal issues.
That said, well-organized sellers who are willing to put in significant time and effort are more than capable of assuming these duties themselves.
How to Sell Your House Without a Real Estate Agent
In roughly sequential order, here is what you’ll need to do to shepherd your FSBO home from pre-listing prep to closing day.
1. Get Your Home Ready
Start to prepare your house for sale well before you list it. Begin with a thorough decluttering campaign. The goal is to make it easier for potential buyers to envision themselves in your home, rather than seeing signs of your personality everywhere. Remove anything that contributes to the home’s lived-in feel, such as family photographs, and hide it away in locked closets, storage areas, the garage, or an off-site storage unit. Take the opportunity to sell or give away possessions you no longer need; use eBay, Amazon, Craigslist or an old-fashioned garage sale to offload them quickly.
Next, scrub the place till it shines. If you’ve been reticent to spend the money on professional home cleaning up to this point, you might want to make an exception here. Prospective buyers can tell the difference between a well-meaning amateur cleaning and a professional deep clean.
Now, tap at least one objective source — at minimum, a friend who doesn’t mind offending you, but ideally, someone with real estate experience — to walk through the home with you and identify issues you might overlook. Common projects to tackle before listing include:
- Repainting interior walls in neutral colors
- Rearranging furniture to fill large spaces and accentuate smaller ones
- Replacing outdated appliances or fixtures
- Adding homey but impersonal accents, such as area rugs and decorative candles
Unless you live in a condo, you can’t neglect the home’s exterior, either. If the exterior clearly needs work, such as a new paint job or driveway, address those issues first. Otherwise, your primary goal should be to accentuate your existing landscaping and appurtenances to enhance curb appeal. If you have a traditional lawn, a sprinkling of grass seed or sod application won’t hurt; for flower beds or xeriscapes, fresh mulch and gravel, respectively, should do the trick.
2. Research the Market & Set Your Price
Now it’s time to run an objective analysis of your local housing market and set your home’s list price. The key word here is “objective.” FSBO sellers all too often let emotion interfere with what should be an entirely rational exercise. Your love for your home has no bearing on its value.
Review recent sales of comparable homes in your area to get a sense of where you should price your home. Look for sale prices for homes with similar finished square footage, bedroom and bathroom count, and lot size. You can use the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s HPI calculator to refine your pricing, but don’t take its word as gospel. And don’t bother with an appraisal; you’ll spend $300 to $500 to confirm what you’ve already determined at no cost, and the buyer’s bank will conduct its own appraisal during underwriting, anyway.
With the results of your market research in hand, set a list price that reflects your objectives and time horizon. If you need to be out of the house as soon as possible, perhaps due to job relocation, price it to sell quickly. If you can afford to wait for the right buyer, set a higher list price. In hot sellers’ markets where homes routinely sell above asking price, a lower list price may trigger a bidding war that ends with your home selling for far more than it should.
3. Gather Information & Draft Your Listing
Next, gather the information you’ll need to create your listing, including:
- Home Data. This includes quantitative information such as year built, finished interior square footage, lot size, and bedroom and bathroom count, plus details such as heating and cooling configuration and parking arrangements. These days, many homes not presently active on the MLS nevertheless have existing “listings” on housing market sites such as Zillow and Trulia. If this is the case for yours, you can simply pull that data after checking for accuracy. But be sure to look at active MLS listings to confirm that you’re not missing anything important.
- Photos. Your home’s photos can make or break your listing. If you’d prefer not to shell out several hundred dollars for a professional photography package, do your best to replicate it. HGTV recommends incorporating plenty of natural light, emphasizing sweeping views over close-in shots, taking more photos than you intend to post, and using editing software to touch up the photos you do plan to post. You’ll want at least one shot of every room and hallway in the house, plus multiple exterior and outbuilding photos.
- Description. Your description should mix factual information not covered in the standard listing data with sales copy that grabs buyers’ attention. Sit down and brainstorm your home’s selling points with your objective friend; as you did in the preparation phase, your goal here is to see your home through prospective buyers’ eyes. Your home description isn’t poetry, nor should it drag on for more than a couple hundred words, so don’t bother hiring a professional to write it. But do make sure your words help buyers see themselves in the home. If you’re stuck, read comparable listings’ descriptions.
4. List Your Home on the MLS
You’re not required to list your home on the MLS, and many FSBO evangelists swear it’s not worth sellers’ time. But an MLS listing is the easiest, and probably the most cost-effective, way to gain serious exposure for your listing without using a professional broker — and, more importantly, to get your listing in front of buyers’ agents.
Listing on the MLS isn’t exceedingly expensive. MLS packages from reputable FSBO service providers such as MLS My Home typically start at about $100 for six months, not including the buyer’s agent commission if there is any.
5. Advertise Elsewhere
Your MLS listing — and a yard or sidewalk sign, which you can find for a few bucks online — shouldn’t be the end of your FSBO marketing campaign. Consider also advertising your home on some or all of these options:
- FSBO Sites. FSBO sites abound, but to control costs and keep logistics manageable, you’ll probably want to stick with a couple of the best-known ones. On FSBO.com, the FSBO.com-only listing package costs about $100 for six months; the MLS and Realtor.com package, which includes syndication on Zillow and Trulia, costs about $400 for six months.
- Real Estate Sites. If you choose not to spring for a pricier FSBO package, you can post your FSBO listing directly on consumer-facing real estate sites such as Zillow and Trulia. It’s free to post FSBO listings on both of these sites, which collectively reach millions of prospective buyers.
- Local Classified Websites. Craigslist and Nextdoor are both free, heavily trafficked classified websites popular with home sellers and buyers — although Nextdoor’s real estate listings aren’t available everywhere.
- A YouTube Channel. Post a professional-grade video tour of your house on YouTube. But don’t bother with a shaky, handheld camera phone walk-through; if you don’t want to spring for a professional videographer, ask a friend or colleague with video production and editing experience.
- A Dedicated Website. Although a dedicated website requires more effort than a turnkey FSBO listing or basic Craigslist ad, creating one may be worthwhile in buyers’ markets and for valuable or distinctive homes in general. Some sellers’ agents do this, and the domain for [youraddress].com is almost certainly available. If you’re not an experienced Web developer, use a plug-and-play hosting and site builder package; Wix’s base plan costs $11 per month, for instance. Remember, you’ll only need to host your site until the house sells.
6. Hold an Open House
Hold an open house soon after your home officially hits the market. To prepare for your big debut, visit a few open houses in the area, FSBO or otherwise, and take notes.
Then, create a glossy sales sheet and make a few dozen copies. Plenty of sellers simply print their MLS or Zillow listings, but consider going the extra mile and adding more peripheral details about the home, such as its backstory, as well as neighborhood amenities, especially those that appeal to your home’s likely buyers — for example, parks and schools for families and nightlife for younger singles.
Schedule your open house for a weekend late morning or early afternoon. The typical run time is two to three hours, but feel free to go longer if you want. Assuming your home is already cleaned, decluttered, and staged, your primary responsibility before the open house is spreading the word. Consider:
- Putting up an ad on Craigslist and Nextdoor, even if you don’t have listings on those sites
- Posting the details on your social media channels and asking your followers to spread the word
- Sending out a mass email to your contacts
- Posting flyers in community spaces around town
You need to be present and “on” for the duration of your open house. Dress professionally and devote your full attention to everyone who walks through the door, no matter how serious they seem about actually buying the place. Answer questions patiently and thoroughly.
Remember, the goal of your open house is to give the market a positive first impression of your home, and you’re competing against professional agents who do this for a living. Act accordingly.
7. Show Your Home
Once your open house is in the books, it’s open season for private showings. Buy a lockbox, which you can find for $10 at US Hardware Supply, to keep spare keys secure or install a numeric keypad lock on your front door; you can get a basic multi-code lock at The Home Depot for $100 or less.
When buyers’ agents contact you, verify their identities by checking their license numbers against state records. In California, for instance, you’d check with the California Department of Real Estate. You’ll then work out showing times with each agent; evenings and weekends tend to be more convenient for buyers.
Ideally, you’d be out of the house — or, at least, out of sight — during the showing as your presence may put off some prospects. Also, remember to keep your home spotless and clutter-free until it sells.
8. Be Prepared to Field & Negotiate Offers
When you go FSBO, you commit to acting as your own agent. That means fielding and negotiating offers with buyers’ agents who negotiate real estate deals for a living.
If that sounds daunting, brush up on these effective negotiation strategies. Above all else, keep two main things in mind:
- You’re Not Obligated to Respond to Low or Unserious Offers. That a buyer’s agent takes the time to send you an offer has no bearing on the offer’s quality. Feel free to reject unrealistically low offers out of hand; more often than not, the same buyer will come back with something more in line. The same goes for highly leveraged offers (when the buyer’s down payment is far lower than the 20% standard) or seller-unfriendly offers (for instance, the buyer asks for a ton of seller-paid closing costs).
- Patience Pays. Motivated buyers are out there, even in down markets. Don’t be discouraged by what seems like anemic interest in your listing; you can always drop your offer price if it comes to that.
9. Retain a Title Company or Settlement Agent
Listing and marketing your home is straightforward enough to handle on your own, but you’ll need professional help to close the sale.
Specifically, you’ll need an escrow agent to help facilitate the process. Depending on your state’s laws and customs, your escrow agent may be a title company representative or a real estate attorney. Use the American Land Title Association directory to find registered title companies or refer to your state’s real estate regulator for assistance.
Your escrow agent will be your main point of contact for all closing paperwork and associated closing costs, which the buyer usually covers but which you may agree to split or assume to encourage the sale. In most cases, the buyer will be responsible for performing a title search on the home and underwriting its title insurance policy.
10. Complete the Requisite Legal Paperwork & Close the Sale
A patchwork of state and federal laws govern real estate transactions in the United States. No matter where your home is located, you’ll be bound by federal statutes such as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits sellers from discriminating against members of certain protected classes.
Your state real estate regulator — for example, the California Department of Real Estate — is the controlling authority for state-specific legal issues. In most jurisdictions, buyers and sellers use a standard real estate sales contract; FindLaw has a detailed description of what that contract should include. Even if you use a free or cheap form from the Internet, it doesn’t hurt to run it by a real estate attorney or, at the very least, your escrow agent.
Your escrow agent and real estate attorney, if you have one, must ensure that all closing paperwork is in order, as anything out of order could delay or jeopardize the sale. If you’re not comfortable managing everything, consider hiring a fee-only broker to wrap up the sale.
Look for fee-only representation through FSBO service providers such as ForSaleByOwner.com, whose most expensive home sellers’ package costs about $900 — still less than a full-service listing agent’s 2% to 3% commission, assuming a sale price of at least $50,000. Fee-only brokers may be useful before closing too.
Benefits of Selling Your House Without an Agent
Homeowners commonly cite these reasons for going FSBO.
1. You Don’t Have to Pay the Listing Agent’s Commission
In dollar terms, this is the biggest advantage of selling your house without an agent. Listing agents rarely take less than 2% commission; that’s $2,000 for every $100,000 in sale value. At the Q4 2018 median U.S. home sale price of $317,400, that’s $6,348. In many markets, 3% commission is standard; that’s $3,000 per $100,000 in sale value and $9,522 on a median-priced sale.
FSBO sellers still have to pay the buyer’s agent’s commission if the buyer has professional representation, which is usually the case. But 2% to 3% of the final sale price is less than 4% to 6% of the final sale price, which you’d be paying if you both had agents.
2. You’re in Total Control of the Process
For better or worse, FSBOs have total control over the sale. That’s ostensibly true for sellers with professional representation too, but anyone who’s worked with a real estate agent knows that they inevitably exert influence — however subtle or benign — on the process.
Even a well-meaning agent in no rush to close may push you to take an offer with which you might not be comfortable — or which you’d like to negotiate further — because they genuinely believe it’s the best deal you’re going to get. Less scrupulous agents may push clients to close faster and accept inferior offers to log commissions or meet sales quotas before the end of a particular month or quarter. They may even tip off buyers to the fact that you’re motivated to sell, in clear contradiction to your financial interests.
3. You Don’t Have to Deal With an Agent You Don’t Like
When you act as your own agent, you needn’t worry about clashing personalities, aesthetic preferences, or negotiating styles. You might still have to wrestle with your own conflicting wishes or make compromises with your spouse or partner, but that’s different; you know your spouse or partner far better than a random real estate agent.
Agent-seller conflicts manifest in many ways. I often think back to an experience my wife and I had as buyers. Our agent, who worked out of a far-flung suburban office, was critical of the working-class urban neighborhood we wanted to buy in. He relentlessly steered us to “nicer” — and more expensive — parts of town, and on the way to showings, he made derogatory comments about poorly maintained houses, shabby cars, and seemingly idle locals.
We ignored his “advice” and bought a great starter house in the neighborhood we wanted. Years later, we’re still happy with our choice. But just as we had issues with our real estate agent as buyers, you could have issues with an agent when you sell your house.
4. You Can Speak Knowledgeably About Your Home
Professional agents are, well, professionals. They know how to put a home’s best foot forward, highlighting its top selling points while minimizing its deficiencies.
But even the savviest professional agent doesn’t know your home as well as you do. While it’s never wise to let emotion get in the way of expediency or your best financial interests (see below), your affection for your home is a great advantage at open houses and showings. I’ve always found FSBO showings more interesting and informative than agent-represented showings. At one particularly memorable open house, I had a lengthy conversation with the FSBO seller about the home’s central vacuum, an implement I’d never seen before.
5. You Don’t Have to Go It Alone
Forgoing full-service representation by a professional agent doesn’t mean going it totally alone. If you’re truly committed to DIY selling, use social media to find successful FSBO sellers in your area; they’ll no doubt have valuable advice. With resources like Craigslist and FSBO.com, you can list and advertise your home on multiple sites with reasonable effort. And if you decide you need more help than you thought, flat-fee brokerage services still cost significantly less than full-service agent representation.
Drawbacks of Selling Your House Without an Agent
Here’s why you might want to think twice about a FSBO sale.
1. You’re Not As Experienced As a Seasoned Professional
FSBO sellers don’t have as much experience as seasoned real estate agents or brokers, whose credentials require years of study and practice. Sure, you might work in sales or know your way around a legal contract, but you’re unlikely to have the complete range of knowledge, skills, and methods to match a real pro.
Despite the conclusion of the NBER study that FSBOs did just as well as agent-assisted sellers, your lack of experience could hurt you at the negotiating table or lead to a rookie mistake that increases your legal or financial liability down the road.
2. You Probably Don’t Have Local Market Expertise
No matter how long you’ve lived in the area, you’re unlikely to know your local real estate market as well as a professional agent who’s done business there for years. Full-time agents participate in dozens of sales per year; those associated with larger brokerages see dozens or hundreds more. They can sniff out clues and trends not readily apparent from quantitative market analyses and turn those nuggets into actionable strategies that pay off for sellers — say, by advising a client to price his starter home lower than the market can bear and triggering a bidding war between buyers eager to capitalize on the value-add opportunity.
3. You’ll Need to Devote a Lot of Time to the Process
Selling a house is time-consuming no matter what, but it’s way more so without an agent’s help. Before you commit to going it alone, figure out how much your time is worth and how much you stand to save without an agent, bearing in mind that your home may wind up selling for less as a FSBO than in an agent-assisted sale. If that premium isn’t worth the many, many hours you’ll spend preparing and showing your home, FSBO may not be for you.
4. You Must Be the Lead Negotiator
Not all FSBO sellers are born negotiators, but those comfortable with the give-and-take of dealmaking naturally have a leg up on those averse to confrontation.
If you’re willing to pay someone to negotiate on your behalf, particularly if you suspect they’ll do a better job than you, working with a professional agent may be worth your while. As you weigh your options, remember that the selling price isn’t the only marker of negotiating success. If you’re motivated to sell but feel that your emotional attachment to your home or inability to recognize a quality offer is impeding your ability to close the deal, a professional might help you and your buyer get to “yes” faster.
5. You May Face Resistance From Buyers’ Agents
Understandably, real estate agents are protective of their guild. Some actively steer their clients away from FSBOs. Others relish negotiating with amateurs but worry about the legal risks of dealing with inexperienced sellers. Also, most agents don’t regularly check FSBO listing sites unless their clients specifically request it — another reason you should increase your home’s market visibility by listing on the MLS.
The potential financial benefit of selling without an agent directly correlates with the selling price. Agent commissions are higher in more expensive housing markets — such as big coastal cities like San Francisco and New York or highly desirable vacation communities with limited housing supply — than in rural areas and smaller cities. But expensive housing markets tend to be more competitive for buyers and sellers alike. That increases agents’ utility on both sides of the transaction — and, for sellers, raises the chances that listing agents’ services pay for themselves.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to determine whether FSBO makes sense for your home, market, and objectives. That determination may flow from a simple dollars-and-cents calculation or something more complex and subjective, such as your willingness to take the time to market your property or endure the tedium of direct interactions with prospective buyers.
Are you considering selling your house without a real estate agent’s help? Why or why not?