Trish Bongard Godfrey

I Was Once A FSBO (For Sale By Owner)

05 May 2011
Trish Bongard Godfrey

I do know what happens when you try to sell you own home. 

It is almost embarrassing to admit to you that I got into this career by starting out making a bunch of mistakes, but here goes. When we moved to Ottawa in the 1990s, I looked at many houses, and finally fell in love with a house that was For Sale by Owner (FSBO), or “Fiz-bo”. It was an old Victorian farm house in Alta Vista with a huge lot, and it defined charm.

Over a picnic table and a cold bottle of white wine on a hot summer night, we had my cousin, a lawyer, prepare an offer. We negotiated directly with the seller, who was a great person and became a friend. We were lucky, but we overpaid for the house because we didn’t really know the comparable prices. I renovated the kitchen and a bathroom, and after three years we sold the farm house and moved for a better school district. The next house required a complete gutting, a substantial three-story addition, entirely new electrical and mechanical systems, finishes, bathrooms, and a kitchen. I was the general contractor on the project; I loved doing it, and I learned a lot. 

When we planned our move back to Toronto, I thought for sure I could sell the house. I wanted to be FSBO. Sell it by myself. Hey, I mean, I watched HGTV regularly, studied courses in Architectural Technology, was experienced in marketing, sales, and negotiations, and I knew the location of every plug and pipe. I knew about staging and making things look big and pretty. De-clutter. Paint. Hang a mirror. Move your kid’s train set. Wasn’t that all there was to it? Easy-peasy, right?

My marketing was better than this!

I had a couple of local agents come in. I told them the truth about my intentions to sell the house myself, and asked for their advice. “Your bathroom counter is ‘disappointing’.” Snap. New marble. “You have too many books.” Bang. Out came the boxes and in came the packers.

I painted, de-cluttered, fixed things, re-built the front porch in the dead of winter (with the worst snow on record in years), staged the rooms, arranged for great professional pictures, bought flowers, baked cookies, put up a proper For Sale sign, made features sheets (even now I think it was a good presentation), and arranged for the survey.

I listed the property on a local alternative MLS-type system. I advertised weekly in the Ottawa Citizen. I painted and scrubbed and gave up an entire ski season to hold Open Houses in the dead of winter until I thought everyone in city of Ottawa had been through the house, even though there was no place to park anywhere on the streets due to snow pile-up!

It turns out everyone really, really liked my decorating and my renovations. They loved the red dining room. They adored the kitchen and family room addition layout. They were so very grateful that I could refer experts and trades, from geotechnical engineers to excavation and demolition crews, from framers to painters. Many neighbours thanked me for my great ideas and my free advice about how to make their place look as good as mine. I had given everyone the opportunity to see my house so they could guesstimate what their house would be worth. Great!

After four weeks, no firm offers. No sale! Why?

Well, in hindsight, it was because I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing beyond the marketing. I seriously underestimated the complexity of the transaction process. I didn’t recognize that buyers would be concerned about where their deposit would be held – even if I suggested a lawyer. I didn’t know what Agency meant, so was unclear about the role of the agents. How could I trust ANY of them when they were working for the buyer?

I did not have even the basic OREA forms on hand for buyer’s agents; extra forms for sign-back; sign-back, waivers, amendments, mutual releases. Now, I would find the FINTRAC paperwork daunting.

Most important, I had no idea the risk I was taking to myself, personally, and to our physical property. How the heck did I know if it was a real agent calling to book an appointment? They would call at 9 AM, want to show at 10. They had out of town clients who were only there for a half-day. They were in the car driving by and saw the sign. “Can we come in now?” What could I say? Without a secure lock-box system and a brokerage managing the bookings, I had to say yes to everyone, right? Under these circumstances, ANYBODY can impersonate an agent. And the time involved was horrendous! I was a consultant and I lost business because I had to be home every day, all day, because when agents are showing houses, they want instant access.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now, I know that. It was this experience that finally propelled me into a career in real estate.

A good, licensed, insured real estate professional is educated and trained. In hindsight, I think the agents who showed my house were all acting honestly and working well for their clients – and they wouldn’t tell me a thing!

Realtors have a responsibility to be truthful when dealing with the public. We have fiduciary duties to clients under contract. We are always expected and required to be ethical and honest, but we are not always allowed to say what we know.

For example: when a buyer’s realtor deals with an unrepresented seller (a Fiz-bo), we cannot give them any advice whatsoever. We can’t interpret clauses in an offer, define terms, or offer opinions about price or their strategy. We can’t communicate with them about things we would be able to talk to another agent about. It makes it very difficult to represent a buyer-clients’ interests if the seller doesn’t know, for example, the difference between Title and Title Search, or a Mandatary and mandatory; doesn’t understand the nuances and meanings of standard clauses used in the Agreement of Purchase and Sale, or the responsibility we have with Fintrac; or doesn’t have access to, or familiarity with, the 2-inch plus stack OREA standard forms which could be used in a transaction. I’ve seen do-it-yourself sellers who didn’t disclose the 8 other property owners who had a right-of-way over their driveway. Mostly, though, unrepresented buyers and sellers just don’t understand the pricing and the market, nor often the complexity of negotiations, I think.

And let me say honestly about myself — and you can interpret and apply this as widely as you want — I was a bit reckless to try to do it all myself, and I wasted a lot of time. It’s also possible that I killed my own market, because by the time it went to MLS, everybody had seen the house. We ended up listing the house with a great firm in Ottawa, and we sold in one sunny spring weekend to some out-of-town buyers who just happened to be there that weekend.

The upside is that I have had that experience. Perhaps my pride took a bit of a beating, and I have to confess it all again here, but it is the truth. So what is the point of this for you, besides a mid-summer confessional? A good realtor works hard and earns their keep. It’s complicated work. They know stuff. Working with a realtor means having a relationship involving your money, your family and future, and your home. They may not have all the answers in front of them, or in their heads, but they should try to get them. Ask to see their list of services to sellers, list of services to buyers, and ask for references.

I am a full service, full-time realtor. It is not my first, or indeed my only, career. But I like this one best. If you have questions, please ask.