How to Sell a House

In the making since 2007

An event in the making since 2007

This is kind of a special moment for me. Since the year 2007, which is eight years ago or 20 percent of my time alive on this Earth, I have been stuck with a less-than-ideal real estate situation. And it is just about to be resolved with the happy CHA-CHING! of a cash register.

To make the long story short, my old house building company created a fancy, modern house just in time for the late-2000s housing crash. After two years of listing it for sale and dropping the price, I took it off the market. Instead of selling it into the void at 50% off, I put it on the backburner as a rental house. Since then, it has generated generous monthly checks in exchange for a low level of background stress in my life.

Finally, our local real estate market has recovered fully and the time has come to put this place on the market, and so that is where our story begins today.

And it’s not just my story – selling a house is a big deal for many people. It can be a stressful event, or a looming unknown for those who have never done it before. This fear keeps people stuck in one place while commuting to another, or locked up on top of a million dollars of equity, when they could easily use that money to retire young and live somewhere else.

Loosening up your feelings about selling a house can provide a surprisingly big life boost. As a side benefit, knowing how to do it well will add money to your life while subtracting stress.

With my habit of renovating houses and moving around a little plus a wife who is a licensed real estate agent, I’ve been through a few more house transactions than average. But my Honey Badger tendencies have gotten me stung plenty of times, so I have seen the cruel side of the real estate market just as much as the generous. Because of this history, I figured it would be worth peeking in on my current house-selling adventures as an example.

What Selling Means

At the core, when you sell something you are becoming a salesperson. This means finding out who your customers are and what they want, then figuring out how to make your product appeal to them. You can pretend this is not true, and in a hot enough market you may even get away with it, but in general you tend to get walked over if you ignore the realities of your customers.

Knowing Your Customer

When I bought and renovated my first house at age 25, I saw things only through my own narrow lens. I was an engineer, so of course I assumed that advanced network wiring to every room would be valuable to everyone. I was young and fit and had no children, so of course we didn’t need three bedrooms on the main floor, or guardrails to protect the basement staircase.

Eventually, I applied this self-centered vision to my housebuilding company in 2005 and built something the market did not value as much as I had hoped. I liked modern, open houses which worship the Sun. Big windows. Exposed structural beams. Welded steel. Stone tile that goes all the way to the ceiling. While I shared this housing taste with Dwell Magazine and Los Angeles thirtysomethings, it turned out that my customers at the time were non-coastal people two decades older than me, looking for traditional Victorian-themed homes with enough bedrooms for their kids. They didn’t care at all about how many square feet of South-facing glass a house contained.

Similarly, if you’ve lived in your house for a long time and are getting ready to sell it, you might find that the people moving into your neighborhood are a different crowd than those moving out. Blue carpet and flowery country-style wallpaper were homey touches in 1982, but have become quite destructive to resale value here in 2015.

The bottom line is that your house will sell better if it matches the desires of your ideal customer. A full decade later, people my age (who I find more likely to have similar tastes) can finally afford houses like the ones I built, which means the local market finally likes the same things I do. At last, we pass the Customer Test.

Becoming One With Your Local Housing Market

Almost ten years ago, I signed up for an automated email system that alerts me of every house listing and every sale that takes place in my neighborhood. Although I would not recommend this for people not interested in real estate, it has been fascinating to me. Over time, you develop a deep intuition for spotting deals and ripoffs at the moment of listing, which you can refine by watching how quickly or slowly each house sells. Then when it comes time to sell your own house, you know exactly how to price it to hit the fine line of maximum profit.

In the case of the rental house I’m selling right now, similar homes were selling in the $550k-$600k range, so I set my price at $565,000.

Preparation for Sale

House buyers are in an amazing situation: they are making a spectacularly expensive purchase after only 30-60 minutes of touring the product. This means that they operate based on first impressions and rapid evaluation of the spaces. And thus your house needs to hold up well to this type of evaluation. It’s worth reading a whole book on this, but to summarize quickly:

  • Think Open and Airy: When buyers walk in, they need to be confronted with light, space, and charm. So eliminate anything that blocks this feeling – open the curtains, clean the windows, and remove stuff like baby gates or pet crates.
  • Renovations: In higher-end markets, strategic renovations including a modern kitchen, knocking out unnecessary interior walls, and (oddly enough) a great front door will return more than 100% of the cost in eventual resale. The key is in watching that cost: even hiring out all the work, a new kitchen with good cabinets, stone countertops and quality fixtures should total under $25,000 rather than the $75,000 many people end up forking over.
  • Stage the House: If it’s empty, hire a staging company. If you still live there, remove most of your stuff and have only sparse, tasteful decor. Selected artwork, a nice table arrangement with flowers, the perfect books on the shelves, and so on. Buyers will claim that they can look past a mess, but it just isn’t true. The well-staged houses get statistically higher and faster offers, which makes it a profitable choice – especially in higher priced markets. I spent about $1600 to hire Design Matters Home, which covered design plus all the furniture rental and moving.
  • Photography: this is critical, cheap, and yet usually overlooked. How many real estate listings feature blurry, dim pictures of the corners of rooms taken by the listing agent running around with an iPhone for a few minutes? To do it right, you need an SLR camera with a tripod and roughly a 10-22mm wide angle lens. Or hire an affordable pro – I was able to get a great real estate photographer to shoot my house, plus process and deliver about 50 digital images for under $100. Money well spent (and thanks Josh!)
    Let’s compare the effect of lackuster versus professional photography with a real-world example.
Figure 1: These are the actual pictures from a recent $425,000 listing in my area. Four hastily-taken pictures. Seriously?

Figure 1: These are the actual pictures from a recent $425,000 listing in my area. Four hastily-taken pictures. Seriously?

Figure 2: Since the system allows up to 25 pictures, I provided 25. Each with a full text description (most real estate agents leave the description field blank).

Hire an Agent or Sell it Yourself?

Even Mrs. Money Mustache (an accredited agent herself) admits that there is no special difficultly involved in what real estate agents do. While there are surely some brilliant, talented and hardworking people in the field, the hard truth is that only a minority of the agents either of us have met would fit this description. Besides, the real work is making the product great and getting it in front of buyers. In the US, this means getting your property listed in the MLS (multiple listings system). Although it is an antiquated and proprietary system, it is still where most buyers are shopping so you need to be in it to win it.

Suggestion: hire an intelligent and dynamic agent if you can find one and are not interested in doing the work yourself. Otherwise, hire a discount fee-for-services agent, or just put your place on Craigslist and then pay separately to get it into the MLS.
Most of your buyers, unfortunately, will still be shopping with a buyer’s agent, so you should expect to fork over 2.8% of your purchase price to pay his or her fee if you want access to that big pool of shoppers.

Showings, Offers and Negotiation:

Once you get the place listed, you are off to the races. Buyers will find it on the MLS system as well as Craigslist if you listed it there. They book appointments, review your hard work, and if you are lucky, make you an offer.

There will be negotiations, an inspection, and various deadlines and hurdles to clear, and the level of stress all depends on what type of market you are in: in a slow market, buyers might ask you to replace the whole furnace or roof, and walk away to the next deal if you don’t comply. In a fast one, you can safely reject anything silly and the buyers will tend to give in, lest they lose yet another house to other competitive buyers.

Pro Tip: Normally, buyers can make an offer at any time and you have 24 hours to respond. But if you write something like “All offers will be reviewed on Saturday July 11th at 12PM”, you can wait a week or so to collect multiple offers and respond to everyone at once. This increases your chance at having multiple options and creates competition between buyers, which increases your leverage in negotiations.

So Should you Do it?

Selling your house is always going to take some work, no matter how you approach it. But if you do the math right, it can be some of the highest paid work around, and come with great lessons in human nature as well. I have never regretted a sale and have many good memories (and dollars) to show for the hard work of the past.

At the same time, you should think about the work of eventually selling any house before buying it in the first place. If you’re not ready to devote a few weeks at some point in the future, and potentially absorb a 20% loss if you need to move in a down market, you should definitely consider renting instead.


I started writing this article a few weeks ago, as Mrs. MM and I were working through all of these steps ourselves. We were ready at last on June 9th, finishing the last details and getting everything uploaded into the system just before midnight.

Just after breakfast the next morning, the phone rang with an incoming number from a Hawaiian area code. Some new arrivals to Longmont had studied our listing in detail and were very excited to tour the house in person. We agreed on an appointment time of high noon on that same day.

I biked down to the house to meet the prospective buyers, and we immediately got along like old friends. The house tour was more of a celebration of our shared tastes in home design, and they were full of questions about how every detail had been designed and built.

Before leaving, they gave me a verbal, full-price offer with no buyer’s agent to suck money out from the middle of the deal. In other words, $565,000 with no funny business, heading directly to our investment account in just a few weeks. We shook hands and I thanked them for their wonderful interest and the offer.

Following the Pro Tip above, we left the place on the market for a full week, collecting two more solid offers – but nothing quite as good as that first offer, because cutting out a buyer’s agent made their offer effectively 2.8% higher (about $16,000). So we sealed the deal, the house is under contract, closing will be next month, and all is well.


I wish you even better luck than I’ve had in your own real estate adventures. Own the house you truly want to own, sell any that don’t fit that description, and prosper.

Related Reading: How (and how not) to Buy a House

  • Rich June 23, 2015, 1:14 pm

    I’ve used an assortment of the following: MLS, realtor.com, and craigslist when attempting to sell real estate and have found that 9/10 times everything came from the MLS and/or my real estate agent’s mailing list and monthly open houses. On the east coast I’ll have a bi-weekly or monthly open house with flyers, lawn arrows, and any other promotional news I can to push a property. Glad you got it sold after a considerable 10 year time investment.

  • Kiwikaz June 23, 2015, 9:47 pm

    Good photos are a must – the more the better. If intercity, interstate or overseas buyers are looking in your area, they will need to be practically sold on the property over the Internet before making the effort to physically view the property (if they do at all).

    A detailed floor plan is also essential. This is because often the photos dont show the detail of the layout, so you dont know where the bathroom, toilet or laundry is located, whether the bedrooms are north or south facing, or what the layout of the house is like if you wanted to add an additional bathroom or bedroom, or convert an existing room into something else.

    If you are selling privately I also think you should get an independent valuation and give it to potential buyers. This is because private sales have a bad reputation for being overpriced, with vendors unwilling to negotiate (probably because they got a free valuation from a helpful real estate agent who inflated the price so that they could get the listing). If you can back up your asking price, you take that worry away from buyers who think they might be over paying. It also helps you decide on an appropriate price range.

    If you think you will have lots of interest consider going to auction, that way buyers don’t have to stress about negotiating a price with you – they just turn up and bid on the place.

    Consider the season you sell in. All places look lovely in summer, but some places look a lot better than others in winter due to positioning for sunlight, winter flowering gardens and fruit trees, great insulation/heating etc. So you might have a competitive advantage if selling in the season where your house looks comparatively better than others on the market.

  • Kath1213 June 24, 2015, 10:51 am

    Oh how I miss CO and Prospect New Town. You had a killer house – so happy the sale turned out well for your family!


  • Money Saving June 30, 2015, 5:45 am

    Wow – MMM does it again!

    We made the dumb decision of deciding to upgrade in the down market circa 2010 and took a $50K loss. On our home sale. Not again – the next time we move I plan to do all the grunt work and list everything myself to avoid the 3% Realtor fees!

  • Dawn June 30, 2015, 8:41 am

    I would love some tips on doing the $25K instead of the $75K kitchen reno. Not that I would do the $75K reno anyway, but I’m sure you would have great ideas on keeping the cost down. Or maybe that has been covered in another article?

    Really enjoy this blog!

    • Leslie June 30, 2015, 1:52 pm

      We were told that our kitchen remodel would cost 80K by a general contractor who gave a pretty detailed estimate. (That did not include the appliances either.) We decided to be our own general and were also our own sub-contractors for some of the work but not the finish carpentry or flooring. The total cost was 32K in 2003–which included everything including appliances, cabinetry, permits, electrical, new flooring, painting, plumbing, and light fixtures. I recommend doing a lot of research and comparing prices on every single line item. (Yes, It will be time consuming.) For example, the general quoted over 2,000 for pulling permits but when we did it ourselves it cost about 236.00. We drew up a floor plan on graph paper took it to the city offices and within an hour had a permit. Ikea cabinetry is also a big savings and they will help with the design if needed. We did not use them though because the odd shape of our kitchen did not work with their standard sizes. We don’t plan on moving so the costs won’t be recouped but we enjoy cooking in the new kitchen.

  • UefiNotBios July 1, 2015, 12:39 pm

    Following MMM’s advice on what to do (and what not to do) during boom times, I accepted a job offer that bumped up my salary 25%. The new job also came with a relocation package that, among other things, reimburses me for the (reasonable and typical) seller’s closing costs and realtor fees and (should I choose to purchase a new home within a year) buyer’s closing costs.

    I said, OK, and proceeded with the steps my relo advisor listed. Met with two brokers, picked the one that seemed more experienced and more professional. She was a great help. I had to move to my new job location very quickly so we had to wait for the movers (also paid for by the new employer) to pack and move before we could clean. The broker helped find cleaners who did a great job, a handyman for a very minor cosmetic fix, and a photographer. She even did some “staging” with some signs and towels, etc… She warned me beforehand that when she did her “market analysis” there were not very many comparable properties so her estimate for the fair market price might be off. Fine, I said, let’s list it and see what happens. https://www.redfin.com/OR/Portland/1834-SW-Evans-St-97219/home/45400747

    And the property has been sitting on the market for almost 7 weeks…

    This is supposed to a very hot market (Portland, OR) but my property is a townhome, not a single family home. And I have a nightmare neighbor situation.

    My nextdoor neighbor, if I believe the feedback I get from my agent, seems to be out on the driveway (which is immediately adjacent to mine) working on an ugly piece of shit SUV for months now. Apparently he also parks his other ugly piece of shit car (the mustang) on my driveway on a regular basis.

    After reading this post, I am inclined to spend some money on staging, and have a new set of photos taken.

    But I don’t know how to handle the neighbor situation. Moreover, I don’t know if I should spend the money on the staging and new photos, given the neighborly woes.

    Any advice?

    • Kathy Abell July 2, 2015, 1:58 am

      No one wants to look at an empty house. You need FURNITURE to help potential buyers imagine what the place will look like as THEIR home. And home is NOT the bathroom – that sign should be in a family room, living room, or master bedroom! Your ad states “No HOA dues”. Does that mean there is no CC&Rs or a Homeowner’s Board to enforce them? Thus a neighbor parks his car in your driveway with impunity, and without consequences. Any potential buyer would think, “how can I get my car out of my garage when my neighbor’s car is parked in my driveway???” Also, with no HOA dues, is there no upkeep of the common areas? The small spot of ground in front of your house does not look inviting (or those weeds, or wildflowers? I couldn’t tell). Definitely stage – using an actual staging service, not the realtor – and have new photos taken – by a photography company, not the realtor. Without furniture, the place looks small and dark. The main level looks long and narrow like a bowling alley lane. Buyers can’t picture their family gathered around the dining room table – because there isn’t one. When staging, don’t forget the deck. A nice little bistro set, with large cups for morning joe, would be most inviting. With your recent price cut, are you still overpriced for the area? Looks like it might be by a busy street?

      • John July 2, 2015, 6:42 am

        HOAs are a nightmare. Talk about regulatory authorities gone wrong. What happened to neighbors being neighborly? Do we really live in a world where we must appoint regulatory authorities for everything? Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The only people that tend to seek these type of positions are the one you don’t want int them. I have never seen such power whores as I have in an HOA board. How about let’s try and be neighbor and good citizens first.

      • UefiNotBios July 23, 2015, 5:50 pm

        Thanks for the input, Kathy; very good feedback.

        These photos were supposed to be taken by a professional.

        I was convinced that I needed staging. I got estimates from two great firms and I was ready to pull the trigger but then an offer arrived. Hopefully this deal will close. If not, I am definitely having the place staged, getting new photos taken, and asking my broker to reword the listing text.

        The small spot of ground in front is actually part of the rainwater management system. In Portland, OR the city charges us a lot if we direct rainwater directly to the sewer system and offers credits if you take action to keep the rainwater from overloading the sewer system. These two “pools” are part of that and the city tells us to not maintain the plants in there. The city crews are supposed to do that.

        I don’t know what the HOA can do about the nuisance neighbor. FWIW, when we lived there, he never parked in my driveway. But he did make some noise and kept working on his truck late at night, etc. My wife kept saying “this is why you need an HOA”

        Thanks again.

  • Jed Wood July 20, 2015, 8:23 am

    My wife and I have been enamored by that style of modern architecture for the past 10 years. Unfortunately they’re way more expensive than the traditional cookie-cutter models common in developments. Any advice on how to build one (have one built for us, that is) without breaking the bank?

    • Mr. Money Mustache July 23, 2015, 11:54 am

      Hi Jed,

      From my experience so far, it is only in the rarest of situations that you could build a custom home without spending WAY more than you would for a comparable existing house. In really expensive property markets the math can work out, as long as you can find the right builder. You might look into modular or pre-fabricated options though – that’s one way to get around of the expense of full custom.

      On the positive side, modern style houses don’t necessarily cost more to build than traditional ones.

      • Jed Wood July 26, 2015, 7:21 am

        Okay thanks. I’ve been keeping up with the modern prefab world for a long time. Our current area has relatively low housing costs so even the prefab options have never made much financial sense, but we’ll keep dreaming. :)

  • Marisa August 2, 2015, 9:44 am

    This is from a mortgage broker’s and real estate investors perspective so keep that in mind as you are reading my comment.
    Have worked closely with real estate agents the past 17 years and here is what I have found about what it takes to sell a house.

    First of all it is very market dependent. If you are selling a house in a buyers market(don’t if you don’t have too) it is really in your best interest to have an awesome agent. An agent that has been around a while(and is good at what they do) will not only have a very large list of former clients but very good relationships with other agents and is a kick butt marketer. What this means to you is that when your house goes on the a market, they will not only send an e-mail out to all the agents they know, they will send the listing to their pre-existing customers, then Zillow, Facebook, Trulia, Realtors.com and the MLS. These agents know the power of there database. There database alone can often times sell you house quickly. If an agents just does a couple deals a years they won’t have this same leverage.

    It is much easier to FSBO if it is a ‘sellers market’. Hubs and I just completed the work for a flip house. In our market to stage at house it is between $1600-$5k to do so. Since I frugal I decided to stage the house myself. Now we have 4 kids so I knew that I could not put our furniture in this house(marker, crayons, etc). So I got most of the staging items on Freecyle.org types sites. A a couple of beds, ficus plants, kitchen table chairs, coffee table, living room chairs…all free. Also had professional pictures taken for $175, this makes all the difference. We post the house on Zillow(there is a FSBO section, be prepared a bunch of realtors will call), Craigslist and I ran an ad on Facebook. We also had an open house yesterday and will have one today. The other thing I did was advertise they we are only having 2 open houses, no private showings(my time is valuable) and reviewing all offers Monday night. Want to do this in one shot. The most this could save me is: $11,397.

    Bottom line is know your market. Right now in the market I am selling the flip it is a sellers market, especially in my price range. Knowledge gives you leverage.

  • Josh August 23, 2015, 10:33 am

    Thanks for the mention, loved shooting that house.

  • Button August 24, 2015, 1:36 pm

    I’m really glad to have found this post in the list of posts as I just started reading your blog.

    My husband and I recently decided to put our house on the market and working quickly toward getting it listed. Although we only purchased it two years ago, we have made significant improvements to the cottage including new (and very efficient) hvac. After a long discussion with our realtor, we decided to list since our community has a seller’s market. While we’re not looking forward to the process, your article definitely matches up with our realtor’s suggestions, so I’m glad to hear that we’re doing the right things in listing.

  • GregW October 22, 2015, 5:48 pm

    WOW! That is a 565k house in CO? A house like that is SE Connecticut, where we are, would be almost $1m – closer to $2m with an ocean view. Awesome value!
    Those are great photos, too. But $100 for all that work? How in the world can a photographer make a living charging that kind of rate? That had to be at least a couple hours at the house and then a few hours of travel and post production. I just don’t see that being too viable, unless they have some super efficient system to do it all.
    At any rate, nicely done building the house (it’s gorgeous) and selling.

    • Mr. Money Mustache October 29, 2015, 5:33 pm

      Thanks Greg. I think Josh the Photographer got the shots in about 30 mins and probably does a batch processing on them – nothing fancy. Plus he does a daily loop covering a few different shoots per day, which minimizes travel per house.

      You’re right though – his rate is excellent. And he could keep a LOT more of the income if he ditched the old GMC Blazer and got a used Prius for $5k.

  • Matt December 15, 2015, 9:40 am

    Can anyone recommend some good books for those of us starting to think about investing in real estate, rental houses?

  • PatientSeller April 11, 2016, 9:18 pm

    Patient Seller would like to know if MMM and Mrs. MMM think they might have been more “patient in selling”(original thought was $650K) and could listed the house at $625K vs $565K and came out $60K ahead (to pay IRS their gains taxes and depreciation recovery monies). This house actually sold again a few months later at $615K as noted on Zillow. OUCH! ;-[ There’s lot’s of ‘frank and candid’ talk about $100 for photographs etc …. but this is one helluva Rubic’s Cube fuckup. Overall, I agree I agree with MMM’s FSBO philosophy …. but with this a nube’s costly learning experience. It could have been covered contractually to share any resale profits within 12 months of the first flipper/buyer from Hawaii. Who got a Lei and who got layed here? Please tell us more of this story on open up dat Kimono some more so we can all learn. Was it listed on a Thursday?
    Source: http://www.zillow.com/homes/recently_sold/Longmont-CO/81889831_zpid/32563_rid/
    12/01/15 Sold $615,000 $195 Public Record
    08/17/15 Sold $565,000 $179 Public Record

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 12, 2016, 5:58 pm

      Haha, I appreciate your challenge, Patient.

      You’re right – the new buyers ended up re-selling very soon for a personal life situation reason I won’t disclose here. After all the closing costs and some upgrades while they owned, they did scrape out a little profit. But they had it listed for a long time and it was a gamble on their part. The local market happened to be on a record-breaking tear in the 6 months between when I listed it and when they re-sold it for 10% more.

      Could I have sold it for more by listing at a higher price and waiting longer? In retrospect, sure. Am I happy with the math I made at the time of listing? Hell yeah! Any regrets? Hell no.

      My goal in this case was a little different than that of most sellers: I wanted that sucker gone, and was not willing to trade more hassle and risk for a few more bucks. $60k makes no difference at all to our financial situation, whereas those extra few months of bliss from having this headache off the books was absolute heaven.

      Finally, note that I did not do a “for sale by owner” – I listed with the most analytically-skilled licensed professional real estate agent in the city. She just happened to be my wife :-)

  • Miniwing May 6, 2016, 9:42 am

    MMM I didn’t see an answer in the post and I’m a little late on a comment, but where did you sign up to see listings in your neighborhood?

  • DeadMetalist February 19, 2020, 11:18 pm

    Absent a housing bubble, overpriced homes generally don t sell. Don t worry too much about setting a price that s on the low side because, in theory, this will generate multiple offers and bid the price up to the home s true market value. In fact, underpricing your home can be a strategy to generate extra interest in your listing and you can always refuse an offer that s too low.


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