Home deals in a hurry: It's go-go-go when you must buy or sell

Heed these tips to keep the buying or selling process as pain-free as possible

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The slowing housing market may mean more inventory, more time to look and show, and longer potential negotiations between many buyers and sellers nationwide. But exceptions abound. Some markets remain robust and require buyers to act quickly rather than hem and haw and wait for sellers to come down. In those scenarios, the early bird still gets the worm, but numerous personal situations also require both buyers and sellers to act quickly, including job transfers, financial woes, divorces and deaths.

A sped-up timetable can lead to greater stress, especially with a move involved.

Here are steps to help you avoid big mistakes when you're in a rush and make the process smoother:

Find an expert

Whether you're buying or selling, having a pro on board saves time - and spares headaches. If you're the one selling, pick a practitioner who's recently sold in your area and knows what marketing techniques and improvements are needed to attract potential buyers. If you're the one looking to buy, also pick someone who knows the area where you think you want to land, so they can explain the area's pros and cons. You want someone who knows which sellers are most eager and more likely to negotiate and close when you want to.

In either case, interview two or three professionals, have them prepare a market analysis, explain your desired price range, timetable and special needs, heed their pitches, consider your chemistry and make a selection. Then, be ready to be off and running - literally. "A good salesperson will drag you (if you're buying) out into the market and expose you to as many properties as they can to educate you," says Mike Silvas, president and CEO of Morgan Lane, a real estate company that operates 11 offices around California's Napa region.

But also do your own due diligence. Even if you're using a pro, do your homework. Drive around or go online to study the competition, if selling, or see what's available, if buying. Go to open houses to see and hear what seems to appeal to those wandering through. You may pick up some pointers. Let others know what you're up to, so they can tell their friends. You might just find a great house not yet listed or you might corral a potential buyer who hasn't yet started the search process.

Decide on a price or a price range

Buyers should have a price or range that they're willing to pay before they head out to look. In the current market, it's fine for buyers to look at homes listed slightly above their set price, since sellers may come down. While many sellers may get offended even in a slower market, if a bid presented is low, most pros advise them still to consider it and use it as a starting point. "I never discourage starting the process and seeing where we might end up," says Silvas.

Sellers have a tougher time. In a more crowded and slower market, most need to price their home so it stands out from the pack, which means listing it at a price comparable and even slightly lower than similar homes on the market in the area, says Lori McGuire of The McGuire Team RE/MAX Real Estate Services, Dana Point, Calif. She tells sellers not to wait for every last penny because they may recoup their loss when they go to buy. Besides pricing a home correctly, Silvas also tries to communicate to colleagues and potential buyers the value of his listings, so word gets out that it's a "good deal."

Reel in buyers with special bait

To help some houses further stand out from the pack, some homeowners are willing to throw in some special perks, such as paying for closing costs and giving a home-improvement allowance so the new homeowner can make their own changes once moved in.

Spiff up the condition, neutralize

Besides price, a house in good condition is more important than ever if you're selling, since you want your home to stand out from others. In addition to impeccable curb appeal, McGuire encourages her sellers to think of the inside of their home as if it's a model house. Her suggestions:

  • De-clutter rooms. If the house is vacant, stage it so buyers can imagine themselves there.
  • Clean carpets, paint any rooms that need a fresh coat and neutralize any over-personalized spaces.
  • Be certain that lights work, music fills the air, fresh flowers offer nice aromas and that there are some nice pops of color. "People buy with their emotion," she says.

Get paperwork, finances in order

If you're the buyer, get pre-approved for a mortgage, so you don't have to take time to deal with lenders and stall a possible deal. If you're selling, compile a list of repairs you've made over the last year or two. Also, know how much you've spent on heating, air conditioning, lawn care, the alarm system and any homeowner's association fees, so you don't have to start searching for old bills. An offer may depend on such information.

Be prepared to negotiate anything and everything, including the closing date. If selling, don't get stuck on issues like whether or not you're leaving behind a chandelier that could be replaced. If you're buying, be flexible about the closing date if you've found the right house in the right area for the right price. In general, timetables have gotten shorter, says Silvas. But if the seller insists on staying another month, look for temporary housing. Bottom line: You don't want for one issue to derail an otherwise good deal.