Handy-Dandy Guide to Selling a House

I wrote this in 1999 when I moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia, and found myself having to try to sell my house remotely whilst paying both that mortgage and my apartment rent, double utilities, and arguing with the Realtor over the phone every day. Not that I’m bitter.


  1. Come to the inescapable conclusion that you simply cannot stay another second in the godforsaken house/hovel you inhabit now. You must sell. Write a small note to yourself and store it in a sealed envelope. In this note, mention any faith you have in human nature, logic, reason, and altruism. You’re about to lose it all. Label the envelope “Pandora’s Envelope.”
  2. Get a Realtor. Remember that one you used when you bought your current hovel/dump? Well, he/she/it is now scum, and the scum you didn’t want to have anything to do with is now your bestest friend. You’re looking for a seller’s agent, and you’re looking for one who will do whatever it takes to sell your house. This includes lying. Make a note of this. Once you’ve made the note, eat it. No one need ever know.
  3. The Realtor will come over and go through your house with you. It will be the most intensely embarrassing encounter with another human being you’ve had since the proctologist/gynecologist visit last year. You know all that stuff you hide away in your back rooms, packed into closets? The stuff you want no one to see? She will. She’ll write stuff down on a notepad, making “Mmm-hmm” noises, and the occasional frown. She will point out every minute defect and every potential defect. Remember those “interesting” features that the other Realtor told you were really cool when you moved in? They’re now impediments to selling your house. It detracts from the value. She will shake her head and make ‘tsk’ing noises. You know the stuff I’m talking about: that recessed gable in the upstairs bedroom; that “quaint” patio with no privacy fence; the “no-mow” yard that you can only navigate with pitons and safety lines.
  4. Sign the contract with the Realtor for however many months it is (three or four, typically) that they have to sell your house, and they’ll get 6% or 7% of the selling price. Convenient things to have on hand: a pen, a Pepcid, a Valium.
  5. You have now signed over all your free time and cash to your Realtor, who will immediately begin to tell you that you really need to fix all that stuff you’ve been meaning to fix, but never quite got around to. If your house is anything other than off-white (oh, they call it ecru, taupe, mushroom, oatmeal, eggshell, or perhaps even beige if they’re being honest, but we all know it’s off-white), you will now be instructed that the ‘designer colors’ are detracting from the value of the house and you must paint it. Inside and out. You must replace all those faucets that leak. You must fix loose or torn linoleum. Even inside the pantry in the kitchen where no one in their right mind ever looks. You must replace the roof, the heating unit, the air conditioner, about half the carpet, and at least one door. You’ll have to finally fix that hole in the drywall that your uncle Bob caused during that one Easter when he got drunk (well, that probably doesn’t narrow it down…you know uncle Bob) and missed the hacky-sack and kicked the wall instead. Total cost: about $5,000 more than you have. You may have to get an equity line of credit in order to pay for the repairs to the house you’re no longer going to live in. Look up “irony” in a really thick dictionary.
  6. Remember those Pepcid and Valium I told you to get? Take them both. Wait 30 minutes. Test: Can you read the last three sentences of #5 without feeling your pulse rate double? If so, resume. If not, wait 30 more minutes.
  7. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that you will most likely be preparing yourself to move at this point, as well, and may indeed be progressing through my 28 steps to financial ruin (i.e., the Handy-Dandy Guide to Buying a House). If so, take another Valium.
  8. Now that you’re suitably mellow, start calling contractors to do all of that work mentioned in number 5. Total time: at least 3 weeks longer than you have. If this makes you nervous, take another Valium. If, at any time, you lose all feeling in your lips, this is a good sign. [Note: This step continues for some time, overlapping the following ones.]
  9. While all this is going on, the Realtor will have probably listed your house. This means two things:
    • You must clean your house as it has never been cleaned before (Remember that time your mother-in-law came over and you had to clean the tops of the doors and under the refrigerator, and you said to your spouse, “No one in their right mind cares if there’s dust on top of the hall closet door or dust badgers (they long ago ate the dust bunnies) under the refrigerator,” and your spouse said, “Well, my mother cares,” and you said, “Well, then, she must not be in her right mind,” and then your spouse said, “Are you insulting my mother?” and then you said…<ahem> Moving right along. Well, this will make that experience seem like a picnic by comparison.)
    • Your Realtor made at least one glaring mistake in your listing that will ensure that everyone who looks at your house for at least one month will hate it. (For instance, “deck” instead of “patio”, “gas heat” instead of “ineffectual heat pump”, or “four bedrooms” instead of “three bedrooms.” Not that I’m bitter.)

    Your realtor will also have downplayed certain existing problems. For instance, that swirling vortex of evil that’s in your pantry? It will be listed as a “completely green garbage disposal.” If this bothers you, take another Valium.

  10. Be prepared to vacate your house on a moment’s notice whenever the Realtor calls. Remove everything of any great value that is portable from view. [Note: this includes spouses, children, pets, and even your mother-in-law if she happens to be visiting.] Remember Pandora’s Envelope? Enough said.
  11. When the potential buyer visits, leave. They will go through your closets. They will rifle through your personal effects. They will flush your toilets. They will make disparaging remarks about all the stuff you like about your house. They will have wet, muddy shoes. They will bring their sticky kids. They will smoke in your non-smoking house. They will leave smudges on every surface. They will turn on every light. They will not, however, turn off those lights.
  12. Repeat steps 10 and 11 as often as necessary.
  13. Receive insulting offer.
  14. Counter offer.
  15. Receive only slightly less insulting offer.
  16. Repeat steps 14 and 15 until either a) you decide not to even bother with these people (go back to step 10, repeating step 9 as necessary, as well), or b) you decide you’ve been at this long enough, and any halfway decent offer is better than no offer at all (continue).
  17. At this point, you will have had to move to your new residence (oh, that’s a whole other topic in and of itself). During this, they showed your house while you were attempting to pack. The Realtor didn’t seem to understand why this stressed you out, even though your lips were numb. Now, you’re paying a mortgage, rent or a new mortgage, and you’re paying off the equity loan or line you got in step 5. Your checkbook actually screams when you open it.
  18. The Realtor will continue to show your house. You’ve had to leave the power hooked up, so that people who come see your house aren’t uncomfortable or in the dark. They will have wet, muddy shoes. They will bring their sticky kids. They will smoke in your non-smoking house. They will leave smudges on every surface. They will turn on every light. They will not, however, turn off those lights. The Realtor will turn the heat/air conditioner up, but will forget to turn it down. Your power bill for the empty house will be higher than any month during which you actually lived there. The difference, of course, is that no one is there, now, to clean up those muddy footprints on the carpet, turn out the lights, turn down the heat/air conditioner, deodorize the carpet, or wax off those smudges. Take another Valium.
  19. There will be at least one person who won’t offer on the house because it doesn’t have something you got rid of at the suggestion of the Realtor (like those designer colors). There will be people who won’t even look at your house because it’s the wrong color, which they could fix for $500, but they won’t because they’re idiots (not that I’m bitter).
  20. Finally, an offer will come in that is reasonable. Remember Pandora’s Envelope? Keep it sealed. There is more to come.
  21. As you negotiate back and forth, each of you will change little bits of the contract (“seller pays $450 to have rain gutters screened over”). It is at this point that you will lose whatever small bit of respect you had for other people. The potential buyers will demand unreasonable things, like that you pay all closing costs (their Realtor told them you wouldn’t notice that that’s identical to lowering the offer) or have that swirling vortex of evil removed from the pantry. (I mean “completely green garbage disposal.”)
  22. The deal will finally close. You will receive a check for whatever equity you had in the house, minus the closing costs, which include the hefty percentage your Realtor and their Realtor share.
  23. You will put this money into an account earning interest in the vain hope that it will be enough to act as down-payment on your next house (assuming you haven’t already purchased one, in which case the equity is applied immediately to your mortgage). You’re broke, you’ve lost all respect for other people, and your lips are numb.
  24. Take out Pandora’s Envelope. Break the seal. Read what you wrote therein.
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