MOAA’s Spring 2024 Retirement Guide: How to Sell Your Home

MOAA’s Spring 2024 Retirement Guide: How to Sell Your Home
Illustration by Dave Titus + Spectrum Studio, inspired by the work of John Schreiner

(This article by Kimberly Lankford originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Military Officer as part of the magazine's Spring 2024 Retirement Guide. Military Officer is available to all MOAA Premium and Life members; learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA or upgrading your membership here.)


If you’ve been planning to sell your home when you retire, you’re in luck. The home-sale market continues to be strong in most areas of the U.S. because of low inventory, even though interest rates have been rising.


Selling your home and downsizing or moving to a less-expensive area can make a big difference in your retirement nest egg and provide a quick way to help you catch up on your savings.


“That’s a good strategy to put some more money into your nest egg and give you some liquidity,” said Mari Adam, a certified financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla.


Other retirees sell the house they owned while in the service and move to their retirement dream home when they can finally control where they live. And some servicemembers who have accumulated more than one home while on active duty — renting it out when they’re stationed elsewhere — might decide they no longer want to be a landlord after they retire.


No matter what your reason for selling your home, the following steps can help you get the best offers and make the process go smoothly.


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Meet With an Agent and Your Financial Team Early

Contact a real estate agent as soon as you start thinking about selling your home — even if it’s more than a year in advance.


“When you begin to think about potentially selling, I recommend getting in touch with several agents to discuss the process, the needed updates to your home, and the ideal time frames to help you time the market for maximum exposure, which can improve your chances of a higher sales price,” said Shannon W. King, a broker with Island Living Homes in Kailua, Hawaii, and 2023 regional vice president of the National Association of Realtors. King works with many military families, and her husband retired from the Navy after 25 years.


The agent can estimate the sales price, which can help you make key decisions about the timing of your move and your next steps. It’s also a good time to gather your financial team and talk about how the home sale can fit within your overall financial plans. Your financial planner or CPA can help you figure out whether you need to sell your house before you can buy a new one, whether to sell your home or rent it out, how much you can afford for your next home, the best timing of your home sale, and how to avoid a surprise tax bill.


“It’s about strategy and planning and making sure we work not only with [the seller] but also the financial consultant and their tax people and the realtor on the other side,” said Patty Zuzek, a real estate broker based in Minneapolis, who works with many military families who retire to the area. “We want to make sure we’re working together as a team.”


In the current market, it’s generally easier to sell a house than buy one, so you need to have a plan for your next step before you put your house on the market. Figure out whether you need the home-sale proceeds before you can buy a new home and what will happen if you sell your house much faster than expected.


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“There is a national shortage of inventory of homes,” said Joanne Breen, a real estate broker in Newington, Conn., and the 2023 regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors. “There are so many more people looking to buy than properties to sell. In the Northeast, the demand is very high. If I go into someone’s home now, in this market, I’m not worried about getting your house sold. It’s going to fly off the market maybe in eight to 10 days tops, and most homes are selling over the asking price. But where do you go?”


If you do need to sell your home first, she recommends lining up a place to live temporarily — such as a rental or with family — until you buy a new house.


The agent can also let you know about home improvements that can help increase the value of the home and make it more attractive to buyers. Starting the process several months in advance gives you more time to get ready and make improvements that have the highest impact.


“Sometimes we’re working with people who are selling a year from now to help them properly stage to be ready to sell,” said Zuzek. “The minute they’re thinking about selling — whether in the next year or five years — let us come in and take a look because if you’re going to make any improvements in the house, you may not make them for the way you’re going to live in the home, but you’re making them for the future buyers.”


How to Choose a Real Estate Agent

While you could try to sell your home yourself and avoid commissions, you might find it more beneficial and worth the cost to work with an agent. If you decide to use a real estate agent, meet with a few agents several months in advance to find out which one has the best plan to market your home.


Ask questions to learn more about how they decide on the price and the timing of the sale and how they spread the word to potential buyers.


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“Selling your home can be emotional and personal — it’s like dating,” said King. “You should speak with several realtors to see who will fit your family’s needs. You want someone who understands your local area market and who has a clear marketing plan to help you sell your home for top dollar.”


The average real estate commission has traditionally been between 5% and 6%, but the rates can vary significantly. King said, “Commissions are 100% negotiable and should be based on the level of service the agents provide.” Typically, the seller and the listing agent negotiate a commission, and the listing agent offers a portion of that compensation to the buyer’s agent. Breen’s recommendation: “Sellers should interview various real estate companies to identify pricing options and levels of services offered.”


Make sure the agent you hire has a plan for the following:


Preparation. “Your realtor should help with preparing your house, decluttering, staging, and helping you assess what improvements you need to make,” said King. “They will also help you assess your competition to ensure your house will sell quickly and for the amount it’s worth.”


Listing and marketing the property. “What is the agent going to do that is different from the other agents you interviewed to help get your home sold?” King said. When marketing the home, Zuzek said the following items are important to include — high-quality listing photos, an online presence, virtual tours, and marketing on social media in addition to print marketing.


Negotiations and closing. “What recommendations does your agent have to help you during the 30- to 45-day closing process?” King said.


Building a team of experts. A good real estate agent can also help you assemble a team to help with the process. “I don’t think people understand the depth of what an experienced, knowledgeable realtor can do,” said Breen. “We can line up the financial guy and the lender and the good attorney who understands the real estate market. If there are repairs that need to be done on the house you’re selling, we can line up the contractor. We can do so many things to relieve the stress.”


Understanding special VA loan rules. If you have a VA loan or if you’re in a military area and a lot of potential buyers will be using a VA loan, make sure the real estate agent is familiar with the special rules for that type of mortgage, said King. VA loans have different appraisal requirements than other types of loans, and the house must meet certain standards if the buyer is using a VA loan. “I have the VA on speed dial, and I know the VA appraisers,” said King. “If there’s a question I can’t answer, I call them. Make sure you’re working with a professional who understands what the VA requires.”


If you currently have a VA loan on the house at a low interest rate, that could be an extra selling point. The buyer might be able to assume the balance on the VA loan at the interest rate you’ve been paying, which can be particularly attractive now that mortgage rates have risen significantly over the past two years.


“A homeowner with a VA loan can have a purchaser take over or assume their existing mortgage,” said Christopher Davis, assistant vice president of home lending at Navy Federal Credit Union. “They assume the existing balance, monthly payment, [and] remaining loan term and its interest rate.” The buyer might need to make up the difference with another loan or cash, but they can borrow a portion of the cost at much lower interest rates than are currently offered.


“Real estate agents and sellers marketing homes with this option give prospective purchasers another option that can be extremely enticing and unmatched by other similar homes in the neighborhood,” said Davis.


The process to assume the loan can take four to six months after you accept the offer, said King. “It’s not a hard process, but you have to have patience,” she said.


Also find out how the loan assumption can affect your eligibility if you want to use a VA loan to buy your next property.


More From MOAA

MOAA's Spring 2024 Retirement Guide appears exclusively in Military Officer magazine. Along with more home-selling advice, the guide includes:

  • Guidance on whether to rent or sell.
  • More decluttering tips.
  • Tax rules for home-sale profits.
  • Tips for vacationing in retirement, as well as our twice-yearly retirement listings.

Military Officer Magazine

Make High-Impact Home Improvements

Talk with the real estate agent about home improvements that will be the most attractive to buyers.


“When you prepare to sell your home, you will want to concentrate on the improvements that will provide the best return on investment,” said Steve LaRue, a broker with McGrew Real Estate in Lawrence, Kan., which is about 45 minutes away from Fort Leavenworth. “It’s not smart to spend $1,000 on an improvement that is only going to result in an additional $1,000 sales price. Decluttering, depersonalizing, and cleaning cost very little but will make a huge difference in how a buyer sees your home and the price they will pay for it. Outside of that, paint and flooring are the best returns on investments I have found. Many times, you can double or triple your investments with these improvements. Make the space neutral so that the buyers can see themselves in it. You don’t want them to feel like they are walking into your home. You want them to feel like they are walking into their home.”


It’s also a good time to check on all of the home’s major equipment so you have time to make replacements if necessary.


“Make sure the major components of your home are sound. How is the roof, foundation, and mechanicals?” said LaRue. “These items aren’t necessarily things that will double your investment, but more than likely they are going to come up during negotiation, appraisal, or inspection. If you put a new roof on up front, you can likely ask an equal amount more for the house. But if you have to fix it during inspection, you are still out of pocket, but you will lose the ability to advertise a home with a brand-new roof.”


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Your real estate agent can also help you choose a contractor if you don’t already have one.


“I give them two to three names and say they’re good people,” said Breen. “If they don’t treat my client right, they’re off my list forever.”


In a military area where a lot of potential buyers may use a VA loan, be prepared for an extra layer of scrutiny on home improvements.


“A VA-certified appraiser determines the home’s fair market value and ensures that property meets the VA’s Minimum Property Requirements,” said Davis.


Some of the key things VA appraisers are looking for include peeling paint, handrails on stairs, and railings on decks, said LaRue. “Roofs, foundation, and rotten siding/trim are high on their checklists as well. Make sure the basics are covered before you go on the market, and you’ll be in for a much smoother transaction,” he said.


The VA appraiser might require you to repair these items before closing, rather than just adjusting the home’s value. “Any hazards considered health risks you have to repair it, such as peeling paint,” said King. “Everybody has an appraiser, but the difference is that the VA appraiser is looking at the condition of the home for the VA and will identify if anything needs to be repaired prior to close.”


[RELATED: What Is a VA Loan Assumption?]


Prepare for the Open House

A few weeks before the open house, start taking steps to get the house ready for prime time for potential buyers.


“No matter what the market is like, my basic advice for all sellers — before you show the house, deep clean it, get it decluttered, touch up the woodwork, and get the mechanicals serviced,” said Breen. “Put your best foot forward so you’ll get the best price. Sometimes just fresh paint in a few rooms can up the price by thousands. If a house looks like they haven’t taken care of the most basic things, the first thing buyers start thinking is, What is it that I can’t see that they haven’t taken care of? This provides a sense of comfort that the house was taken care of.”


King offers some alternatives depending on how much time and money you have to spend. “If you don’t have a budget for an entire interior paint job, focus on painting only the colorful or dirty walls and doors,” she said. “You can always scrub the rest of the walls and baseboards if needed. You can make your space look remodeled just by adding new light fixtures and kitchen/bath cabinet pulls, new bathroom mirrors, and faucet fixtures, and don’t forget to have your carpets steam cleaned.”


Walk through the house with a real estate agent and contractor to identify things that you might not notice that can stand out for buyers. “Make sure your realtor has a handyman if you don’t have one, and they can come through the property and assess. There’s maybe a squeak in the door I have lived with, and I no longer hear it,” said Zuzek. “When I sell my personal properties, I always have a home inspection before I put it on the market.”


Do an extra round of cleaning and decluttering the week before the open house. “Minimize everything,” said Breen. “Get all the extra stuff out of there, and box it up. You want to show the house as streamlined as possible. And then you can see all the flaws — the chipped woodwork that needs to be touched up. And it’s a smart idea to have the major mechanicals serviced. Get that done, and have the paperwork to show the buyer that these things are in good condition.”


Maximize the curb appeal, too.


“For the exterior, a good power wash and fresh front door paint go a long way,” said King. “And don’t forget about landscaping — mow and edge your yard, trim your hedges, and add fresh mulch and potentially colorful plants. You may also want to find a temporary home for your pets while your home is listed. It will help with both your pet and your stress levels by making sure they are safe and out of the way.”


It might be challenging to live in your home while it’s on the market, but hopefully it won’t last long and the effort will be worthwhile.


“When you sell your house, don’t think of it as your home. It’s a product you’re getting on the market,” said Breen. “If we price it right in this market, it might sell fast. You might have 60 people come through in two days. Very often, I’ll put a house on the market on Thursday or Friday, and I tell them it’s going to be an awful weekend. Take your dog and go somewhere, but by Monday, we’ll probably have multiple offers.”


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Assess Multiple Offers

If you’re lucky — and many sellers are in this housing market — you’ll have multiple offers to choose from.


“Multiple offers are what all sellers hope for, but they come with some tough decisions,” said LaRue. “There is more to an offer than just the price. What other terms are important to you?”


When Breen has more than five offers — which has not been unusual in the past two years — she puts the key information from each one on a spreadsheet showing the offer price, type of loan or cash, and other factors. “They get carried away with price in a market like this, but what are the conditions? What kind of inspection are they asking for, what kind of financing are they getting, and what kind of appraisal will there be?” she said. “I have had offers that were $80,000 over asking price, which sounds wonderful, but then you look at the loan.”


For example, an FHA loan might not be approved unless the house appraises for the sale price, which might not always happen during a bidding war. “If this does not appraise for the sale price on the contract, the seller either has to drop the price down or [the buyer has to] put in cash,” she said. “This is a beautiful offer, but the buyer’s getting financing, and will this house appraise for what they’re saying they will pay?”


“No two offers are alike,” said King. “Along with the net proceeds you will make, you need to consider the timelines in the offer — how long until they close, how long is their inspection period, what about other timelines that allow them to get out of the contract. Ideally, you would want these time frames to be as short as possible. I would encourage your agent to call the buyer’s lender to confirm they are strong buyers.”


Kimberly Lankford is a financial expert based in Virginia and the spouse of a retired Army colonel.


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