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Posted on Sun. Jan. 19, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Sssshhhhh …

Whisper listings are a strategy of selling a house almost silently

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An old saying in sales holds that the best advertising is word-of-mouth.

Now comes word that some home sellers are relying on just that – using what real estate pros call “whisper listings” to market properties.

These sellers don’t want a For Sale sign plunked in front of their house. They don’t want it to show up in newspaper or magazine ads or have pictures of it plastered on real-estate sites on the Internet.

What they want is for their real estate agent or broker to quietly circulate word that the property is available through his or her network of contacts with house-hunting prospects, investors and real estate colleagues.

Such sellers have their reasons, says Aaron Hoover, a Fort Wayne Realtor with Century 21-Bradley’s Visibility Group. He says he’s working with one such seller now.

The unusual house has historic value and an out-of-town owner, Hoover says.

“He doesn’t want it publicized because it just turns into a tour of sorts,” he says. “He does want to sell the home … but he doesn’t want to draw unwanted attention.”

Sometimes, Hoover says, publicity-shy sellers are worried because a home is vacant and they don’t want it to succumb to thieves, vandals or squatters. Other times, they’re in the midst of a difficult personal situation – perhaps a nasty divorce, bankruptcy or foreclosure – and they don’t want neighbors or others to know. Other sellers worry about their safety because they live alone or just want to avoid the hassles of multiple showings to the only mildly interested.

Still other properties occupy a niche market – for example, an upper-end price range or a rental triplex in need of repairs – where the number of qualified buyers is more limited and they may be best found by a pro who specializes in those types of sales.

Still other sellers don’t want to fall victim to con artists.

Christine Schaefer, who with her husband, Ed, sold real estate for many years in Fort Wayne before recently moving to Tucson, Ariz., recalls that she once had a house listed for sale but suddenly began getting calls from people who wanted to rent it.

It turned out, she says, that the listing photos had been lifted and used by someone trying to entice potential renters to send deposits to an apparently ersatz landlord overseas.

“It was basically a total scam,” she says, adding that she’s heard of similar cases.

Realtor Adam Smith, president of the Upstate Alliance of Realtors, the Fort Wayne regional multiple-listing service, says whisper listings are rare in the local market.

“I don’t see it very often,” he says, adding that’s partly because of a local rule that Realtors must put a house on UPSTAR’s publicly accessible online multiple listing service and post a sign within two business days of a having a signed listing contract.

But sellers also always have the option of not doing so by signing a listing agreement amendment with those terms, he says.

He thinks not marketing broadly can be a mistake.

“Typically, what sellers are hiring us to do is having it (the house) exposed to as many buyers as we can,” Smith says. A whisper listing “kind of handicaps them by limiting the marketing to people they know or people the agent knows.”

Kim Ruffin, communications director for UPSTAR, says national statistics show that online exposure has become increasingly important as more than 90 percent of buyers now start house-hunting online.

She said that’s one reason the group is now working to expand visibility of its listings by joining with 12 other Indiana Realtors’ groups in what is hoped to become a statewide, Internet-based multiple-listing service, or MLS.

When there’s concern about publicity, Realtors says, they can also agree to other seller preferences – for example, to show a home only to buyers prequalified for appropriate financing or to show first only to buyers’ representatives.

Smith says Realtors routinely augment signs and ads with other sales methods – many email contacts when they have a buyer interested in a certain type of property or know of a new property on the market, and some also meet with colleagues on a regular basis to share information.

Schaefer says some Realtors are leery of taking a listing with too many advertising or showing restrictions, thinking the owner isn’t really motivated to sell. But she says she also recognizes there can be the need for Realtors to be discreet – for example, in situations in which someone is relocating to take a new job but doesn’t want his or her current employer or staff to know.

Also, she says, some builders who build homes without a specific buyer in mind and people who rehab houses and resell them may circulate advance word on when the homes will be ready before they’re formally listed in the hope of cutting down on vacant time.

“There’s a downside (to being on the MLS) in that people (will) know exactly what your house looks like on the inside,” she adds.

Hoover says the existence of available properties not on an MLS should make discouraged buyers and sellers realize there still may be options out there for them.

“Us, Realtors, do network with our peers quite a bit,” he says. “I would definitely contact a Realtor to get access to all their resources.

“I wouldn’t get discouraged.”

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