The Art of Negotiation: More is Not Always Better

Part of being a good realtor is to negotiate well on behalf of clients. That, after all, is supposed to be the reason we exist as a profession -- to look out for what is best for those clients when they're buying or selling real estate.

But being a good negotiator is more than just the ability to be cagey or slick. It's about understanding human nature and knowing what kind of behavior or "tactics" are appropriate in a given situation.

Case in point. Sellers get an offer on their house. The offer is significantly under market value, no doubt because the buyers have watched too much television news, and are convinced that all sellers are desperate and that they can swoop in and pick up real estate at bargain basement prices. The agent's cover letter lists a couple of minor issues -- like the color of the bedrooms and the "need" to replace a small area of perfectly good but not perfectly new carpet -- as the reason for the low offer.

Sellers are annoyed, and have no interest in selling at the offered price. They're preparing to counter at a reasonable price, and gritting their teeth because they suspect that even if they do reach a mutually acceptable price, these won't be easy people to work with.

And then, lo and behold, another offer comes in. So it's a multiple bid situation. (Yes, it still happens in this market -- more often than you might think.) Throughout the negotiations, agent #1 and her buyers are clearly "playing the angles" -- refusing to commit to or sign written counters, keeping their offers verbal, trying to stay as low as possible until the last possible moment and then suddenly bumping up. Meanwhile, agent and buyer #2 are cooperative and pleasant. Buyers don't hide the fact that they're in love with the home. They sign and return counters immediately. They work in good faith within the framework sellers have set up.

In the end, both prospective buyers have come up to a price very close to asking -- about 75% higher than #1's original offer. #1's final offer winds up being slightly higher (after literally bumping it up $6000 in 5 minutes after realizing they were falling out of the running).

And yet the sellers choose #2. Why? Because a real estate transaction is about more than raw numbers. Determining a mutually agreeable price is just the first in a long series of negotiations culminating in the close of the sale. There's inspection, negotation on what repairs will be done and when, and the host of unanticipated issues that can arise during the contract period. Even if buyers and sellers never meet, they're working together. They know when the other party is being difficult, and it affects everybody involved in the transaction. I've seen it happen over and over again. When you get one party, be it buyer, seller or agent, who is overly defensive and paranoid, the stress level goes up all around. Everybody becomes defensive, and subsequent negotiations are drawn out and difficult. When everyone is cooperative and looking to be fair and reasonable, the entire contract period can actually be a pleasant experience.

The sellers in this case are good people who want to be fair and want to do the right thing. And they want to work with somebody they trust to be on the same page.

None of this is to say that there's anything wrong with seller's working to get the best price they can for their home, or with a buyer trying to get the best deal possible. That's what we do for our clients. But are better and worse ways to go about doing that. In an impersonal corporate situation, or in a case where one party has proven untrustworthy, perhaps cagey game-playing is the way to go. But when families are buying and selling their homes, it's not the time to play slippery ace negotiator.

It can backfire. Badly.