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Selling solo: More sellers choosing ‘for sale by owner’ route despite added work, risk

John and Kathy Borge are selling their north Fargo home without the use of a real estate agent. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 2
The Borges put out flyers advertising their home. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 2

FARGO - After launching a website, taking out a newspaper ad and submitting online posts in early July, the Borges thought they were ready to sell their home of 29 years on their own.

But since putting up the “For sale by owner” sign at 1354 3rd St. N., the couple has had to modify tactics, including adding fliers in front of the house after hearing requests for brochures.

“It’s one of those life experiences that once you do it, you’re kind of an expert, but going in, you’re really stupid and you try to get smart,” John Borge said.

Peggy Isakson, a Coldwell Banker Realtor in the business since 1998, said more people are selling on their own – encouraged by real estate agents’ “For sale” sometimes garnering a “Sold” addition after a few days – in this bustling market with high demand and low inventory.

“You just can’t blame people for wanting to keep money in their pocket,” she said. “The only thing with that is they may be leaving money on the table by not pricing it properly, and, from my point of view, what they’re missing out is the exposure to the other buyers that are out there that are only working with agents.”

A cyclical trend

The Title Company in Fargo has seen a “spike” in for sale by owner transactions, something closing coordinator Chad Johnson said seems to be cyclical.

“When inventory is low and the market is strong, we see more folks trying it out on their own,” he said.

The process isn’t much different than it would be with agents, Johnson said. But the company often encounters “frustration” when independent sellers learn the business doesn’t help complete purchase agreements – it isn’t licensed to do so – and instead suggests they hire an agent or attorney.

“We have seen a lot of folks fill out the purchase agreement themselves, not understand exactly what it is they are agreeing to, and be quite surprised when the final figures are not what they were expecting,” he said, adding the company prefers agents are involved to move along the transaction and help resolve questions or disputes.

There’s no set commission for agents in this market, Isakson said, but 6 percent to 7 percent is common. That commission, which is paid by the seller, is shared with several parties. For example, the seller’s agent typically agrees to split it with the buyer’s agent, and both agents likely give a share of their earnings to their companies, she said.

Bismarck resident Tim Karsky recently decided to try selling his daughter’s condo at 3327 23rd Ave. S. in Fargo. Karsky said he was in a “unique” situation – he and his wife work in banks, so they knew the process.

The couple bought the condo in 2004 to give their daughter, then a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead, a place to live.

But now that she’s starting a family, it’s time to upgrade, and Karsky figured the condo’s good location and price – $198,500 – would make it a hot commodity.

A similar condo nearby sold a few weeks earlier, giving the Karskys an idea of a fair asking price, and the couple advertised in the paper and online a few days before the first open house on July 20. Karsky wanted to save some money, but said he gave himself just 30 days to sell on his own, otherwise he would hire an agent.

But the second or third person to walk through during the open house made an offer of $193,000. The condo is scheduled to close next month.

“I don’t think we expected to sell it on the first day,” he said. “We thought we’d probably find some people that would want to look at it.”

Working with the pros

The Borges thought they could tap into their talents for their attempt to sell the house – Kathy is a writer, and she wrote up descriptions of the features for the fliers and website,, that a friend built, while John, a photographer, took the photos.

But they knew they’d want to work with professionals for some of the transaction. They hired an expert to find market comparables, similar houses that had recently sold, to pick their asking price of $339,000. They also plan to hire an agent to draw up the legal documents once they find a buyer.

Still, they said they wanted to try the sales process – including staging, advertising, and arranging showings and open houses – to save money.

The Borges have learned along the way, picking up tricks to keep their house presentable and ready for showings when unexpected visitors stop by and simplifying their décor and family photos to let buyers imagine how they would live in the house.

“I do find myself always making the bed,” John Borge said, laughing.

The couple said there’s high demand to live in north Fargo, a neighborhood that boasts established trees, low special assessments, good schools and character homes, which was a factor in their decision to sell.

It’s been more work than first expected, Kathy Borge said, though it’s been a fun, interesting process. As the type of people who get something done as soon as they make a decision – they already bought the north Fargo condo they will move into once the house is sold – the Borges have had to learn to be patient in the sales process.

And working alone does come with some anxiety, she said. They’re still waiting to find that one buyer.

“You’re doing it by yourself,” she said. “You don’t have that Realtor telling you that everything’s going to be OK.”

Even as they continue their solo efforts, Kathy Borge said they have more respect than ever for real estate agents, who she sees as “advocates” who can calm clients at the right times, offer advice and work for their best interests. The couple hasn’t ruled out working with an agent if they don’t find a buyer, and she said they’re willing to pay commission to an agent if they bring a buyer.

“We’re keeping our options open, but we just thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ ” she said.

The local market is seeing more multiple offers on houses, especially in certain price ranges and neighborhoods, Isakson said. But independent sellers might not get as much exposure if they refuse to pay commission to buyers’ agents, she said, meaning they could miss out on better offers.

Working without an agent also keeps a house from getting on the multiple listing service that the area’s 600-plus agents search to find potential homes for their buyers, she said. Agents also can protect clients from future lawsuits or expenses by knowing the laws and properly fill out disclosures and documents.

While it’s ultimately a decision up to each buyer and seller, Isakson said there’s nothing wrong with hiring an expert.

“I guess I would never try to cut my own hair,” she said. “I go to a professional to cut my hair because that’s what they do.”

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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