With its stunning view of St. Joseph Sound, the Key West-style home in Florida’s northern Pinellas County would have been a dream listing for any real estate agent.
Owner Vickie McCloy, though, decided to sell the house herself.
“Commissions are a lot of money, and I needed to get the biggest bang for the buck,” McCloy said. So she spent just a few hundred dollars to have photos and a description posted on the Multiple Listing Service and online real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia.
Five months and a lot of lookers later, she and her husband have a contract for $730,000. And if the deal closes, they’ll have $40,000 more in the bank than they would if they had worked with a Realtor.
Drive though almost any Tampa Bay neighborhood and it won’t take long to spot a sign proclaiming “For Sale By Owner.” Commonly called FSBOs — pronounced “fizz-bows” — they represent a gamble on one’s ability to do what a professional does but at far lower cost.
While sales by owner remain a small part of all home sales, they are getting a boost from the soaring use of online real estate sites and the steady increase in housing prices.
“The market is good, and we have less inventory than in a normal market, so it’s a seller’s market,” said Barbara Jordan, president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors. “During bad times we never saw them because the market was mostly short sales and foreclosures.”
Before widespread use of the Internet, people who wanted to sell their homes without an agent were pretty much limited to yard signs and newspaper ads.
As more Americans gained Internet access in the mid-1990s, websites like ForSaleByOwner.com and Owners.com began offering heavily discounted services. These online brokers complained, though, that industry practices kept them from making full use of Multiple Listing Services, which give Realtors detailed information on properties and facilitate sales.
In 2005, the Justice Department sued the National Association of Realtors, alleging that its policies were stifling competition and hurting consumers. A 2008 settlement allowed brokers who aren’t members of Realtor organizations to use the MLS without fear of having their listings blocked.
Now, online sites enable homeowners to be their own agents.
ForSaleByOwner, part of the media giant that owns the Chicago Tribune, offers packages ranging from $99 a month to a one-time $649 fee for “maximum exposure” including MLS listing, video upload and yard sign kit.
Perhaps the most popular option is Zillow, started in 2006 by two former Microsoft executives. Homeowners can post up to 20 photos along with a detailed description for free.
Andrew Webber went that route when he decided to sell a rental property he owns in Tampa’s Bon Air neighborhood, just north of Kennedy Boulevard. Moderately priced homes like his, listed at $184,900, are in high demand there and in South Tampa.
“When you’re in a good market you really don’t need a Realtor,” Webber said, “and the market is so good now that’s kind of the main reason we went this way.”
During the six weeks the house has been on Zillow, Webber has received several calls from prospective buyers. He is considering an offer from an investor.
Although sellers like Webber balk at 6 percent commissions, they often specify in their listings that they will pay 3 percent to an agent who finds a buyer.
Surveys have shown that 80 percent of all home searches now start online. But it’s hard to tell how many of those searches result in sales by owner.
Owners.com says 33 percent of homeowners sell without a traditional agent. The National Association of Realtors, though, says FSBOs accounted for 9 percent of sales in 2013, the most recent year for which it has figures.
The association also says that the typical FSBO home sold for $184,000 compared with $230,000 for agent-assisted sales.
Pricing a home correctly is one of the reasons to hire an agent, industry professionals maintain.
“You may think you’re saving $40,000 on a commission but maybe you sold the house $72,000 cheaper than it should have sold for,’’ said David B. Bennett, president of the Pinellas Realtor Organization.