In a sellers' market: 3 ways for buyers to win a bidding war

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Karen Boguslawski, talking with her Realtor Jan Kupiec at left, says she was "shocked" when she received two offers for her house, which she put up for sale for $479,000 last year. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Barely 12 months ago, buyers could confidently peruse piles of listing sheets before making a lowball offer and getting a nice discount off the list price.

Not anymore. Last month, there were about 44% fewer homes on the market in Chicago than in February of last year, according to Midwest Real Estate Data. The city had only a 3.8-month supply of housing units, compared to an 8.9-month supply a year ago.

Surprise: it's a seller's market. And that means many homebuyers are likely to find themselves in a bidding war.

I've seen it more than a few times over the last year. You hunt and you search and you think you've found a winner. You and your agent pour over comps and market stats. You figure out what the seller paid for the home and what they owe on it. Your agent grills the listing agent to find seller hot buttons. You construct the perfect negotiation strategy, and submit your offer, ready to get the deal of a lifetime.

Then you get the call, and hear the crushing news that more buyers are hearing these days: "We have received multiple offers. Please submit your highest and best offer by tomorrow at 5 p.m."

So now what? A good listing agent won't tell you much about the other offer. It could be $20,000 less than yours or $20,000 higher. There could be one other offer or four. You're going to have to put your best foot forward. Here are three tips to help you fight for your new home and win:

#1 Remember: It's not all about money

Sometimes it is about timing. Pick a closing date advantageous to the sellers. Can you close quickly, saving the sellers money? Or can you close later, giving them time to find a new home? Find out what matters to them.

Have your agent select a brief (five days or less) attorney review and inspection period. This will minimize the amount of market time a seller could potentially lose if you were to back out of the contract as a result of something found during the inspection. It will also give the seller more time to confidently search for a new home.

Important: This requires you to have your act together. Who's your inspector? Who's your attorney? Call both of them before you put the contract in so you still have time to do your due diligence. Finally, make a large earnest money deposit - say 5 to 10 percent of price - to show the sellers you're serious. They know a buyer with some skin in the game is less likely to jerk them around and then bail on a contract.

#2 Make the seller like you

An offer with a well-written cover letter stands out, and it never hurts to try to relate to a seller. Are you newlyweds buying your first condo? Are the sellers moving out because they just had their first child and need more space?

Great. Play up the nostalgia. Have your agent tell the sellers a bit about yourself and why you like their property. When evaluating multiple offers as a listing agent, I find this is a nice touch. Agents often fire off contracts with no cover letter and little presentation. This gives the impression that their clients aren't as committed to buying the property, and I'm likely to convey that to a seller.

Then, go back to #1 and make sure your agent emphasizes those points in the cover letter. Tell them what you do for a living and how thoroughly your lender has pre-qualified you (Tip: get thoroughly pre-qualified). Sellers should get the impression that you are a buyer with no potential financing issues who is committed to buying their property.

#3 Pay what the property is worth to you

This one should go without saying, but sometimes buyers get caught up in the emotions of the process. Overpaying for a property isn't winning, and neither is stubbornly sticking to a lowball offer.

Have your agent put together a detailed comparative market analysis to determine the fair market value of the property. From there, as I always say: "add love, subtract fear." It's okay to pay a touch more if you really love the place, especially if you've been looking for awhile. But keep in mind, the property will need to appraise for this price if you're getting financing. And it's okay to bid a bit less if you feel you have other strong options.

I took a buyer to see three condos that each had been on the market for three months. That was a Thursday. My buyer left for the weekend to go skiing. When he came home, all three had offers in on them, and two of them had multiple offers. That's the residential housing market in Chicago right now.

My final word of advice: "buyer be ready." Get all your homework done before you make that offer. If you want to survive in this sellers' market, you have to be ready.

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Mike McElroy, CNE, CDPE, SFR, is broker/owner of Access Chicago Realty, which serves both renters and home buyers in Chicago.