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Selling a House: A How-To Guide for Post-Bubble Times


Three steps to sold.

Every family's tragedy is unique, but the problems that grow out of a parent's death have a horrible sameness in the world of middle-class American economics.

An elderly person dies, leaving a house, a lifetime's possessions, a billion snapshots of the grandchildren, and little or no cash. The heirs face a big funeral bill and the immediate costs of maintaining the house. They also may owe inheritance taxes on the home's value, whether it is sold or not, depending on the parent's state of residence.

My sister and I found ourselves in that fix recently. To be specific, it was well after the real estate bubble burst, shortly before the start of the "greatest downturn since the Great Depression," and while I was, to put it delicately, "between jobs."

You want the spoiler now? We accepted a full-price offer on the house 5 days after it went on the market. Taxes settled, costs paid off and a modest inheritance to split, as our mother had hoped and expected. It had taken about 5 months to get it ready for the market.

The strategy in a nutshell: We held an estate clearance sale to empty the house, used the proceeds to spruce up the place, and didn't argue with our real estate agent.

If you're not cash-rich, you do all the work yourself. And if you don't know how, you learn.

It wasn't a question. We had to sell, and fast. The "average" funeral costs $6,000, or "up to $10,000," according to various sources, and even that's hooey. Our mother's cost $12,000, and it was respectable but not lavish. Her house was in Pennsylvania , which levies a 4.5% inheritance tax. (Bankrate Monitor has a state-by-state guide.) Local taxes were due soon. We owed about $27,000 on our mother's reverse mortgage. She had no other debts, bless her, but even empty houses cost money.

So, being not-so-gainfully unemployed, I moved back to Pennsylvania , to a suburb I had fled many years ago, and into my mother's empty home.
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