In this recession, many of us have cut household expenses by getting rid of unnecessary "help" and re-upping on the self-reliance. We’ve gone from eating out to cooking at home, ditched our dry cleaners for Dryel, and started substituting every other visit to the manicurist for a quick home file-and-polish job.

This trend, plus the fact that so many of the shady segment of subprime loans were a result of an implicit conspiracy of intentional under-information between house-hungry homebuyers and their mortgage professionals has, as I’ve discussed before, given birth to a new generation of awake, reading-before-signing real estate consumers.

And this is great — ideal, even. Even better, this awakened proactivity has trickled over into every phase of real estate transactions and homeownership. Sellers are researching the comps for their homes on the Web and beginning to prepare their homes for sale before they even call the first listing agent candidate.

Homeowners are reading their escrow statements — the most "autopiloted" of ownership bills — and calling the bank to reconcile the insurance bills and property tax statements with the amount their lender has been collecting since time immemorial.

All good. Well, except for one thing. You’ve heard about how fine the line is between love and hate, of course. I submit to you that the line is even finer between being a smart, proactive real estate consumer and overdoing it as a do-it-yourselfer.

See, it’s like this: Some people own the label "hypochondriac." These folks are typified by the guy in that WebMD commercial who says he surfed the site so much he got carpal tunnel syndrome. This guys needs to see a medical professional, but probably more a mental health provider than someone to treat his wrist.

I, on the other hand, prefer to think of myself as an amateur doctor. In addition to being committed to healthful living practices, I take responsibility for my health by staying up to date on the constantly evolving medical data relevant to me.

I research alternative treatments on the rare occasions I do have a concern, and interact assertively with my family’s health care providers to ensure, among other things, that all my questions are answered and that I understand and agree with their conclusion regarding the best course of action — before we go down that road.

I subscribe to the general rule articulated so well by my dear friend Elaine, who says that 80 percent of sicknesses can be resolved without traditional medicine, 10 percent cannot be resolved at all, and the other 10 percent can be resolved only by a traditional medical intervention.

Yes, despite my request for a scalpel last Christmas (which, by the by, are really hard to come by), I do acknowledge that there is a critical set of conditions that you most certainly need an M.D. to treat and procedures you want only an M.D. to carry out (plastic surgery being at the top of this list). …CONTINUED

And so it is with real estate. All the researching, reading, question-asking, soul-searching and decision-making; much of the planning and property decluttering, and even some of the marketing that makes up the stuff of real estate can be initiated, contributed to and occasionally even completed by a smart, proactive buyer, seller or homeowner.

However, there are those critical real estate functions that are best done by a real estate professional (broker, agent, mortgage broker or even attorney, depending on the situation).

FSBOs, or-sale-by-owner home sales, typically do worse (longer time on the market and lower final sales price) than those with professional representation — the National Association of Realtors actually tracks the difference in sale price achieved by FSBOs vs. Realtor-represented sellers, year by year.

Buyers hunting for homes and/or loans get better houses and better rates and loan terms if they help us real estate professionals help them. Same with loan modifications — as I discuss in this week’s book review of "Loan Modification for Dummies," the money spent on a legitimate, skilled and well-connected modification attorney or professional pays for itself very quickly, and most homeowners who "save" these fees by doing it on their own get nowhere fast.

Even worse, sometimes the real estate do-it-yourselfer can ruin his or her own transaction! I once had a buyer client who neglected to mention that she was still technically married to her "ex," until at closing, when she unilaterally asked the escrow officer to prepare a quitclaim deed for him to sign off of the deal.

Unbeknownst to her, the guidelines for her loan required that a legal spouse’s credit be pulled and debt be considered "against" her. All was well in the end, but the fact that she assumed a level of expertise she did not, in fact, possess delayed her escrow a couple of weeks, during which the seller, a bank, was entitled to charge her a late closing penalty of more than $100 per day.

As an amateur doctor extraordinaire, I also know a little something about the bell curve that reflects optimal levels of a given characteristic. For example, stress is a bell curve — too much stress equals distress and causes people to shut down, while too little creates low motivation levels, aka "slackerism."

A too-high level of resting nervous system arousal causes an emotional hair trigger and overwhelm by the normal ups and downs of life; too low and you start looking for ways to get the police sirens going and racking up arrests (or otherwise start seeking stimulation).

So, in fact, there are two fine lines, which border the optimal level of proactivity. On one end, you have the overly self-reliant do-it-yourselfer, who misses out on the high value help they could have had from their broker or agent, in the best-case scenario, and botches his or her own deal, in the worst.

On the other end, you have the total abdicator who doesn’t care to read or know much of anything except the fun stuff — these are the folks who end up with surprise monthly payment increases and other mortgage drama down the road. The aim is to be one of the "just right" folks right in the middle: peak levels of proactivity with the wisdom to get input at every turn from the pros who know.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online or visit her Web site,


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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