This article was last updated Feb. 28, 2022.
When it comes to real estate transactions, the last few details matter the most. The deal isn’t over until every part has been completed to the client’s satisfaction. Unfortunately, agents sometimes fumble on the figurative 1-yard line.
We learned this the hard way a few years ago. At the recommendation of their kids, who had done several transactions with us, we began working with an older couple to facilitate their first-ever home purchase.
They had limited resources, and it was proving to be difficult, but we kept at it. We finally managed to get them into escrow, but the sellers refused to handle a few critical repairs, and the buyers backed out. We pressed on.
Shortly after, in a bout of depression, the husband chose to end his own life. Hoping to help their mom move on, his kids asked me to continue with the home search, anticipating that the projected insurance proceeds would make an acquisition easier.
Based on the deceased husband’s insurance policies, the settlements would facilitate a cash purchase. Anticipating this and establishing a timeline for the projected payouts, we found the perfect home, submitted a cash offer and expected a speedy close.
Although one policy funded right away, the other had different ideas. Digging in its heals, the insurance company contested its need to pay based on the circumstances of the death. Because the husband had been the only breadwinner, there was no way to get a loan, so we began pressing the insurance company to settle.
As the insurer was playing hardball, the listing agent decided to join in. Not a very understanding fellow, he began applying substantial pressure, and the wife became increasingly distraught.
We never gave up, managed to negotiate repairs, relentlessly pursued the insurance company, held things together, and finally managed to get escrow closed after significant delays and herculean efforts.
After the close, we assumed the wife would have been grateful for all we had done on her behalf. The house was perfect, her kids were ecstatic, and it looked like a happy ending was in the books.
Unfortunately, there was one detail to come. The home had a large decorative mailbox out front, and once escrow closed, mail delivery commenced.
There was one small problem: We had no key to open the box. The wife, unable to get to her mail, became frenetic once again. I went back to the listing agent who, due to the delays, told us rather impolitely where we could go to find a key.
With no help there, I called the wife and explained that no key was available. I suggested she call a locksmith to open the box.
Big mistake: All the efforts and goodwill we had generated on her behalf throughout our entire relationship evaporated in the space between the sentences of her reply. “No way,” she said. “You get me a key. And,” she tossed in, “this has been the worst experience of my life — don’t expect a positive review from me.”
It reminded me of the poem attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.
In my case, for want of a key, a relationship was lost, and as is always the case, any subsequent referrals and prospective business went unrealized.
Your 5-step gameplan for the win
Since then, I’ve learned a lot, and we have developed some rules for our team designed to mitigate closing issues. Although there is no way to make everyone happy all the time, with care, you can at least increase the odds. Here are our five rules to finishing strong:
1. Handle objections immediately
In the case above, once I determined that the seller was not going to provide a key, I should have called a locksmith to get the mailbox opened immediately and sorted any payment details later.
With thousands of transactions under our belt, we have seen no end of issues cropping up at the end:
- A seller taking a refrigerator that was included in the contract
- Trash left by the departing seller
- Damages during the move
- Sellers not vacating on time and more
As a young agent with limited resources, I often let things go a bit, hoping they would sort themselves out. Our policy now is to jump in immediately, find effective solutions as quickly as possible and sort out financial implications later.
If I end up eating some costs, at least I keep the client happy, ensuring that the relationship continues in the future.
2. Sweat the small stuff
One small key at the end of a transaction was all it took to scuttle things. Ironically, it’s usually not the big things that bring the most pain. It’s the minutia.
No detail should be considered too small, and you should give as much care to the little things as the more significant items. Try to put yourself in the clients’ shoes to see things from their perspective: What might be insignificant to you could have deep meaning for them.
I once lent my car to a friend — when he returned it, it had a small scratch in the center of the steering wheel. That silly scratch is the first thing I see every time I get into my car.
3. Clarify closing expectations
As escrow winds to a close, buyers’ anticipations rise. In most cases, they cannot wait to get the keys to their new home. So how exactly do they get their keys? What should greet them when they walk through the front door?
I was out of town for one buyer closing and, after discussing access with the listing agent and finding she was unwilling to hand off the keys to the buyers, she concluded that the best recourse was to leave the keys under a rock.
It had been a great transaction: I had negotiated a great price, obtained significant repairs, and my clients were overjoyed with the results. I explained my predicament, sent them a picture of the keys’ location and called later to confirm they had been able to get in. It was not a happy call.
The wife explained that they had been extremely disappointed someone had not been there to present them with the keys personally.
“It would have been great,” she clarified, “if at least someone from your team had given us the keys. Getting them from under a rock was not at all what we had imagined for the purchase of our first home.”
4. Use a closing checklist
We typically do a walkthrough a few days before close to make sure everything is OK. We want to ensure repairs are finished, the home is clean and all buyer expectations are met. If it becomes evident that there are issues, we have time to handle them before the close.
Among other things, our checklist includes:
- Items such as the location of all related keys, remotes or fobs
- Instructions for transferring utilities
- Whether sellers have left any items
If an issue becomes apparent and the listing agent or sellers will not handle it to the buyers’ satisfaction, we will step in and make sure it gets dealt with, even if it means sending in our cleaning crew, removing trash and more at our expense.
5. Finish strong
Keeping in mind that there are specific rules for what agents can give as closing gifts, we work hard to provide a meaningful closing gift and to do it in such a way as to leave a positive impression.
We also follow up with calls the day after gaining access, a few days later and then after a week to ensure that any items that might come up are dealt with immediately.
Do they need help figuring out the irrigation system? Are the systems of the house working OK? After leaving smart items such as video doorbells, smart thermostats, cameras, alarms, and so on, did the previous owner delete them from their accounts so the new owner can set up new accounts?
Once we are sure things are OK initially, we also follow up quarterly to see how they are doing and find out if they need help with any anticipated projects.
As Kansas City discovered the painful way, it is one thing to rack up impressive drives, thrilling runs and epic throws. It’s something else altogether to turn those achievements into what truly matters: a touchdown.
A word to the wise: It’s the ending that counts the most. Ironically, in the previous year’s Super Bowl, San Francisco led Kansas City for most of the game but failed to deliver when it counted the most — at the end.
Do what it takes to ensure that the last few moments of a transaction end in a completion that will ensure a win, leave your clients cheering and set you up with clients for life.
Carl Medford is the CEO of The Medford Team.