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In Estate Sales, Sellers and Brokers Navigate Emotionally Fraught Territory

By Amy Zimmer | September 11, 2017 2:06pm
 This estate sale at 9-04 117th St. in College Point was listed for $980,000 this summer.
This estate sale at 9-04 117th St. in College Point was listed for $980,000 this summer.
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Keller Williams Tribeca

QUEENS — Wyn Snow had some “wrenching” moments clearing out her parents’ two-family Woodside home before putting it on the market last month.

Her parents moved to 32-50 54th St. from an apartment in Greenwich Village in 1964, when Snow was attending college in Massachusetts, a state she hasn't left since. She had little reason to keep the Queens home after her mother passed away in December, after a bout with pneumonia. Her father had died four years earlier.

“You watch furniture being taken out of the house as junk that you and your dad built. That’s a little rough,” explained Snow, 70.

When it comes to estate sales similar to the one Snow did for her parents' home, there are myriad challenges.

In addition to the emotionally fraught experience of sellers needing to empty the homes, possible legal issues including how to find deeds and official ownership papers can complicate the process.

So mundane considerations like how to remove belongings from a house and how to stage a property for prospective buyers often fall on brokers, who must deftly navigate these types of transactions. Certain brokers, through word-of-mouth or by getting on the radar of estate attorneys, have found themselves as niche specialists in estate sales.

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An estate sale at 9-04 117th St. (Photo courtesy of Keller Williams TriBeCa)

In Snow's case, she cleared out the home herself, embarking on a shredding marathon to make sure to destroy sensitive information from clients of her father, who spent his last 30 years as a counselor. She also gave away 26 bags of clothes and was able to unload eight of the 22 bins of yarn she found belonging to her mother.

Snow's mom was also a skilled pianist who played a baby grand in her living room, which required the home's front windows to be removed when it was delivered.

Snow asked her broker, Andres Emilio Soto, if he could ensure that the next buyer keep the piano, whose sounds were a big part of her childhood.

“She wanted to make sure whoever buys the property won’t destroy it,” said Soto, of Keller Williams TriBeCa. “I said I can’t guarantee it. I notified the buyers that the piano isn’t being moved.”

All in all, it took nearly five months to get the Woodside house ready to show.

It hit the market last month for $795,000 and entered contract last week for more than the asking price, Soto said. More than 100 people came to the first open house weekend, the broker added, noting he wasn't surprised at the turnout, given how hot the market in Queens for houses under $1 million is right now.

In College Point, nearly 200 people showed up to an open house for the estate sale Soto recently listed at 9-04 117th St., a two-family brick home from 1910 once home to the parents of Yankees shortstop Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, he said.

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An estate sale at 9-04 117th St. (Photo courtesy of Keller Williams TriBeCa)

Because many properties in estate sales require renovations, they are often priced below the going market rate, creating bidding wars. Depending on the level of work needed, some brokers said they don’t even mention that the properties are part of estate sales. For instance, fewer than 60 properties in the city currently on the market note they are in "estate condition," according to a StreetEasy search.

Kathleen Klech, a broker with Mdrn. Residential, didn’t mention the listing she had last summer on Riverside Drive and West 110th Street was part of an estate sale, simply writing that it needed a “little TLC.”

She sold the one-bedroom about 60 days after putting on the market. The estate's executor , who did not live in the city, had been sitting on the property for nearly four years, unsure of how to clear out the unit or whether to renovate it. The apartment, which sits inside a pre-war co-op building, sold for $505,000 — well above the $475,000 asking price.

“I said: 'Let’s just get it done and sell it quickly,'” Klech explained. “You’re paying utility and maintenance. How much more are you going to get if you renovate? It’s a small one-bedroom. It’s not like a townhouse, where you’ll make back what you put in.”

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An estate sale at 9-04 117th St. (Photo courtesy of Keller Williams TriBeCa)

For some sellers involved in estate sales, the property represents “the last vestige of their loved one,” and they have a very strong emotional attachment to the space, said Melissa Leifer, another broker with Keller Williams TriBeCa.

She advises sellers to make the homes as empty as possible before virtually staging the space, using computer images to show renderings of what the empty house looks like furnished, since that tends to be less painful for sellers.

But some sellers can’t even set foot in the homes due to the emotions involved, allowing Leifer to do a deep clean and remove furniture when her team takes over. She has even sold furniture for clients.

“You get to know your clients really well, and I've become friends with almost all of my estate sale clients. You can really help someone and hold their hand through something so difficult,” the broker said. 

“Death and moving are two of the biggest stressors in life," she continued. "When you can alleviate some of that for someone, it makes you feel like you're really doing something to help someone, even if it's listening to stories about how beautiful someone's sister was before she was ravaged by cancer.”

In one recent sale in Lenox Hill, the seller was too devastated to even enter the apartment, so Leifer handled everything, including an extensive cleaning and the removal of furniture.

“I was literally on my hands and knees scrubbing the floors an hour before the closing, emptying cabinets and cupboards, putting things in trash cans, hauling furniture downstairs with the maintenance guy,” she recounted. “There’s no playbook, there’s no course in how you help someone who is grieving and make sure they make money off of it and be there for them.”

Leifer estimates that 35 percent of her business comes from estate sales.

Perhaps she has become such a trusted broker because of her past experience as a hospice volunteer, which she did years before she ever represented an estate sale.

“I think that’s one reason I gravitated toward this,” Leifer said. “It’s like a hospice for the living.”