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Pulling off a bidding war: Your 8-step guide

The chances of your sale going to a bidding war is remote in the current market, but if it does, here's what to do.

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A bidding war, in which competing buyers try to top each other’s offers, can strike fear into the heart of a New York buyer. But, if you’re a seller, this can be an effective way to get the price you want, especially if you deliberately underpriced your listing in order to drum up interest and achieve a quick sale.

Still, bidding wars are on the decline these days in NYC.

If you’re thinking of selling your New York City apartment or house, you probably know the high-end of the market favors buyers, in part due to a glut of luxury condos and ongoing political and economic uncertainty. 

Five years ago, 31 percent of transactions involved bidding wars, now just 6 percent of transactions go to a bidding war, according to Douglas Elliman’s fourth quarter Manhattan co-op and condo sales report.

The good news then for sellers is that some bidding wars are still happening. Speaking on the Brick Underground podcast, Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel, points out “prices are rising and moving much faster in the studio and one-bedroom” sales so the lower the price, the higher the probability of the bidding war.  

Put simply, a bidding war occurs “when more than one, or perhaps several, offers are made on the same property and the seller’s broker asks all the buyers’ brokers for their best and highest offer,” says Confidence Stimpson, a broker with Warburg Realty.

Also called a best and final offer or best and highest, a bidding war is a complicated juggling act, involving expert timing and careful judgment. But most of the advice out there is geared toward buyers.

Below is a step-by-step guide for sellers to ensure you and your broker, if necessary, handle the process smoothly and fairly—and get the best deal possible.

1. Find the right broker

If you plan on working with a broker, you’ll want one with the expertise to handle a bidding war. Ask about his or her experience handling multiple bids and similar negotiations. What's their strategy? How will they remain calm, communicating with all the parties involved, all of whom have different goals? 

Jamie Fedorko, an agent with Warburg Realty, says, “poorly presented, overpriced product is simply not going to move in this market.” You want your apartment to be well-priced and properly-marketed so it will stick out from the crowd.

Stimpson says her best advice for a seller is “to make sure the buyer you choose from the pool in a bidding war is very serious and very qualified.”  A broker can help figure out from the financial statement if they are capable of affording the apartment, getting a mortgage and, if necessary, gaining board approval. 

2. Price your place at or below similar apartments

Brokers agree in a sluggish market, pricing the apartment at or just below the average, will likely stimulate interest in your sale and there’s a good chance the place will sell for a price higher than your asking. It’s certainly a strategy that might bring in multiple offers but it’s not without risks in the current climate. 

“In a stronger market a seller can strategically price low or under fair market value which could drive the price up,” says Michael J. Franco, a broker with Compass. However, he points out if it doesn't work to drive multiple bids you are left wanting to raise your price, “which doesn't look good and will be noticed by prospective purchasers.”

One important point—be sure you are prepared to sell at the asking price. “If you price the property low in hopes of [creating] a bidding war, and then immediately get a full price, non-contingent offer from a well-qualified buyer who will close whenever you want to, and you don’t accept it, you’re not doing business in good faith,” Stimpson says.

You also want to avoid a situation where a bidding war pushes up the price to a point where the winning buyer has second thoughts. “If they then walk away, the other buyers may have moved on to other properties,” Stimpson says.

3. Watch for early signs of interest

After the first open house or set of private showings, you’ll generally get a good sense of whether to expect a bidding war. Fedorko says he typically allows about 10-12 days of showings and two weekend open houses, giving buyers ample time to see the property while simultaneously giving sellers time to receive multiple bids. 

“The sellers and I have this plan in place ahead of time so that when an early offer comes in, after the first open house, we can communicate the logistics and timeline clearly to that initial offer without the buyers feeling like they’re being blown off,” he says. 

In a different market sellers may get interest from brokers ahead of the first open house. If that’s the case, be sure the interest isn't based on an overly rosy listing. "Some brokers will de-emphasize or even leave out of the listing a serious flaw—extremely high maintenance or a brick wall view or a four-flight climb—in hopes of attracting a lot of people," says Stimpson. "They’ll attract a lot of people for sure, but not a lot of buyers. No bidding war there.”

Don't hesitate to adjust your price if necessary, says Steven Cohen, a broker with Corcoran. If you get multiple bids, you'll then have to decide whether you want to negotiate with one of those prospective buyers or go to a best and highest. 

Ian Katz, broker and founder of Ian K Katz Group, says if there are only two offers received, a best and highest strategy may still be a good approach, but countering both may be just as effective. “If the two offers are each below ask, trying to drum up a bidding war may not be the right message to send and may turn them off. However, a counter-offer to both at your ask or just slightly below might keep their skin in the game to increase their offer."

Considerations will also depend on your assessment of the potential buyer. Stimpson says as a general rule, they should have been in the property at least twice, with their partner if any, and preferably with an architect if they’re planning to do work. “You might also want to ask the buyer or their broker if they are simultaneously making offers on other properties,” she says. 

4. Set a deadline for best and highest

The amount of time you take to get to the best and highest stage will depend on how many offers you get and what kind of property you're selling. Typically, a seller will wait for a few days before setting a deadline for buyers to submit a second, better offer.

“Sellers should structure the request for best and final bids as promptly as possible,” Franco says. “Allowing for longer deadlines gives buyers more time to second guess their motivation, interest level, and willingness to pay more to get the apartment,” he says. Sellers should ask for all of the terms and information necessary to make a decision based upon the offers and terms provided, leaving little to no room for follow up questions that can delay the process. 

When scheduling the deadline, Katz gives the candidates from the first round 24 to 36 hours to get in their best and highest offers. “I give the brokers a sheet with the high points of what we're looking for, which may include flexibility of closing date to facilitate another transaction for my seller or potentially a short lease-back, as well as an opportunity to waive certain contingencies," he says.

In the current climate, things may be a bit slower, allowing at least two offers to come in because working with just one gives a seller very little leverage.

5. Decide what information your broker should reveal

In the run-up to that deadline, the seller’s and buyer’s brokers go back and forth, trying to figure out how much more the buyer needs to offer, and “to make sure the seller’s broker understands how fantastically well qualified the buyer is and how much he or she truly loves the property,” Stimpson says. 

Under state law, brokers and agents are obliged to deal honestly, fairly and in good faith with all buyers involved in the bidding war. That means a seller's broker cannot explicitly say what number a buyer needs to offer to win a bidding war. (It wouldn’t serve your goal either, because if you tell a buyer they need to come up to $1 million, they may never offer the $1.2 million they’d been planning.) Private information from the other bidders isn’t shared but brokers can relay the fact that there are other interested parties. 

That said, you can let a buyer know that an offer has come in over the asking price—so long as you don't disclose an actual figure—and you can share other requirements, like the closing time frame.

6. Pick your winner     

When you’ve got your offers in, the next step is to figure out which is the best of the best and highest. And, of course, it's not always about the highest dollar figure.

A host of other factors can nudge one offer above another, including a buyer’s timeline for closing the sale, their likelihood of getting approved by the board and, even more importantly, an ability to pay in cash. After all, a contract that hinges on the buyer getting a mortgage and, in the case of a co-op, having their financing situation approved by the board, provides that much less certainty that a sale will go through.

In short, the seller has to decide which of the offers is the best balance between an attractive number and the willingness and ability to close. 

You’ll want to take a look at the detailed financial statements provided by the potential buyers. 

“Remember that an all-cash offer usually trumps one that involves financing, even if it’s not contingent on financing and an offer that’s not contingent on financing trumps one that is,” Stimpson says. 

It’ll be time to talk to your broker about which of the buyers they believe is most likely to close. If you have agreed to a reduced commission if they are the only broker involved, run the numbers to see how much you’ll actually get from each offer and be sure the details of who is representing who are adequately covered.

If all the potential buyers need financing, you’ll have to evaluate how bankable they are. One helpful but not foolproof way to do this is to look at buyers with pre-qualification or pre-approval letters from a bank.

National Cooperative Bank (a Brick Underground sponsor) issues pre-qualification letters.  “During this process we are reviewing the borrower's credit report and discussing with the applicant their stated income and assets," says Brittney Baldwin, vice president, and loan officer at NCB.  

"When receiving a pre-qualification letter you should review to see what the letter states and what the approval was based upon. In most cases the seller can be comfortable with a pre-qualification letter," she says.  

7. Notify the winner

Once you’ve chosen the best offer, it’s important to tell the winner immediately, Katz says, though make sure you time it right when you're contacting the unsuccessful bidders.

“We inform the losing parties that they lost on the day we accept the best offer, but we confirm first with the best offering party to make sure that they are ready to go," Katz says.

Sometimes a bidding war winner will need time to digest they're moving ahead with the deal they proposed. Until a contract is signed, it's best to keep the unsuccessful bidders invested in the process. 

"When [the winning party] confirms they are ready for the contract phase, we tell backup parties that they lost and that we are giving the winning party a certain period of time—five business days is common in a seller's market—to sign the contract and that we will keep them posted on [the] status," Katz says.

Some sellers send out multiple contracts to keep their options open. Even though this is legal, others find it morally suspect—and not necessarily good business.

Indeed, sending out multiple contracts risks losing bidders and creating a poisonous atmosphere when it eventually comes time to negotiate the contract. 

“If a higher offer comes in after we accept a best and highest, I advise my seller that the ethical and most straightforward, above-board move would be to stay with the bidder who won," Katz says.

8. Pick your winner...again?

Even if you've accepted an offer, you're not necessarily done. 

“One of the losers may decide he doesn’t want to be a loser and opens up everything again by raising his offer substantially,” Stimpson says. 

At this point, the seller may tell their lawyer to send out a contract to the new winner, which is legal as long as both sides haven’t yet signed the agreement. 

“It is then my job to tell the broker for the first buyer that his accepted offer has been un-accepted, and ask if he wants to raise it. Harsh words usually result and I am on the receiving end," Stimpson says.

Buyer’s remorse is also a very big risk with bidding wars, she says. “When the buyer suddenly realizes that the reason he won is that nobody else thought the property was worth what he was willing to spend, he may well decide he’s overpaying and walk away."

However, if lawyers can agree on the terms of the contract, and the contract does get signed and the bank comes through with the needed financing, and the board application gets finished and submitted, and the board approves the buyer and the sale closes, Stimpson says “then, and only then, is it okay to break out the champagne.”

Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Marjorie Cohen and Leigh Kamping-Carder.