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Five Steps to Selling Your Late Parents’ Home

How to handle the logistical and emotional challenges — plus how to sell their home when they’re still alive


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When Jaclyn Tannazzo was preparing her late parents’ New York home for sale, sorting through their possessions bogged her down. So she hired someone to clear them out and store certain items; she and her sister dealt with those later.
Courtesy Jaclyn Tannazzo

 

Even in the best of circumstances, selling a home is typically several months of prolonged stress. But selling a late parent’s home — a transaction potentially fraught with grief, financial urgency and family drama? That takes the difficulties to a whole other level.

“It just makes your head spin,” says Jacyln Tannazzo of Commack, New York, who in July 2023, as the executor for her late parents, sold the house they had lived in for 50 years. “You know it’s going to be a lot to handle, but you don’t realize how much it’s really going to be. You’re taking care of your own home, and then you’re being asked to know when did my parents get an oil burner? How old is the roof?”

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Be aware that the emotional pain of clearing your parents’ possessions may be an obstacle to preparing the home for sale. Here, Jaclyn Tannazzo and her sister are in the middle of organizing the possessions.
Courtesy Jaclyn Tannazzo

Tannazzo’s task was one that a growing number of families face. Older Americans hold more than $23 trillion of their wealth in real estate, according to the Federal Reserve; for homeowners, those homes are usually one of their largest financial assets. Ideally, parents share their wishes and plans with their family about what to do with their home, or second home, after they’re gone. And ideally, they have a will indicating who should inherit their property. But often they don’t; a recent study by LawDepot found that less than 30 percent of respondents 55 and older had a will. If you — and other heirs, if that’s applicable — don’t already have a plan in place, here’s one to follow.

 

Clarify roles

Unless there’s a will or trust specifying the next steps — for example, “I bequeath my house at 125 West Ninth Street to my daughter Lisa Carol” — you’ll have to decide the fate of the house. If you’re the sole heir, you have the right to do whatever you see fit, whether that’s selling it, keeping it, living there or renting it out.

When no specific instructions are given and other heirs are involved, things can get more complicated. The estate’s executor — the person formally assigned to administer the dead person’s property and distribute assets in the legal process known as probate — ultimately has sole authority to determine the home’s disposition, says Crystal West Edwards, an elder law attorney in Morristown, New Jersey, and principal at Porzio, Bromberg & Newman.

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Even if you were named the executor, you’re also a family member, and your siblings may have their opinions. Some may want to hold on to the property as an investment, while others’ financial circumstances might benefit from the proceeds of a fast sale. Making these decisions and coming to an agreement are tough to do while you’re in mourning, says Michael Gifford, CEO and cofounder of Splitero, a financial technology company in San Diego. As soon as it’s reasonable, after people have had time to grieve, you may want to call a family meeting, making sure that any out-of-town siblings are part of the decision-making process. “Be gentle with each other,” says Maureen McDermut, a senior global real estate adviser for Sotheby’s International Realty in Santa Barbara, California. “Every sibling is going to have a different emotional reaction to their parents’ house that they’re selling.”

Whatever your decision, keep in mind that as an executor, you have a responsibility to your fellow heirs. “For this reason, it is always good practice to maintain an open dialogue between the representative and the beneficiaries to minimize the likelihood of a challenge at the conclusion of the estate administration,” Edwards says.

Line up help

You’ll need at least three on-site professionals to help you sell: an appraiser, a real estate agent and an attorney. An appraiser should give you a valuation for the home as it stands today, which is important for tax purposes when you sell the home, Gifford says. You might also get a home inspection of the major systems, including the roof, plumbing and electrical. These are the matters any buyer will be concerned about and could affect their ability to get a loan. A real estate agent with local expertise can price the home correctly for sale and shepherd it through the sale process, says Danny Hertzberg, a sales associate with the Jills Zeder Group brokerage in Miami. The agent can be especially helpful if you and your siblings no longer live nearby, handling issues such as access to the home for repairs, showings and inspections. The real estate attorney can help with any outstanding issues, including unpaid taxes and missing paperwork, as well as handle the transaction if the house is held in a trust.

“Having experts involved can make the experience so much easier and can provide the necessary guidance throughout the process,” says Julie Cwik, senior underwriting counsel at Proper Title, a title insurance agency in Chicago.

Assess outstanding property debts

Your real estate agent or real estate attorney will run a preliminary title report, which will show if there are any mortgages or liens on the home, says Betsy Phillips, a senior real estate expert with Compass in Glenview, Illinois. That’s when you might learn that your parents had a second or reverse mortgage. If that’s the case, the executor should continue to pay any outstanding loans, Phillips says. “Once the closing of the property takes place and all liens are paid in full, then the equity remaining will be distributed according to owners’ directives,” she says.

Even if your parents no longer had a mortgage, it’s not uncommon for older homeowners to forget to pay their property taxes since they may be used to it being a part of their monthly mortgage payment, Cwik says. A title search could also reveal whether there’s a mechanic’s lien — an unpaid invoice for work done on the home, by a general contractor, for example.

Any of these outstanding issues can hold up a sale or result in a contract falling through, so you want to get them cleared up as soon as possible. Keep in mind that any money owed will be among the first payments settled with the proceeds from the sale.

Maintain the home

An uninhabited home is ripe for developing maintenance issues. In a warm climate, mold can be a concern; in colder conditions, a pipe could freeze and burst. An unwatched roof could develop a leak that isn’t discovered for weeks. You need to pay utility bills, so the power stays on and the water keeps flowing. Then there are appearances: Make sure the yard is maintained and snow is shoveled, as a property that looks abandoned is more likely to be vandalized. To keep up appearances, you can hire a handyman or lawn maintenance crew — maybe the people who did this work for your parents when they were alive, or someone recommended by a real estate agent. Or you could simply pay a neighbor or family friend to do the work. If you aren’t yet able to access an estate’s bank account to pay these expenses, keep an itemized list of payments in order to be reimbursed later.

You want to maintain insurance on the house and let the insurance company know the home is vacant, advises Joe Allen, a real estate broker at RE/MAX Results in Edina, Minnesota. Otherwise, the insurer might not pay a claim for theft and damage, he says. Instead, you can buy a vacant building insurance policy, which will cost more but protect you against losses.

If siblings can’t take on maintenance responsibilities, you’ll have to rely on a neighbor to make regular checks or hire a property manager. Ask your real estate agent for a recommendation. “They may be able to help you manage the property or provide you with the contacts you need,” Allen says.

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Now cleared of important personal belongings, the Tannazzo home can be shown to potential buyers.
Courtesy Jaclyn Tannazzo

Prepare for the sale

Talk to your real estate agent about how much work the house needs to ready it for the market. What holds true for an inherited home is the same as for any home, says Meredith Moore, CEO of Artisan Financial Strategies in Atlanta: Don’t invest in renovations if you’re unlikely to get much more money out of the sale than what you’ll put in. “Just get it sold,” Moore says. Unless your agent recommends an “as is” sale, make the home as clean as possible, painting and fixing any glaring problems.

If the house has any modifications to accommodate an aging parent, Phillips suggests removing them and making consequent repairs. She and her siblings, for example, hired someone to remove the stair lift in their late mother’s home, then sand and stain the stairs. “I would also recommend removing anything on the outside of the home such as ramps,” she says. “These are often makeshift and can be unsightly.”

Finally, be aware that clearing your parents’ possessions from the house to make it presentable and salable may be a painful process preventing you from moving forward. Because this task was slowing her down, Jacyln Tannazzo ended up hiring someone to clear her parents’ house and store certain items so she and her sister could go through them later. “I used to joke with my mom that ‘You’ve got to get rid of this stuff, ” Tannazzo says. “And she’d say, ‘Oh, that’s your problem someday.’ And she was right. It was.”

How to sell your parents’ home … while they’re still alive

Ideally, your parents have at least one of two legal setups in place, says Lawrence Cohen, an attorney in Melville, New York. One is that they have created a durable power of attorney, which gives you the right to transact business on their behalf. The other is that your parents have transferred their home into a trust and you have the authority as a trustee — in some cases, via a power of attorney — to manage the assets in the trust.

If no power of attorney or trust is in place and a surviving parent is unable to transact business for himself or herself due to incapacity, then you might have to petition a court in their state of residence to be appointed your parent’s guardian. This can take several months and numerous legal fees to get sorted out.

“It’s a long enough time that the home could fall into disrepair or it could require the family members to have to finance the upkeep while this process is going on,” Cohen says. “Hopefully, there is a family member who has an interest in the personal and financial well-being of the individual. However, if there is no one, there would be a court-appointed person.”

If you’re able, continue to care for the house and make payments to bills such as the mortgage on your parent’s behalf to maintain the property value. Cohen recommends keeping an accounting with detailed copies of paid invoices as well as any record of your own payments.

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