04/04/2011 11:35 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2011

Home Sellers in the Mood for a Malady

Whenever I'm representing a home seller these days, I'm tempted to swap my suit for some scrubs. As an attorney, I take it in stride when a homeowner needs their thorny title issues treated or building department woes made well, but these days, I have no remedies for what's ailing sellers.

On the surface, home sellers seem reluctantly realistic. Market-based offers are grabbed and contracts are generated (I've drafted more in the past six weeks than I did all of May-September 2010). Yet as the market turns from timid to tepid, a litany of infirmities accompanies many of the deals.

Facing contracts signed by buyers, sellers convert my conference table into a consultation room. They squirm or fidget while rattling off their symptoms. "This deal makes my stomach churn," groaned one. "As soon as I said 'OK' I started feeling nauseous," moaned another. A third complained that his "head hasn't stopped pounding" since accepting the offer.

During 29 years of practicing real estate law, I've survived some very down markets, but I have never seen one so under the weather. I'm not a gastroenterologist, so how do I help when a client's chief complaint is that a contract makes her queasy? Since I'm not a psychiatrist, what treatment should I recommend after a home seller laments, "I can't sleep, I can't eat, I can't stop sighing"? A seller who declares, "I feel my blood pressure rising just sitting here," should visit a cardiologist, not a counselor-at-law!

A seller recently sat across from me and confessed, "I feel so sick about this deal that I might end up in the hospital." I inquired why he was agreeing to terms that threatened his well-being. Was he behind in his mortgage, was he trying to beat a scheduled foreclosure sale, or did he have other financial woes? Whatever it was, perhaps I could help him work out some short-term solution until a deal came along he found more acceptable. Alternatively, we might explore a permanent way to work out his trouble. He rejected my offers, saying, "I have to sell because I can't afford to stay on Long Island. I'm going to live with my son in [another state]. As if that didn't make me feel like enough of a failure, I'm getting way less than I paid for the house five years ago, so I haven't slept a wink in weeks."

My job is to help homeowners transition seamlessly into successful sellers. That playbook used to be centered on keeping deals healthy and sound. The game plan has shifted as even fit-as-a-fiddle transactions may cause some sellers to experience serious side effects. As for me, I don't need to hang a stethoscope around my neck to diagnose a diseased market.