The Seller's First Response: Probe Bid

Posted by urbandigs

Mon Apr 14th, 2008 09:00 AM

A: After almost four years in real estate sales now, I have gone through my fair share of both buy & sell side negotiations. One thing that seems consistent with almost ALL the deals I do, is that the seller's first response to your initial bid is a reliable indicator as to where you might have to go to get a deal done! Lets discuss the seller's first response to your initial probe bid and whether this information gathering strategy may be right for you. Originally Posted February, 26, 2007


Its the most challenging part of my buy-side consulting for clients since I attempt to get the lowest price possible for my buyer, I have to hope the seller agrees to that price range. In the end, buyer clients must understand that it is not my decision whether or not the seller will respond to our low-ball bidding strategy. And it's not my decision how low the seller is willing to go to do a deal with you! If there is one thing I learned after 3 1/2 years it is this:

Every seller is unique and under a personal set of circumstances when selling their home. Just because a building's 1BR's are trading for $900/sft, doesn't mean the seller of the property you are interested in will sell it around that price point! If there is no time pressure to sell or the seller is just testing the market, then bidding $1,000/sft for the property still may not get the desired result.
In fact, a complimentary side effect of this principle is that assuming the seller is really looking to sell their property than there is a price range already pre-determined as to what the seller would like to move the property for. The question that remains is how big is this 'acceptable range' and how quickly the seller wants to move the property; the faster the need to sell the lower the price is likely to be.

Which brings me to this conclusion:
Assuming the seller is not testing the market and is really looking to sell, it will be the FIRST RESPONSE to your initial bid that will give you the best look at the poker hand the seller is holding
I use a poker analogy because of the incredible strategy and observational skill needed to play a good hold em' tourney from beginning to end. A similar scenario could be argued for housing negotiations.

Probe Bet: A bet made primarily to gain information by gauging opponents' reactions, especially a small bet made in pot-limit or no-limit games.

In poker, I like to send out what are called 'probe bets' every once in a while to see if I can gather ANY information at all from my opponents as to the strength of their hand. Even if I am holding a weak hand and planning a bluff strategy, a probe bet can be very useful in either winning the hand right there or saving me from an eventual big loss.

In real estate, the initial bid could be considered a 'probe bid' to see where the seller stands as far as their need to sell. If you get a very quick and aggressive response, well then you know you have a seller who is looking to sell quickly and is taking your bid seriously; giving you a tactical advantage. If you get only a slight response two days after your initial bid, then you know the seller is looking for a certain price range and may not be as motivated to sell right now for a lower than expected price. If you get no response, then you know the seller is under no time pressure at all and is likely to be testing the market; or your bid was simply too far below the seller's intended 'acceptable range'.

In all situations, it was the first response to the initial bid that set the groundwork for what is to come next. Sometimes your strategy will fail, and you have to be prepared for that; especially if you are using a low-ball bidding strategy. Other times you will get a very desirable response and your only decision left is how to play the rest of the ping-pong game.

It's impossible to set up one formula or theory that applies to all situations, so I leave it up to you and your buyer broker to discover for yourself. However, if you have read all the way down to here and still don't get what I'm saying, maybe this chart can help you visualize the importance of the seller's first response.

APT X IS ASKING $500,000 (say $850/sft) AND IS PRICED RIGHT

Situation 1 - Low Ball: Your initial bid of $425,000 gets no response. Obviously the seller knows the property is priced right and has a tight range of 'acceptable price' that is needed to make a deal happen. In this case I would advise my buyer client that a bid of at least $475,000 or so is needed to get the property. Since the apartment is priced right from the get go, the seller is not interested in buyers who are playing bidding games or not-motivated to proceed to the next step.

Situation 2 - Fair Bid: Your initial bid of $450,000 (10% below ask) gets a response of $485,000. Again, the property is priced right and the seller is telling you that there isn't much more room for negotiations! While your bid of $450,000 is a bit low for a properly priced apartment, the seller acknowledges and respects your bid by providing you with a response. The response of $485,000 tells me that you will need to come up more than the seller will likely come down to get a deal done. I would probably advise my client to bid $470,000 next and expect a response of mid-way from the seller.

Situation 3 - Aggressive Bid: Your initial bid of $475,000 gets a response of $487,500 from the seller; halfway. While you may feel like you didn't leave yourself much room for negotiating and getting the lowest price possible, you did tell the seller that you are a serious buyer and that you understand the property was priced properly from the start. At this point you have 2 choices. Either you stand firm and tell the seller that your initial bid is your most aggressive bid that you are comfortable making with the hopes of them accepting it OR you move to $480,000 to get the deal done. I don't see how a seller who responds to your initial bid of $475,000 with a counter of $487,500 will say NO to your $480,000 2nd bid.


A tough feat to accomplish, but not impossible. Most developers will not budge in their set asking prices for units, leaving the buyer with a decision to make. Either the buyer sucks it up and pays full ask + sponsor closing costs OR you try to negotiate an incentive on the passed down closing fees that the sponsor asks all buyers to pay.

This is not meant to discourage you from trying to bid below what a developer is asking for a particular property, only to tell you that in many situations you will not get the desired result. You are at a disadvantage in the sense that transparency comes in only one form; what is being told to you. The information regarding percentage sold, remaining units, future price amendments, previously negotiated deals, traffic activity of sales office, desperation of the developer, etc.. are all pieces of information that either you do not have or must trust what is told to you by sales representatives. This leaves you bidding blind, trying to get the best deal possible. I find that there is a better chance offering full ask, and working on an incentive with closing costs the better strategy. Of course, this assumes the price is OK with the buyer's comfort zone!

Like all negotiating situations, the only way you will know for sure if NO to your lower bid really means 'NO', is by backing out of the deal and leaving the seller with a few days of 'thinking about losing the deal' to see if they won't come back to you! You must be willing to play hard-ball and risk losing the deal as well, if you want to give your low bid any chance of succeeding after a 'NO' response was already given back to you. Hopefully the seller will cave first.

UrbanDigs Says: Use your initial bid as a probe bid to see what the seller's reaction will be. Many times you will be able to get a lot of good information from a solid probe bid that will give you an idea of where you might have to go to get a deal done. In the end, every deal ends up at one price that is suitable for both the buyer and seller. So the question is, are you comfortable with where the seller is looking to move the property at. Since it is no one's decision but the seller's to ultimately make that decision to move at a requested price, the buyer must do all they can to find out the range where that requested price falls into!