Selling Less for More

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Realtors Advise Cleaning Clutter, Spending Money to Attract Homebuyers

When it comes to selling your house, less is more. That means less of everything: clutter, knick knacks, dirt, aging appliances and big-dollar issues that would most likely come up during a home inspection.

For her house hunt, Evelyn Frasure, 31, wanted her new abode to come with an Alexandria, Va., address, a decent kitchen, and loads of historic charm and character. She found her blank slate in the form of a 100-year-old brick Colonial in Old Town Alexandria.

It was love at first site, and she moved in at the start of the new year. “It had a really good strong set of bones,” said Frasure. “The investment potential in this house is just enormous. Old houses are one of a kind.”

Frasure looked at roughly 30 homes throughout the metropolitan Washington area, seeing everything from fixer-uppers to new condominiums. She finally settled on a place that presented the greatest opportunity to settle down and imprint her personal decorating stamp.

The house came with hardwood floors, the plaster was intact, the walls were white (which makes for easy painting), and the kitchen and bathrooms were in good enough condition to live in for now—and they’ll be even better when upgraded.

For homebuyers such as Frasure, realtors say a home’s first impression is critical, so it’s up to the sellers to set the stage, according to Northern Virginia realtor Susan Sheedy, who has been in the real estate business for 15 years and currently works in the Annandale, Va., office of Long and Foster.

That stage begins with curb appeal, which is difficult to do in the middle of winter without gorgeous blooms in the yard. Sheedy though has mastered the art of setting the winter stage by using berries and holly to welcome prospective buyers. It also doesn’t hurt to weed and mulch the yard, rake the leaves, and clean out those gutters. “A home has to have a feeling of welcome-ness,” she said.

Once inside, the home must be clean and sparse, starting with a fresh smell, which means no pet odors or perfumes. The home should also be thoroughly scrubbed, particularly the kitchen and bathrooms.

Other cheap must-do fix-its include cleaning the carpet and oven range; vacuuming the dust bunnies and dog hair; repainting walls with a neutral color (if you’ve got chair rail decorative molding, keep it white and make sure it stands out against earth-toned walls); waxing the cabinets and dressing them up with new knobs; wiping the handprints off stainless-steel appliances; recycling those beer and wine bottles; and losing your junk. That means personal items—from family photos and awards to magnets on the refrigerator and sponges in the kitchen sink—need to disappear while potential buyers move through the space.

Why? It’s important for buyers to imagine their own things in the home. Experts say sellers should rent a storage unit for personal effects during this time, and they recommend keeping only the bare minimum in the show home. It looks pleasing to the eye and allows people to traverse the space easily.

“The seller needs to put away these items—no shoving of anything in the corner of the basement,” Sheedy advised. “Or they’ll put it in the furnace room and that’s terrible. It’s just a turn-off.”

Another serious no-no when you’re trying to sell a home is water damage. “If people see things wrong with the place, they’re not going to come back,” said Shawn Battle, a realtor with Greater Washington Realty. “It’s going to raise questions. If there is a leak in the ceiling, a seller should take the house off the market and get it repaired.”

Battle, 31, said he’s seen some awful things in homes that were for sale. Two years ago, for instance, he went through a house that literally had garbage, including chicken bones, scattered all over the basement floor. Incidentally, that house sold—trash and all—because of the competitive real estate market during the time.

But something like that wouldn’t fly in today’s cooling market. These days, especially while the real estate market gets back on track, sellers must follow simple rules—among them is the need to accommodate homebuyers with reasonable times to look at the property. Because most people work during the day, homebuyers tend to use their evenings to look at homes, which is unwise because realtors say buyers miss the full picture due to improper light. Sheedy cited the example of one of her clients, a couple where the husband is in medical school and the wife stays at home with their four children. But the wife takes a regular nap in the early afternoon, which presents an inconvenience to buyers.

In the end, it’s simply unrealistic for sellers to keep their lifestyles intact while their homes are for sale. Sheedy recognizes, for example, that it’s difficult for sellers to put away all of their things. “All sellers are inconvenienced when their house is on the market,” she said. “From an agent’s point of view, you have to be really gentle with them. It’s like living in a fishbowl—it’s got to be sparse so it looks bigger.”

If the house is clean and sparse, what else should sellers do? There are several remodeling-type activities that can be done to bolster the bottom line. This part of the process can produce healthy rewards—and a bigger offer once a buyer is hooked—but it starts with financing.

A sizable budget to “finish” the home can plant various upgrades throughout the property, but sellers will receive the greatest bang for their buck by focusing on the kitchen and bathrooms. “It’s where people live,” said Suzanne Petrie, an associate broker with RE/MAX Allegiance. “Kitchens and bathrooms can become dated. You notice the age of a house more often when you walk into a kitchen or a bathroom.”

Battle agreed. “If you don’t have the quality [in kitchens and bathrooms], the house is going to sit longer,” he said.

Consider also that the higher the price level of the home, the more homeowners will expect granite counters and stainless-steel appliances in the kitchen, in addition to nice tiles and larger cabinetry in the bathrooms, as well as upgraded patios and hardwood floors throughout the home. “If buyers see some of these goodies on the lower [financial] end, those properties will sell real quick,” Petrie noted.

Finishing touches can include upgraded light fixtures, and a nice vase with flowers is always a plus.

But remember: No listing is perfect. Don’t despair if your home requires a couple of months’ worth of repair because of a little deferred maintenance. For example, finishing that basement will go a long way in the home’s sale. “There’s always stuff to be done because it’s the agent’s eyes looking now and not the sellers,” Sheedy said.

And even now, buyers remain cautious, although realtors are already seeing a turnaround in the market, with January being an especially good month for the area. “The market has improved some, but it’s not yet the buyer’s market of spring 2005,” Petrie said. “We’re not back there, but we’re seeing buyers coming out.”

Home Selling Tips

Realtors say a home’s first impression is critical, and it’s up to the sellers to set the stage. Here are a few key points to consider when selling:

• Remember curb appeal. Weed and mulch the yard, rake the leaves, and clean out gutters to make buyers want to come inside.

• Clean inside, especially the bathrooms and kitchen, and leave a fresh smell.

• Repaint walls with a neutral color.

• Reduce clutter and put away personal family items so buyers can imagine their own things in the home.

• Be willing to accommodate homebuyers with reasonable times to look at the property.

• Consider making upgrades and adding finishing touches, especially in the kitchen and bathrooms, to help bolster the bottom line.

About the Author

Christine Cub

Last Edited on November 29, 1999