Consumer GuidesMoving & Storage

Preparing a House for Sale

So you’re going to sell your home and, of course, you want to get the best possible price. You’ll want to start by making a list of needed projects and involving a real estate agent.

Getting started: Your first step in preparing your home for sale is to create an overall list of things to do. This consumer guide can help, but you would also do well to consult with an experienced real estate agent who regularly handles properties in your neighborhood. If you are still trying to decide which real estate agent to list your home with, creating a things-to-do list is a good get-to-know-you exercise that will tell you a great deal about a real estate agent’s experience and how comfortable you are working with him or her.

(Preparing a list will also help should you decide to sell your home on your own, since you will still need to fix up prior to putting it on the market.)

Involving a real estate agent: Involving the real estate agent as you make your list is important for two reasons. First, an agent experienced in working with homes in your neighborhood is the most qualified person to tell you how your home will be perceived by potential buyers who shop in your market. For instance, an experienced real estate agent can tell you whether the kitchen needs painting or needs a new floor or new countertops. Second, a real estate agent is objective and will see your home through the eyes of an outsider, just as potential buyers will. Things that look perfectly fine to you, because you’ve been looking at them for years and years, may stand out as needing attention in the eyes of an objective observer.

Listening to objective advice: While real estate agents can be great resources, they are nearly useless if you make it clear that you don’t want any bad news. We all become quite emotionally attached to our homes. In many ways, our home is an extension of ourselves, and it is difficult to have someone tell us that the shade of paint we picked out for the den is a liability in selling the house. We are bound to be a little hurt and will often respond by, in effect, shooting the messenger—our Realtor’s reward for providing what he or she feels is good advice. Instead, we should make a decision up front: do we want good advice or do we want to hear only what makes us feel good? Just hearing what makes us feel good can be expensive when the final sale price for your home is determined. A house that doesn’t show well can also take a long time to sell. A Realtor does not want to lose a listing, so if we make it clear that we don’t want to hear anything critical about our home, he or she won’t offer such information.

Making Your List

You’ve found an experienced local real estate agent, and you’ve made it clear in voice and action that you want a clear analysis of what needs to be done to prepare your home for sale. Using the following discussion of six major factors as your guide, you can systematically develop a list of what will need to be done and why. Your real estate agent can help with the details and help decide how far to go with each project.

Curb Appeal. One of the most important issues in determining the salability of your house is how inviting potential buyers find it from the street or curb. It doesn’t really matter how inviting you find the house, because whether the house is inviting to you or not is based on a whole range of factors that may be incomprehensible to a newcomer. Your real estate agent, as a newcomer with no special emotional attachment to your house, is in a better position to evaluate your home’s appearance in a way that approximates what a prospective buyer sees.

Curb appeal is critical because many prospective buyers will only drive by your home. If they decide to go on without stopping, they’re no longer a prospect and your odds of selling at a good price just dropped. Ideally, you want every person who stops and looks at the house from the curb to be sufficiently enamored that they want to come in and see more. Once inside the house, they have an opportunity to establish the emotional connections that really drive buying decisions. Curb appeal is made up of three primary components: the front entrance, the rest of the front of the house, and landscaping.

First among the roughly equal considerations for curb appeal is the front entrance. The front door, porch and any surrounding windows and structures form the focal point for the eye and for the heart as well. The importance this image carries is out of proportion to the relatively small part of the field of vision it occupies. The door needs to look sharp. A fresh coat of paint is usually a good idea: If the door does not have a small roofed area, the addition of one can sometimes dramatically improve the overall look of the house. Freshly painted or polished door hardware can also make it more attractive. Easy-to-see house numbers, a freshly-painted mail box, and attractive, functioning porch lights are also important. The doorbell should work reliably. Railings should be in good repair and freshly painted. Sometimes a drab entrance can be dressed up with a couple of substantial potted plants.

After checking out the entrance way and adding to your to-do list, look at the rest of the front of the house. Is the siding clean? Is the paint in good shape? Are shutters in good condition, freshly painted and hung straight? Are the windows clean, free of spider webs and vines and in good repair? If you have old-fashioned windows with putty coming out and paint peeling, it probably makes more sense to replace them with modern thermal windows than it does to try to restore them. Are the gutters clean and sharp looking and hung securely?

The third major component of curb appeal is the landscaping.

This includes the lawn, plants and such structures as retaining walls, walks and steps. Getting the lawn in shape usually takes the better part of a year, depending on when you start, so planning is important. The lawn doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want it to be one of the nicer lawns among homes that are logical competitors to yours. Your real estate agent can help you figure out how far you need to go. The trees and shrubs need to be well trimmed. Many older homes have overgrown shrubs that hide the house and make it look smaller than it really is. This is rarely a plus to buyers. Garden beds need to be well defined and freshly mulched. Sometimes the addition of a few flowers or flowering shrubs can really dress up a house. Walks, steps and walls should be in good shape. If the front walk is starting to break up, sometimes the best bet is to have a mason apply a top layer of brick or flagstone over the old concrete. In this way a minus gets converted into a substantial plus.

Once you’ve checked out those factors that drive curb appeal, you need to look at any major deficiencies in the rest of the home. A leaking roof or wet basement should be dealt with in advance. Often, part-way solutions aren’t enough. If a discerning eye can tell that the roof is at the end of its useful life, a repair on a leaking portion probably won’t suffice. People will still assume they need a new roof and typically reduce their offering price by an amount greater than the cost of the new roof. Some people will rule out your home because they just don’t like dealing with such things as roof replacements. The same is true for wet basements. If you think it’s a grading problem and do some regrading work, it may or may not take care of the situation.

Many people will assume the problem still exists and will be looking for the assurance provided by a sump-pump system. Today, disclosure requirements and the associated liabilities make it mandatory not to hide current and potential problems.

Kitchens and bathrooms present their own deficiency problems. The question is whether renovating a kitchen or bath or adding a bath will pay for itself (or more than pay for itself) by way of an increased selling price. As a general rule, a kitchen perceived as a negative when compared to other houses on the market needs to be addressed. If it’s not completely up to date but is on a par with the other houses in the market, no major changes need be made. If you do need to fix it up, your home seller should be able to guide you as to what is really necessary. Often a fresh coat of paint (even on the cabinets), a new countertop and a new floor are sufficient to bring a kitchen up to speed without great expense.

The same is generally true of bathrooms. People often contemplate adding a bath or making a half-bath into a full bath, but this only makes sense if your lack of baths is likely to be perceived as a marketing negative. Again, your home seller will likely know what other houses on the market have or don’t have and how buyers perceive that.

The next major issue to consider when getting your house ready for sale is often the least expensive and the most troublesome: getting rid of clutter. Most people are totally convinced that their homes aren’t cluttered, so the advice of an honest outsider is critical. Because we tend to acquire the furniture, knick-knacks, and doodads of clutter over many years, we aren’t even aware of the accumulation of goods. The net effect of clutter, whether caused by expensive art, luxurious couches, classic books, or any other kind of valuable or worthless stuff, is to make rooms look smaller and darker. Getting rid of all the stuff is difficult because we’ve typically become quite attached to it. What can you do?

First, you have to decide to do it. Nearly all homes will show better if from 30% to 50% of the clutter is removed. Typically such material reductions are called for when moving time comes anyway, but it is still difficult for people to figure out what they are willing to part with. To help you see the effect of clutter, go to other people’s open houses. Go into a room, walk back out immediately, and visualize in your mind how big the room is. Then go back into the room and see how accurate your visualization was. When we look toward a wall and see an unbroken series of furnishings, our mind notes the length of the room up to the front edge formed by all those furnishings. Walk into a similar room with a few furnishings spread out in front of a wall and your mind’s eye notes the room’s dimension extending all the way to the wall. Apply that same perceptual difference to all four walls and you begin to see how much difference the clutter makes in how large or small a room “feels.”

If you are unable to take on the clutter problem effectively, the next best way to avoid the problem (or at least delay it) is to put things into storage until you’re ready to sort through them or move. On rare occasions, people get carried away with clutter reduction. If rooms are so barren that they feel cold, sterile or unlived in, prospective buyers will not be able to relate emotionally to them.

Ironically, getting rid of clutter, while time consuming and emotionally difficult, is usually the only preparation that leaves you with more money than you started with! Whether you have a yard sale, have someone else conduct a sale at your home, or even donate it all to charity and take the tax deduction, you’ll be surprised at how much money it’s all worth. The most organized and disciplined home sellers often realize enough money from their yard sale to pay for many of the other improvements and spruce-ups necessary to get the home ready for sale. You save again with reduced moving expenses later on!

The next area of concern in getting your home ready to sell is all of the interior surfaces. Carpets, walls, floors, countertops and ceilings should all be reviewed with a critical eye.

Regardless of the surface, if you are going to refurbish it, choose neutral colors. It doesn’t really matter whether you like the color. What really matters is that as few people as possible will dislike the color. With paint, that nearly always means an off-white. With floors, stick to lighter colors in the most popular patterns. If you are unclear about what direction to go in, go to a couple of open houses in new home developments and see what patterns and colors they have used. They usually spend quite a bit of money determining which furnishings will do the most to help them sell their houses. (While you’re there, check out the clutter level in their models: your goal is to reach that level!)

In most cases, if you haven’t done much painting recently, it makes sense to repaint the entire inside. Sometimes it is hard to anticipate what a difference it will make. Even white walls become yellowed over time. The process is so gradual we can’t see it, and the old wall still looks white, but after a fresh coat of paint the wall becomes much brighter and cleaner. Don’t make the mistake of planning for piece-meal painting—a wall here, a ceiling there—because when you repaint one surface in a room, the contrast makes the old finishes look much worse and you end up needing to repaint everything anyway.

If carpets are in good shape, a thorough professional cleaning will usually suffice. If they are old and ratty, stained or musty smelling, you are better off either replacing them or removing them and sprucing up the floor underneath. Hardwood floors are quite popular again, so if you are lucky enough to have those under the carpet, consider removing the carpet and refinishing the floors. If the hardwood floors are in good shape, a simple refinishing will usually do the trick. If they are stained and worn, they will probably have to be sanded and then refinished.

In bathrooms and kitchens, replacing a tired old vinyl floor can really brighten things up. Use good quality (but not necessarily the best quality) materials, and avoid patterns and colors that are overly exciting to you. In general, if you get really excited about a color or pattern, it is a color or pattern you should avoid.

In checking all of your plumbing and electrical fixtures, a systematic approach is best. Go through each room and try every electrical outlet by plugging in a portable lamp. Test every light switch, replacing bulbs when necessary. In general, you want the maximum wattage bulb permissible for the fixture. Light sells!

In each bathroom, check each faucet. Don’t forget the shower and bathtub. Note any that are leaking or otherwise in need of servicing. Also note any tile or caulking problems. Caulking deserves special attention. If a prospective buyer comes into a bathroom and sees layers and layers of caulk, he or she will assume that you have a frustrating leak (and who wants to inherit frustration?). Your best bet is to remove all the old caulking around the shower or tub and re-caulk. If you use masking tape to assure even edges and your finger for a smooth finish, you can make the tub look sharp, turning a liability into an asset.

As you form your list of projects to prepare your home for sale, make sure your home ends up with a couple of distinctive features. Perhaps you already live next to a park, have a nice wooded lot, or have a Victorian gazebo in the back yard. These become “talking points” that help your real estate agent and others entice potential buyers to your home. If your home is lacking in talking points, and you are doing a number of repairs, look for opportunities to expand one or two of the repair projects into something distinctive. Freshly refinished hardwood floors would be a good talking point. If you have to replace a rotted back porch, consider enlarging it to a small deck at the same time.

The idea is to embellish and highlight certain features that don’t require much additional expense. Often, one of the places this is most easily accomplished is landscaping. If you need to do a fair amount of work out front anyway, consider investing a bit more and making it into a showpiece. A talking point that also contributes to curb appeal can be very effective. Keep in mind that you’re beefing up an activity that you’re going to do anyway. It will rarely make financial sense to undertake a major improvement unless the item or feature needs substantial work.

What to Do with Your List

You have now identified everything that you will need to do to prepare your home for sale. Look at your overall list and decide which things you want to handle yourself. Keep in mind that sorting through the clutter will take a lot longer than you anticipate. For that matter, nearly all do-it-yourself projects take longer than you think, so be realistic about what you can accomplish on your own. In general, you will save if you do it yourself, but things like roofing and floor refinishing are almost always better left to the pros. You want to avoid a lot of last minute hassle and expense having pros coming out to do things that you never got around to, and you don’t want to risk putting yourself in the position of having to show the house before it’s really ready.

Your next step is to group projects by type. Group all plumbing things together. Sometimes plumbing companies also deal with heating issues, so they can be grouped together as well. Then group electrical to-dos. Don’t forget phones, doorbells, thermostats and outside lights. Small carpentry and drywall repairs can usually be handled by either painters or anyone doing major repairs or remodeling for you. Roofers can usually handle exterior caulking and anything to do with vinyl or aluminum siding or gutters. It is often difficult to find someone for a very small job. If you can’t do it yourself, try to pair it with a larger project or group of projects to make an attractive overall job for a contractor. Grouping things in this manner will usually also save you money and time.

Your final step to is lay out the order of projects so that everything happens in logical sequence and not all at the last minute.

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