Cover story: Cleanup for sale includes storage areas

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Most homeowners realize it’s important to clean a home that’s going on the market and often do a fairly good job of cleaning and decluttering the main rooms of a house.

Unfortunately, that often comes at the expense of shoving the overflow into attics, basements, garages and closets.

Real estate experts warn that this can be a costly mistake and urge sellers to clean out and showcase those areas as well.

Patricia Ebrahimi, owner of Show Smart Home Staging in Rockville, pointed out that potential buyers often are in the market for storage.

“They’re buying square footage and a home for their own stuff,” she said. “If the closets are jampacked, and the basement, attic and garage are loaded to the gills, people come away with the impression that there’s not enough storage in the house.”

Mary Ann Ferraguto, a professional organizer and owner of SHED Organizing Services in Alexandria, agreed that storage space is a key selling point in a home.

“It’s expensive to rent a storage unit every month, so if there’s a big, clean, empty room in the basement, people will think, ‘I can save money by storing my stuff here,’” she said.

Kim Muffler, a Realtor for Long & Foster in Alexandria, said even an unfinished basement can be an asset because it can be touted as potential for future growth.

“If your family grows, you don’t have to move out because you have this large, clean room that can be turned into a family room,” she said. “It must smell nice — it can’t be moldy or mildewy because that indicates dampness and water problems.”

Boxes can be in the basement, but they must be neatly lined up against the perimeter walls, Ms. Muffler said, adding that the same rule applies to garages.

“The garage has to be empty enough to show that one car or two cars can fit in it,” she said.

To make a garage really sing, Ms. Ebrahimi advised emptying it out, painting the walls bright white and painting the floor brick red.

“It’s a clean, inviting look,” she said, adding that it’s easy to find cement paint at most hardware stores.

To tackle closets, Ms. Ebrahimi said the magic ratio is 80-20: “eighty percent empty, the remaining 20 percent beautifully displayed. Have nothing on the floor because this gives the illusion of space.”

Ms. Muffler said she tells her sellers to get rid of mismatched dry-cleaner hangers and instead invest in padded, streamlined hangers for a more uniform, organized look. “Put all the pants together, all the shirts — make sure the shoes and bags are orderly,” she said.

The experts agreed that the attic does not need to be pristine, but the items in it must be boxed neatly. Ms. Ebrahimi noted that a messy, crowded attic makes potential buyers leery about the homeowners’ intent to sell.

“It doesn’t look as if the sellers are serious about moving because it would take forever to get that stuff moved out,” she said.

Don’t forget, too, that the home inspector will have to have access in the attic, Ms. Muffler added. “So you may as well get that in order.”

Ms. Muffler said the cleaner and neater a home is, the faster it will sell and the closer the owners will come to getting their asking price.

“You want to be proactive, not reactive,” she said. “If a house sits and sits, the owners will come around and start taking necessary steps, but by then the house is stigmatized, and they’re going to get a lower price.”

The two weeks following Labor Day mark the start of the fall real estate market, Ms. Muffler noted.

“Call in a professional organizer if you don’t have time to declutter on your own,” she advised.

Professional organizer Ms. Ferraguto explained that she won’t take on any jobs less than three hours long (at a rate of $195 and $45 for each additional hour) and that she also won’t go longer than six hours in any given day. The total decluttering duration depends on the size and scope of the home and its contents, she said, adding that it is faster and easier if the homeowner assists her.

“I’m not comfortable throwing away anyone’s possessions,” she said. “It’s better if the homeowner is there to make the decisions.”

Hiring a professional organizer before a move is a sound decision, Ms. Ferraguto said.

“Let’s face it, no one wants to open moving boxes at their destination and think: ‘I just paid someone to move THIS?!’ ” she said.

Patricia Turgeon, a stay-at-home mother in Ashburn, Va., agreed that it’s smart to purge before a move.

“Get rid of the Christmas tree that’s not going to fit in the new house, get rid of old clothing, think about how unrealistic it is that your kids are going to want their old cribs,” she said, pointing out that all of those items are good candidates for donation. “Think about the needy in your community. Times are tough right now for a lot of people.”

Ms. Turgeon added that cleanliness — in all areas of the house — has been a huge factor for her family in terms of both selling and buying houses.

“Our last house sold in less than a week, and the offer was within $5,000 of our asking price,” she said. “I wanted everything to be as clean as possible because I assume the person buying the house will want the same things I want.”

When she and her family bought their next home, it was important to Ms. Turgeon that it be a turnkey house.

“We were literally able to move in and put things into cabinets, closets, pantries and not have to worry about cleaning them out first,” she said. “It made a huge difference.”

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