- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

Patricia Vucich says the first thing she did when she bought her Silver Spring home nine years ago "was rip the aluminum door off the front of my house." She pauses, then adds, "with my screwdriver." Wielding that screwdriver against unsightly aluminum storm doors is at the top of the list of things she recommends homeowners do before putting a house on the market.

"One thing I really dislike is seeing an attractive house with a cheesy old storm door on the front," she says.

Miss Vucich is an associate broker with RE/MAX Capital Realtors in Northwest Washington, and she is talking about curb appeal.

When homeowners list their houses for sale with her, "I ask them to remove the [storm] door or change it. If you do nothing, get rid of that door and get another," she says. "My priorities are cut the grass, remove any physical obstruction [such as a broken step] that might cause the seller and me liability, and get that aluminum door off the front of the house."

Of course, there are other projects to improve curb appeal the industry jargon for a potential buyer's first impression. Miss Vucich recommends painting the front porch and front door if needed, washing the glass in the front door and sweeping the driveway and sidewalk.

"Install a few small spots of bright-colored flowers somewhere near the front entrance to the house," she says. "If a seller has to or wants to economize, I tell them to focus on the front of the house and do minimum or no work on the rear and the sides except they must remove lawn equipment, kids' toys, [and] clean up the dog doo."

Cleanliness tops other Realtors' lists, too.

"The most important thing is to have it clean and mulched," says Rosie Harsch, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Tysons Corner. "Most of the time, paint the front door. Plant some petunias. Put a wreath on the front door. Anything to make it warm and inviting.

"But clean is so crucial for curb appeal," she says. "At a minimum, clean it up, mulch, have minimum landscaping. I'd say paint the front door, have the trim around the house, especially in front at least, puttied and repainted."

A major refurbishing, however, is not likely to pay off, Mrs. Harsch says.

"A lot of people are getting into the 'hardscape' and the landscape. People can spend $50,000 or $60,000 in such 'hardscaping' as brick fronts, brick stoops and stone walls," she says. "That's the kind of thing you should just do for yourself. You can't get it back."

But "if the driveway needs paving, you ought to get it done," she says.

"It's sort of like when you first meet a person," says Peter Saturni of Llewellyn Realtors in Rockville. "You check their mannerisms. You get a feel for them."

Homes give first impressions, too, he says. "It's like when you first drive up to a home, is the brick dirty? In good condition? Are the shutters dirty? Is the roof dirty? The gutter clogged?" Mr. Saturni says.

Overgrown shrubbery, he notes, "actually makes the house look smaller."

Shrubbery also can obstruct the entrance, too, Miss Vucich says. "Some people value privacy and deliberately screen their house from view," she says. "Some people want a house that can be viewed from the street and cause people to stop and say, 'Wow, look at that.' In my opinion, less is more when it comes to landscaping and selling a house."

"Years ago, a friend of mine bought a house in McLean, and she maintained mature shrubs and bushes around the house for privacy. When she went to sell the house, the house stayed on the market until she cut down many of the huge old shrubs and bushes so you could see the house from the road," Miss Vucich says. "It didn't have any curb appeal because you couldn't view the house."

On the other hand, Mike DeChant, an appraiser and regional sales manager of Land America OneStop in Rockville, says a lack of landscaping can be detrimental to a home's value.

If homes in your neighborhood have $5,000 in landscaping out front and you have none, your house's value will suffer in comparison.

But, he warns, don't overdo it. It probably won't increase the value of your house if you install twice as much landscaping.

"You have diminishing returns if you do too much," he says, although much depends on the market. "Superior landscaping might add to appraisal, although it's an opinion business."

Asked what a seller can do for curb appeal that will pay off in a higher appraisal, Mr. DeChant says that question is "tougher than it sounds" because "as appraisers we're supposed to be objective," measuring what a typical buyer can expect to get in a given neighborhood from a typical seller.

"Curb appeal is different in a $50,000 neighborhood and a $500,000 neighborhood. It's driven by the market or the houses contained in that market," he says. What is typical for one neighborhood is not typical for another, he says, and comparable houses in a given neighborhood have an influence on what is typical for any one house.

This is another reason for a seller to examine the neighborhood, Miss Vucich says, particularly the houses on either side of the one you are putting on the market.

"What you do is you walk out and take a real hard look at your neighbors' property and offer to assist the neighbor in cleaning up a trash pile, mowing the grass, straightening out garden items, repairing a fence," she says. "The curb appeal is not just of the subject property. It is the whole block. Just focus on the houses on either side. It's not always practical to approach a neighbor, but, if possible, do it."

Next-door neighbors are often more important than those across the street, Miss Vucich says, because "people tend to look at houses from a car. They drive by and stare at a house from the seat of their automobile." Hence the term, curb appeal.

"I tell an owner to stand out on the street and look at the house and say, 'What does it need?' " Miss Vucich says. "I ask the seller to focus on the exterior particularly if I'm dealing with a house that is old, needs updating, has an unappealing interior, and the seller isn't going to do anything with the interior. Then I ask them to focus on the exterior so buyers have an emotional attachment and they may be more forgiving about the interior."

Mrs. Harsch says she "recommends to the owner what needs to be done and who can do it." She says she recommends using licensed and bonded contractors and steers clients to discount stores for home improvement needs and plants.

"It isn't anything you should spend a small fortune on because you won't be there to enjoy it," she says.

"We have all kinds of contractors and painters," Mr. Saturni says. "I have a whole list of them. Our job is to get your home prepared to be sold."

The amount of money a seller must pay to prepare his home "all depends on what needs to be done. As far as curb appeal goes, let's say the lawn needs to be mowed and some of the shrubbery pulled out and some perennials added some good color a little mulching and exterior cleaning. You're looking at a few hundred dollars."

But, he says, "Curb appeal goes on a case-by-case basis. I've been in homes where absolutely nothing needed to be done because there was pride in ownership. I've also been in homes where people have had to spend upwards of $1,000. The driveway had to be torn up and redone, and it wasn't very large at all.

Does such an outlay bolster a house's appraisal? "Maybe slightly," Mr. Saturni says, "because every little bit helps." But because the appraisal is based to an extent on comparables which are the prices brought by similar houses in the same neighborhood "sprucing up won't make a difference."

He says Realtors setting the prices of houses on the market today generally use comparables that are 6 months old. In conditions like the Washington area's current seller's market, "the price is set 5 to 20 percent higher than comparables that are 6 months old if the home is in very good condition," Mr. Saturni says.

"If the house needs to be painted, by all means paint it," Miss Vucich says. "But the smart owner doesn't need an agent to tell them to paint the house. If a homeowner's going to spend the money, paint the house and enjoy it for a couple of years before selling. That's all part of maintenance, regular ongoing maintenance. There's nothing extraordinary here. There's no surprises here. Houses that are well maintained don't require a lot of dress-up to sell."

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