- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

How in the world the family before hers decided on aqua counters in classic Formica and walls in olive, gold and orange is a mystery to Pam Stuckey, but when it came time to consider putting her Montgomery County home on the market late last year, she knew she couldn't leave a future family with the same haphazard decor especially since she would only be moving a few houses down the street.

"Maybe we could have sold it as it was," says Ms. Stuckey, who recently accepted the highest of four offers on the house less than one week after she and her husband put it on the market themselves. "But we got back what we put into it."

Maybe the house with its coveted location would have sold just as quickly without the new oak cabinets and creamy kitchen walls. Maybe the bathrooms didn't need to be retiled or the floors freshly carpeted, but Ms. Stuckey didn't want to bet weeks or months of showing a dowdy house when the renovation would make it such an easy sale.

Therein lies the seller's dilemma: Do you save money and creative energy for a new house or do you fork it over to turn that "Leave It to Beaver" look into a sleek best seller?

Real estate experts are divided. Some agents say spending a little dough on "staging" a house can bring big rewards in those critical first weeks that a house is on the market. Others say the market will support even the most outdated houses because buyers are desperate.

Within the debate, however, one thing is clear: The cheapest face-lift for a house is a storage unit for the clutter that makes a house look unlivable.

"The biggest thing is to keep the spaces clear and to price the house with room for the buyers to do the upgrades themselves," says April Raimond, an associate broker with the Lanham-based For Sale by Owner Advisors. "In my opinion, you should save yourselves as many headaches as possible. Focus on making sure the systems are operable and include a home warranty for the buyer."

Whether the sellers should spend money on painting and primping really boils down to their goals. If the goal is to sell quickly for top dollar, some home improvement is likely to be necessary. If those improvements are overwhelming, cut your losses.

"Let's say the kitchen still has olive green everything: appliances, counters, linoleum," Ms. Raimond says, borrowing from a recent walk-through of a home. "If it works and it's clean, fine. You might be able to pull in a little more money here and there with some changes, but you're not going to increase the price dramatically."

On the other hand, there is Charlene Wyman, otherwise known as "Sgt. Wyman," who will not agree to list a house that doesn't conform to her suggestions. Those suggestions come in the form of a list, written by Mrs. Wyman after she walks through a property and itemizes each scuffed cabinet; every chair that blocks a pathway. Often, it includes painting everything that can be painted, removing every bit of clutter in sight, replacing carpet and mulching the front yard.

"I am proud of the fact that other Realtors know that if they see my name on a sign, they can go into a home and all the lights will be on, music will be playing softly, there will be no clutter, and they'll have an easy sale," Mrs.Wyman says. "And I just feel badly when I walk into a house and these people have not been advised. They just sit there on the market."

That means packing up Hummels, Precious Moments and Beanie Babies collections, which Mrs. Wyman says are "too distracting." Then it's time to remove the faces from the family photo gallery. "Buyers look at that and see nail holes they will have to repair. It's overwhelming," Mrs. Wyman says.

Recently, Mrs. Wyman discovered a company called Door-to-Store in the District that will help with the decluttering stage by depositing a huge crate in the homeowner's driveway, leaving it there long enough to be filled and then hauling it away to a temperature-controlled warehouse for safekeeping.

She says her militancy pays off over and over again. Most recently, a couple spent 10 days bringing their Fairfax area home up to Mrs. Wyman's standards. With less than $3,000 invested in paint and carpet, it sold for $525,000 in less than two weeks. That's $25,000 more than the house would have listed for before the changes.

Mrs. Wyman developed her fix-it-up approach to home sales after spending years relocating with her FBI-employed husband, who was transferred frequently early in his career.

"I'd be left behind with the children and given 30 days to get a place sold," Mrs. Wyman says.

Thirty days is just barely enough lead time to make critical changes, says interior designer Janet Haley, whose Fairfax-based "A Design in Time" specializes in staging homes for quick sale.

"A lot of times, I'm just recycling things from room to room, improving the flow of traffic," says Mrs. Haley, who has been staging homes for 10 years. "There are quick-fix things you can do in one day like window treatments. But if a house is really outdated, you'll have to look at the lighting first, then paint and then do flooring last."

One big factor that influenced the Stuckeys' renovation was the fact that they already had moved out of their old house and into the new one before the work began. Not having to deal with contractors and workers underfoot made the changes less stressful on the family, Ms. Stuckey says.

Although the last-minute renovations can be stressful, Mrs. Wyman says they "give families a sense of team spirit."

She also said that getting the house shipshape often makes people reluctant to leave home.

Indeed, Ms. Stuckey says she felt right at home in her newly renovated kitchen, even without the old aqua Formica.

"We looked around and said, 'This is so nice. We'd like to stay,'" Ms. Stuckey says.

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