- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

In a perfect world, home sellers would be able to open their eyes one morning and decide to put their home on the market and would never need to do any work on the property other than making the bed. Reality is seldom perfect. In today’s competitive real estate market, most sellers should expect to spend both time and money to prepare their home for the discerning eyes of buyers.

Determining how much to spend on sprucing up a home before welcoming potential buyers depends on the condition of the home and the price range.

“The budget for preparing a home for sale depends on the condition of the home,” says Dorothy Hall, a Realtor with RE/MAX Leaders in Purcellville. “Sellers should expect to spend a lot if the home hasn’t been maintained, but other homes have been so perfectly maintained and decorated in such a neutral way that the sellers won’t need to spend any money to sell it.”

Chris Fries, a Realtor with McEnearney Associates in Arlington, says that while there’s no formula to help sellers determine how much to spend on fixing up their home, each seller should focus on the fact that to be competitive, the home needs to be immaculate and in tiptop condition.

“If you are selling a $500,000 home, you might want to budget $3,000 to $5,000 for fixing up the home, but it really depends on the condition of the property,” Mr. Fries says.

In addition to sprucing up with paint and polish, many sellers and real estate agents today rely on home staging to attract buyers. Staging a home runs the gamut from removing clutter and personal photographs from a room to bringing in new furniture to present a more appealing space for potential buyers.

“Every listing demands some attention to staging,” says Kevin Reid Shirley, an accredited staging professional and associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate on Capitol Hill. “For some homes, it’s just a matter of taking down a personal collection, but for others it will take a top-to-bottom re-do to sell the home.”

Many real estate agents, including the Sherry Wilson Team of which Mrs. Hall is a member, include staging services as part of their commission. Others recommend staging professionals who can charge anything from a small consulting fee to thousands of dollars, depending on how much work is required and whether furniture must be rented.

Mr. Fries says a professional consultation with a home stager resulting in a list of suggestions for the home could run as little as $100 to $150.

“In its simplest form, staging should be considered an investment, which can make a home sell for $10,000, $20,000 or even $50,000 more than it would have without staging,” Mr. Shirley says. “In this market, it can also simply make the difference between a home sitting or selling.”

Mr. Shirley points out that staging a home is nearly always less expensive than reducing the price of a home that is sitting on the market unsold.

“The first price reduction for a home is generally about 7 percent of the asking price,” says Mr. Shirley. “Staging never costs that much.”

Scott Miller, a Realtor with RE/MAX 100 in Ellicott City, Md., says that while it is difficult to pinpoint an exact budget for homeowners to spend before listing their home, he estimates that up to 1 percent of the value of the home would be worthwhile for a home that needs a “top-to-bottom” spruce-up.

“Sellers need to realize that they pay a commission to a sales agent to sell their home and a percentage of the sales price will go to the state government, so they should also expect to spend a certain percent on fixing up the house as a part of the cost of selling,” Mr. Miller says.

While the goal of improving the property is to make the home as close as possible to the new model homes buyers are also surveying, sellers should not overspend on big ticket items such as redoing a bathroom or kitchen.

Sherry Wilson, a broker with RE/MAX Leaders in Purcellville, says, “Buyers of resale homes in lower price ranges don’t expect to find the amenities of a brand-new house, so sellers should not feel they have to put in a new kitchen.”

For instance, she says, “Someone who is buying a $300,000 rambler may prefer an older kitchen, as long as it is clean and in good working order. But if you are selling an $800,000 home, buyers expect to see a nice upgraded kitchen and newer bathrooms.”

Sellers can prioritize their spending on improving their home before placing it on the market, focusing first on cleaning and painting to upgrade the appearance of the home.

“The one thing that brings the greatest return is always painting,” Mr. Miller says. “It’s important to take out the dark, decorator colors and soften them to bring out a more neutral appearance to the home. Wallpaper is a killer when you are trying to sell a home, even more than dark colors.”

Ms. Wilson says homes on the market today need to have absolutely no visible wear and tear, especially on the outside trim, and must be perfectly pristine and clean.

Mr. Miller recommends that some sellers remove some of their furniture to make the home look more spacious, along with packing and storing belongings to make the home less crowded.

“You should pack away most of the books and binders on your bookshelves and bring in as much light as possible by tying back curtains and putting in brighter bulbs,” Mrs. Hall says. “Replacing the light fixtures in the kitchen can help update that room.”

Sellers with an older kitchen can opt for some other cosmetic improvements that also cost less than an entire remodeling project.

“You can put in new counters or new flooring to update the look of a dated kitchen without spending as much as it would cost to replace all the cabinets and appliances,” Mr. Miller says. “I would never advise someone to redo the kitchen just in order to sell the home.”

Mr. Shirley agrees that replacing the floor or counter in the kitchen makes more sense than an entire remodeling job, but says outdated bathrooms can be a little stickier.

“One home we listed had a faux brick wall in the bathroom and was just ugly,” Mr. Shirley says. “Without spending a lot of money, the sellers covered up the fake brick, put in a new linoleum floor and a pedestal sink and bought some bright finishing touches from IKEA.”

Mr. Fries says sellers with older appliances might want to replace them using a credit card for the purchase, and then paying off the balance with proceeds from the house sale. He also suggests painting or refinishing the cabinets rather than replacing them.

Mr. Shirley says that now that buyers are shopping first for a home on the Internet, curb appeal is even more important.

“If the house doesn’t look good in that first picture, buyers will just go on to the next property,” says Mr. Shirley.

Mr. Fries says he thinks the exterior of the home should be the first focus of sellers, starting with edging and cleaning up the garden and placing some planters with flowers at the front entry. He also recommends getting rid of any wood rot and painting the exterior.

Mr. Miller suggests spending to power wash siding, trim the bushes, mulch and pull weeds.

“You need to detail the outside of the house the way you would detail a car to trade it in,” Mr. Miller says. “Sparkling windows are appealing to buyers and makes them think that if the sellers have taken care of this level of detail, then the bigger items have also been done.”

Another detail sellers often overlook is the smell of their home. The mix of wood smoke from the fireplace and the family dog may be so familiar that the residents simply do not notice.

“I advocate against using chemically enhanced scents such as candles and plug-in room deodorizers because buyers assume you are covering up a bad smell,” Mr. Fries says. “Fresh baked goods in the oven or a more natural scent is better.”

Mrs. Hall says opening windows and letting fresh air into the home is better than attempting to cover up odors.

“Ultimately, the cardinal rule for sellers today is condition, condition, condition,” Mr. Fries says. “Buyers have the luxury to be picky right now, so sellers need to do what it takes to compete with homes that are in perfect condition.”

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