- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

Longtime real estate professional Susan Mekenney knows all about the drive-by house visit, when a prospective buyer takes one look at a carefully chosen house and refuses to get out of the car.

“I have actually had buyers say ‘no’ to a house we were pulling up to,” says Ms. Mekenney, chairman of the board of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, and an agent with RE/MAX Allegiance in Leesburg. “They were so turned off by the lack of curb appeal. Buyers today want everything in move-in condition.”

Rusty wrought-iron railings or a ratty old doormat can make some buyers leery of even the perfect house based on its exterior appearance. However, inspiring a potential buyer to get out of the car and into the door may take a bit of doing.

“In terms of selling, pricing and preparation are key,” says Elizabeth Blakeslee, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Georgetown. “Curb appeal is no gimmick.”

Indeed, a study from Michigan State University and Clemson University estimates that landscaping alone could add 6 to 11 percent to the eventual sales price of a home. A similar study by Weyerhaeuser Corp. found that landscaping could increase a home’s value up to 15 percent.

According to Realtor magazine’s 2008 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report, exterior-remodeling projects return the most money as a percentage of cost.

With the state of the economy these days, does it still make sense to spend money on flowers, a new doorknob or a fresh coat of paint? Absolutely, say Realtors and others in the property business.

You don’t have to shell out a lot of money to make a difference in the look of your home. Just consider the three Cs: clean, care and color.

- What you don’t see (because you live with it) can be readily apparent to a stranger looking around your home for the first time. Fix the peeling paint and clean the dirty shutters. Look for cobwebs in corners or near-invisible lines of gunk on the floor.

“Anything that looks like it needs attention does,” says Ms. Mekenney. “Wash windows, paint trim, clean gutters and pressure-wash siding, walkways and driveways.”

A little sweat equity and elbow grease can go a long way toward eliminating concerns for the budget-conscious, leaving more money to hire professionals for the big jobs.

Clean lines matter, too. Neatly trimmed shrubs and hedges are preferable to overgrown or spindly monstrosities. Pruning is a must. If a shrub is dead or bug-infested, plant a replacement. (While you’re at it, remove that large flowerpot with last year’s annuals.)

Edging provides a crisp and clean look for your front yard and walk, and it costs very little to do. If you don’t have a power edger, you can use a flat-edged shovel or even an ice chopper to produce a well-delineated line between the grass and plant bed.

If you have a few extra bucks to invest, add a hardscape - a walkway or other area of gravel, shells, bricks, pavers or fancy stones that can give your home a distinctive look.

“Pathways are extremely important because they guide people to the house,” says Bob Hawkins of Hawkins Signature Landscapes in Bowie. “New stonework really lends itself to curb appeal.”

The condition of the lawn is an important part of a home’s curb appeal. Ms. Mekenney notes that lawn condition is critical and not easily fixed if you’re on a budget and haven’t cared for the lawn on a regular basis.

“I have suggested to clients to start working on their lawn at least a year or two before considering selling,” she says.

Lawn-care experts caution not to mow too close - cutting the lawn too short will actually make grass grow faster and need more water. Plus, those pesky brown tips appear if the sun burns too brightly or if you’ve watered at the wrong time. Leave the lawn between 2.5 to 3 inches high for best results. If you are planning to put your house on the market by late spring or early summer, now is the time to lay down fertilizer.

If there is a vine-covered pergola or a water feature on the property, be sure that the vines are pruned and the water is free of algae, leaves and twigs.

“You want your plants to look fresh, green and healthy,” says Ms. Blakeslee. “But you don’t need to waste a lot of money on fancy landscaping, and I wouldn’t buy exotic plants that need a lot of care.”

Sometimes, color can make a big difference.

“Color is what you want,” says Mr. Hawkins, who gets regular calls from Realtors asking him to add a pop of color to properties. “Just having spots of color by the front entrance or at the driveway can really draw the eye [to the home].”

Ms. Mekenney advises that it takes longer for homes to sell in the current market, so check with local nurseries for long-lasting and colorful plant suggestions. To add color to an otherwise dull yard, Mr. Hawkins recommends adding yellow or white blooms for early spring.

Don’t stop with flowers. According to Mr. Hawkins, using mulch in planting areas can help add color contrast.

“These days, the grass is just starting to show signs of color,” he says. “Mulching can make a huge difference in terms of contrast.”

Another way to add color is a fresh coat of paint. This is one of the most inexpensive ways to update a look. Just be careful with color choices.

“A coat of glossy paint can really make it pop,” says Ms. Blakeslee. “But I wouldn’t paint it orange - that’s not the kind of eye-drawing [attention] you want.”

If you are willing to spend a bit more money, home improvements that could add value include new decks, siding and windows, along with kitchen remodels.

Obviously, a number of factors may play into the amount you can recoup on a remodel, including a home’s overall condition as well as that of surrounding properties.

Yet Ms. Blakeslee cautions not to go overboard with repairs.

“I tell people not to spend money and effort, but to adjust for shortcomings in the price,” she says. “You can price it a little less and let the next owner deal with it.”

Beyond the three Cs, here are a few more outside tips:

• Put out the welcome mat, preferably a new one. The existing one may seem fine, but look carefully and you’ll see signs of fading and wear from regular use.

• Make a grand entrance. Ensure both the front door and storm door are in good condition (and replace, if necessary). Brass hardware should be cleaned and replaced as needed, including door handles and kick plates. Check to make sure the doorbell works. Use graphite, which comes in a black powder form you can put into the key hole, if keys stick when inserted.

• Consider the foundation. Unsure about which foundation plantings should stay and what should go? Call a landscape contractor, who can evaluate both the health of the plant and the sunlight and drainage conditions associated with your property.

• Plant fragrant plants in the front yard or lay out lavender or other natural scents. “Don’t forget the power of the sense of smell,” says Ms. Mekenney.

• Let there be light. Consider removing screens from the windows to allow for more light inside and replace dated light fixtures both inside and outside.

“One of the biggest things that people tell me they want is light,” says Ms. Blakeslee. “So open up the drapes and let the sunshine in.”

• Don’t forget the green. Today’s array of plantings includes low-maintenance varieties such as knockout roses and dwarf fruit trees.

In the end, experts say, just use your common sense.

“If you are going to spend money, then spend wisely,” says Ms. Mekenney. “You want to make smart choices today because none of us has money to burn.”

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