- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2010

Although Harry S. Truman may never actually have declared, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog,” the sentiment certainly holds true for increasing numbers of Washington-area residents.

Who else but your pooch is so happy to see you at the end of a long day - except maybe your cat, who can curl around your ankles with all the intensity of a K Street lobbyist, without the hidden agenda. When it comes to buying or selling a home, however, owning a pet - or having a pet own you - can pose some challenges.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, six out of 10 U.S. households own a pet, and pet owners spend more than $40 billion a year on their animals.

“This is a time when pets are viewed just like children in a family,” says Devon Thompson, manager of animal care programs at Petco. “People are really focusing on their pets, from high-quality foods and accessories to in-home pet services.”

So having to sequester or even remove a member of the family can be difficult for a seller to do, particularly for those already grappling with the emotional strains of readying a home for sale. Meanwhile, homebuyers need to consider how well their pet will fit in a new home and a new neighborhood.

With a little extra work and planning, just about any pet-related challenge can turn into an opportunity.

For prospective homebuyers with pets, the Greater D.C. area is an excellent hunting ground for pet-friendly situations. Pet parks abound, and more and more are being planned as neighbors learn to appreciate the value that outside time with pets brings to their community experience.

“In my neighborhood, there are always lots of people out walking with their pets,” says Adrian Hunnings, president-elect of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, who lives in 16th Street Heights. “It’s how we get to know each other. We just moved to have a dog park, funded by the city and the neighborhood. That’s an asset that just about any dog owner would love.”

But some neighborhoods work better for some pets than others, particularly larger pets that need some space to run.

“It’s important to think about what kind of pet is suitable to the environment,” Mr. Hunnings says. “If you are shopping for a home or a condo, your pet should be your top priority.”

Other things that homebuyers should be on the lookout for, real estate professionals say, are outdoor faucets for washing, carpets that can forgive an accident or two, and neutral colors that won’t show stains.

“Eco-friendly works well with dogs,” says Jill M. Landsman, spokeswoman for the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors. “Lots of pet owners like to avoid carpet altogether in favor of ceramic tile or vinyl. Area rugs should be durable. Leather can work better than fabric upholstery.”

Consider, too, an aging pet that may not be able to navigate lots of stairs. For cat owners, access to windows is important. Today’s small urban spaces may not lend themselves to the indoor cat trees and perches that were mainstays in your last home.

“They take up a lot of space,” says Kelly Hartshorn, co-owner of Metro Mutts, a pet care business that opened last spring in the District’s up-and-coming H Street Northeast corridor. “Not a lot of people in town can afford the space for that.”

If you are planning to buy a condo, be sure to read the fine print about pets - and be sure the bylaws you have are current. That proved to be a problem for one Northern Virginia woman, who discovered - after rescuing two elderly English bulldogs that she thought would be within the condo’s 70-pound weight limit - that the bylaws that had been given to her when she bought her garden-apartment-style condo were out of date. A neighbor complained, and suddenly, new bylaws with reduced limits for weight and the number of allowable pets were produced.

“I ended up having to get an attorney to fight it,” says Carla Gregor, a legal secretary who still lives in her Kingstowne condo, with a young mutt in place of the two older dogs, which have since died. “It took six or seven months to put it all behind us.”

Having pets in close quarters, whether you are dealing with garden apartments in the suburbs or high-rises in the city, means pet owners need to be especially vigilant about things like clean-up and leash laws.

“You really need to pick up after your dog,” Ms. Gregor says. “The owners who don’t [clean up] make things uncomfortable for the owners who do, because non [pet] owners assume that you’re the one making the mess.”

Then there are the sellers with pets. Homeowners long accustomed to the odors associated with Fido or Fluffy may not realize potential buyers may have a bit more olfactory sensitivity. In other words, do what you need to do to get rid of the smell.

“There are all kinds of cleaning products available,” Ms. Hartshorn says.

Even if you can’t smell kitty, others can. Ask a neighbor or your real estate professional to stop by with noses at the ready.

They may be able to notice what you can’t, and armed with that information, you can do odor removal on your own or call in a professional cleaning company.

Many people these days are sensitive to smells, so attempting to cover up pet odor with a heavy air freshener may have the opposite effect from what you intended. Stick to odor neutralizers instead.

“Odor is the biggest obstacle [when selling a home],” says Trudy Severa, a Realtor with Long and Foster’s North Hills office in Reston, Va. “Anyone who is sensitive or with allergies is going to be put off.”

Pet hair is another turn-off you may have learned to live with that a potential buyer might notice right away. If you don’t hire a professional cleaning company, you may need to vacuum more than once a day. You also can try dealing with the problem at its source - your pet.

“There’s a wonderful [grooming] brush called the Furminator that takes off layers of hair,” Ms. Hartshorn says. “It really helps to prevent shedding for both cats and dogs.”

Consider, too, the effect your dog or cat might have on a potential buyer unaccustomed to pets. Not everyone will view your pet as you do, and some people may be so fearful that they’ll spend all their time keeping an eye on your pets - and the front door - instead of appreciating the rest of your home.

Meanwhile, certain structural changes that you may have put in place to accommodate your pet, such as a doggie door or linoleum in unexpected rooms, might have to be removed before you put your home on the market. At the very least, you will need to let potential buyers know you are willing to pay to have these items removed.

“A pet door does not make a home a better sale,” Mr. Hunnings says. “Maybe for a pet owner, but it’s often a good idea to take it out. If you’ve got linoleum over hardwood, take up the linoleum and restore the floors.”

You also can conceal a pet crate with a tasteful cover, Ms. Hartshorn says.

But even a tastefully decorated crate can prove an obstacle for some potential buyers.

“It does make it more difficult for someone to see the home,” Ms. Severa says.

There is one pet-related structural change that almost always is an advantage.

“Fences are ideal,” Mr. Hunnings says. “An attractive fence will always add value.”

People whose pets are of the more exotic variety should check out local regulations and restrictions regarding ownership. Not every locality, for example, allows goats, ferrets or even rabbits.

Most real estate professionals have their own pet-related tales, and not all of them are warm and fuzzy. Rosemary Graham, a Realtor with Weichert, Realtors in Fair Oaks, Va., recalls the time when a woman tried to sell her home with a 5-foot iguana inside.

“She had a small child, but this iguana was just like a family member,” Ms. Graham says. “We ended up blocking off a portion of the sunroom, but people were still freaked out. She did have to take a price reduction because of that iguana.”

Then there was the couple whose home came complete with show turtles (snapping), a whippet (dazed), and a cockatiel (loose) with a penchant for pecking at ankles. Ms. Graham’s agents did their best to cope with the menagerie, until the box in an upstairs bedroom began to move.

“There was a boa constrictor inside,” Ms. Graham says. “My agent said, ‘We’re going to leave now’ - and I really couldn’t blame her.”

Best advice? Give your pets a temporary vacation, at least when your home is being shown.

“Pets can react very differently when there are children accompanying the purchasers,” Ms. Graham says. “Why put the pet - or the child - through that stress?”

Nowhere for your pets to go? Try minimizing their presence by keeping kitty-litter pans and food and water bowls out of sight. If you are advertising your home online, take down photos of your pets, even the cute ones, which may put off potential buyers.

“No one is going to get rid of their pets in order to sell a home,” Mr. Hunnings says. “But you do want to stage your home in order to appeal to the most people.”

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