- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

Who would say no to a day - or two - at the spa? There’s nothing like a bit of pampering to get your systems up to speed and ready to face the new year.

The same holds true for your home, especially if you are planning to put it on the market come spring. In today’s tough times, a newer front door, a revamped bathroom or just a cleaner kitchen can be what gets a potential buyer to take a second look.

“Making a sale is very dependent on visual impact,” says Trudy Severa, a Realtor with Long & Foster’s Reston North Hills, Va., office. “If you don’t have appealing pictures online, people won’t even come to your home.”

But do you go for the laser treatment or the deep tissue massage? The answer - in terms of what to do to your home - depends on a number of factors, including its location, age and condition and your budget.

Homeowners with homes in the $500,000 range should expect to spend between $5,000 and $8,000 getting their homes ready for sale, Ms. Severa says. If you’re living in a $200,000 condo, plan on spending between $1,000 and $1,500. Opting for upgrades rather than a simple spruce-up can push the price tag higher, starting between $10,000 and $15,000.

Budgets can be especially tight for homeowners who have seen their homes lose equity in recent years. And not all home improvements these days may be worth the investment, particularly if the current homeowners will not be the ones to enjoy them.

According Remodeling magazine’s 2010-11 Cost vs. Value Report, homeowners can expect to recoup about 60 percent of their investment on replacement or remodeling costs. That’s down from last year’s 63.8 percent, reflecting the still-soft state of the overall housing market.

Still, in certain neighborhoods, some homes could use a little help to make them stand out, says Mynor Herrera, a Realtor at Weichert, Realtors’ Bethesda, Md., office.

“That’s especially true in places like Germantown or Gaithersburg, with many similar homes on the market,” he says.

But whether you’re selling a 50-year-old Colonial or a 10-year-old town house, a few basics can make a big difference when it comes to piquing the interest of today’s discriminating buyers. So here are some ways to give your home the “spa treatment” and get it ready to face the world.

Get your documents in order. Ms. Severa asks clients to gather the following paperwork before that important first meeting:

  • Your title insurance policy. If it’s 10 years old or newer, a buyer may be entitled to a “reissue rate” that can save 20 percent to 40 percent on the premium.
  • The most recent statement for any outstanding mortgages. This enables the agent to project the estimated net proceeds for the seller once all expenses have been paid.
  • A detailed list of improvements made to the home, including brand names and dates for any systems or appliances installed.
  • A compilation of all manuals and warranties for any appliances or systems in the home.
  • A record of utility costs for the most recent year.
  • A list of paint, carpet and tile colors and styles used. Extra paint, tiles and pieces of carpet are useful to buyers.
  • Contact information for any applicable homeowners association.
  • Any other information about the home’s features that may assist in marketing the home.

Declutter and depersonalize. Too much stuff can distract from the “bones” of your home and make the house seem smaller, with less potential for the buyer to add his or her personal stamp.

“If a home is well-maintained, it sends a good message to the buyer,” Ms. Severa says. “But you want to take back some of the things that made the house your own. You want the buyer to be able to place themselves and their belongings in the house.”

So pack away your model train or doll collections, store the oversized armoires, and, above all, clean out the closets.

Repaint. A splash of color can go a long way to making a room seem fresher, brighter and larger.

“A fresh coat of paint can make a big difference,” Mr. Herrera says.

Many real estate professionals recommend using neutral colors from the same palette. But Mr. Herrera doesn’t want to discount the value of something distinctive, particularly if the home is in a neighborhood of nearly identical structures.

“It may not be the worst thing to have a red or yellow wall so that the property stands out,” he says. “It’s just wall paint, so it’s not an expensive fix if the homebuyer doesn’t like it.”

Redo floors and floor coverings. A grungy carpet or dull floor easily can turn off buyers, while new tile or laminate flooring is a quick and relatively inexpensive fix. Take up carpets and area rugs to reveal the flooring beneath, as long as it is in good condition.

Repair if needed and replace if necessary. If your gutters are clogged, your roof leaks or your air conditioning is on the fritz, consider repairing or replacing them now rather than having to pay later to keep a sale.

But don’t go overboard.

“If the new homeowner plans on being there 10 or 15 years, they are going to want to redo things their way anyway,” says Jim Molinelli, an architect with ARDO Contracting in Columbia, Md. “So I wouldn’t recommend big changes.”

Update. Nothing dates a home so much as out-of-date colors or older fixtures.

“On ‘70s homes, you’ll see those little mosaic tiles, or that pea green and harvest gold in kitchens,” Mr. Molinelli says. “In the ‘90s, almost all kitchens were redone with white paint and granite countertops. Today we’ve got stainless steel.”

Little fixes such as changing the backsplash or refinishing some surfaces can help to catch a buyer’s eye.

“You need to think about your potential buyer,” says Ms. Severa, who sometimes recommends hiring a professional stager to help sellers update their home’s look. “If you’ve got a downsizing seller who’s 50-plus, their style may not appeal to potential buyers, who are usually in their 30s and 40s.”

Updating countertops and painting cabinets also can add some vitality to tired kitchen spaces. Meanwhile, replacing those older light fixtures with newer versions is a relatively quick and inexpensive fix.

Window treatments also tend to get dated fairly quickly, and heavier treatments can shut out valuable light. Consider instead using lighter coverings that will allow for privacy but let in the sun.

“A lot of the time you can get by with nothing,” says Ms. Severa, who recommends using high-wattage bulbs in rooms without a lot of natural sun. “An uncovered window helps to make things look airy and light.”

What can make the biggest difference? Updating the kitchen or master suite, Mr. Molinelli says.

“No matter the economic situation, kitchens and master suites [and] baths sell the most homes,” he says. “The [home’s] location and style may be right, but a bad kitchen or master suite will kill a sale.”

The kitchen is one room where the updates of a decade ago can seem very out of date now.

“Kitchens these days are usually well-connected not to a formal dining room, but to the family room and a daily eating area,” Mr. Molinelli says. “People want a place where they can hang together.”

And when they are looking for privacy, there’s no better place than the bathroom, which, like today’s kitchens, have a growing footprint. Bathrooms offer the chance for easy and relatively inexpensive updates, as long as the work doesn’t involve replacing old galvanized pipes and other hardware.

“Winter is a good time for these kinds of projects,” Mr. Molinelli says. “A longer-duration, indoor-type project is also a great thing for a remodeler to keep several of his workers busy through bad weather, so it’s possible to get a small price break on the larger winter projects as well.”

Don’t forget the outside. Although you often can’t do much to your outside space this time of year, particularly if the ground is frozen, remember that once the weather warms, a few artfully placed splashes of color in the form of plants and flowers can heighten curb appeal. Also remember to weed, edge walkways and keep the lawn mowed.

“Ultimately, you want to get the buyer in the house,” Ms. Severa says. “But you don’t want them to be so turned off by what they see on the outside that they won’t even come in.”

Don’t forget the unseen. Structural adjustments, such as repairing or replacing water heaters, pipes or wiring, might be in order. Keep in mind that these kinds of repairs or replacements can’t happen overnight, so making plans with a contractor now can save headaches later and, it is hoped, make for a seamless transition to sale.

“Buyers of existing homes need to be most concerned about the things they cannot see and in most cases do not know about,” Mr. Molinelli says.

So check the electrical and heating and cooling systems as well as plumbing and the quality of additions and other remodeling projects.

And remember: Any adjustment is better than none if you are thinking of selling your home. After all, just think about how good you feel, even if all you’ve had is a manicure.

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