Financial Resource Center


Want Top Dollar for Your House? Apply Elbow Grease

by Dianne Molvig / September 9th, 2020

In recent months, Jon, a Madison, Wis. homeowner, has been looking at his house in a new way—not through the eyes of the guy who lives there, but from the perspective of a potential buyer. That spurred him to paint the front door and stoop, wash windows inside and out, clean mildew off window frames, do some landscaping, and finish numerous other tasks in and around his home. All told, he spent about three months’ worth of weekends and lots of weeknights getting his house ready to sell—about twice as long as he’d figured it would take. And it was well worth it, he says. “If you don’t give that kind of attention to your house, buyers are going to notice right away,” he says. “They’ll take a cursory look and be out of there in two minutes.” Many real estate agents agree with Jon’s approach to preparing a house for sale. Many say home improvements can help sell a home faster and boost the sales price—if those are the right improvements. Given that most of us have a limited supply of time and money, how should you best invest yours to get your home ready to sell?

Apply elbow grease

Some actions can have a big impact on a buyer's perception of your home, and cost you no money at all. Start with decluttering your house, recommends Robin Vogel, a real estate agent and accredited staging professional in the Seattle area. "Clutter eats equity," she says.
Today's buyers want to move into a house without having to immediately tackle redecorating and repair projects.
Descend on your bulging closets and storage rooms to sort through which items to keep, toss, recycle, or donate to charity. Then there are those knickknacks, family photos, souvenirs, and other items scattered throughout every room. Pack up the items you plan to keep to take with you to your new home. "I have no problem with people packing things up and stacking boxes neatly in the garage," Vogel says. "Just get it out of the main part of the house." The next step is a thorough cleaning of the whole house. Get into every nook, cranny, and corner of each room. "I'm talking Q-Tip clean," Vogel says. "Buyers don't like to buy other people's dirt."

Start with simple fix-ups

Next on your to-do list would be basic, inexpensive improvements. Applying a fresh coat of paint can make a huge difference in a room's appearance, says Lori Matzke, president of Center Stage Home, a home-staging business based in the Minneapolis area. "If you have a peacock blue living room," she says, "you may want to change that out to something that other people can live with, with their furniture." That's why neutral colors are best. Sure, the buyers may decide to repaint with their own choices of colors some day. But most buyers in today's market, Matzke and Vogel agree, want to be able to move into a house without having to immediately tackle redecorating and repair projects.
Some actions can have a big impact on a buyer's perception of your home, and cost you no money at all.
For that reason, putting in new carpeting is another project to consider, especially if your current carpeting looks outdated and worn. Again, choose a neutral color that will work with whatever furnishings the new owner will bring into the house. In some markets, wood floors may be a bigger sell than carpeting, especially on the main floor, Matzke points out. "Wood floors are easy to do now," she says, "and [sometimes] can be done almost for the same price as carpeting." Go through your house and notice all the low-cost fixes or changes you could make that would appeal to a buyer: a new shower curtain, updated knobs on kitchen and bath cabinets, a new welcome mat by the front door, trimming or removing those overgrown shrubs along the front of the house, and so on.
Clutter eats equity.
As you survey your home inside and out, "look at it as a product," Matzke says, "instead of as the home you live in. Emotionally detach yourself from it." In other words, use a buyer's eyes. You may love that dining room wallpaper that you selected so carefully 20 years ago and paid a small fortune for, but now it's peeling and dated. Get rid of it. Likewise, think about replacing old kitchen appliances. "Nobody wants a 30-year-old harvest gold refrigerator anymore," Matzke says. Remember, "95% of buyers can't see past what's there," she says. That means most don't do well at envisioning a house's "potential." What buyers see in front of them is what will stick in their minds as they form an impression of your house and decide if they want to make an offer to buy it.

Don't overdo it

Sometimes sellers assume that a major remodel of the kitchen or bathroom is sure to boost a house's sale price enough to be worth the cost. Not necessarily, Vogel cautions. "I wish sellers would contact their agents before they do the kinds of projects that are going to cost a fair amount of money," she says, "to make sure they're going down the right path." The agent can tell you what's going on in the marketplace. What are homes similar to yours selling for, and what level of finish do these homes have. For example, how much work has been done on other houses for sale in your market and what is the quality of that work? Then you can decide if you should undertake a more costly remodeling project before selling.
Ninety-five percent of buyers can't see past what's there.
"You don't want to be higher than the competition," Vogel says, "and you don't want to help the competition to sell, either. So you need to know what's going on in the houses around you." Another piece of advice Vogel gives sellers—and she sees a growing number of agents doing so—is to get a professional home inspection before putting your house on the market. You'll avoid nasty surprises that could torpedo a deal later. You'll get a list of jobs that need to be done; you can decide which to do and inform a buyer about remaining projects. Plus, you could get bids for those jobs you don't do, so the buyer knows what to expect. It's much easier to do all this before you put your house up for sale, rather than in the midst of buyer-seller negotiations with tight deadlines. "You'll have all the information and all your ducks in a row," Vogel says. "And that is huge ammunition with many buyers." As for home-seller Jon, agents showing the house frequently remarked that it was immaculate and showed well. "Being told by the pros that we were on the right path for show-worthiness was big," he says. The hard work and attention to detail before putting his home on the market paid off. Jon reports, "We've sold our house! A young family that has been renting the house next to ours decided they loved the neighborhood and will be the new owners."
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