Thinking of selling your house, but pining away for those halcyon days when buyers snatched up homes on the market almost instantly?
Well, dear homeowner, here's a bulletin: Cut the daydreaming, because you don't have time for that.
Snap out of your reverie because you—that is, your house—needs to get into shape. Think: Rocky Balboa charging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Michael Phelps carbo-loading before the 200-meter butterfly.
In your case, though, the athlete is your house and to the victor goes a sold sign in the yard. To compete, market experts say your house needs to begin "training"—which might range from aggressive cleaning to spending serious money on rehabbing.
And if you're intent on selling it in the approaching "spring" market (which traditionally gets under way right after the Super Bowl), experts suggest you start to get it into shape sooner rather than later—that is, now—because the competition can be fierce.
Take Matt McClintock and Greta Walters, for instance. On a day in early October when they were in discussions about whether to list their 1920s stucco cottage in Oak Park, the town was clogged with 273 other single-family homes for sale. The average house there had been on the market for nearly five months, according to multiple-listing-service records.
To help the couple figure out how to compete, we brought in two "trainers"—Coldwell Banker agent Sally Hatcher of Glen Ellyn and Park Ridge home stager and designer Craig Schiller—to walk through the house separately and suggest fix-ups to help get it sold.
It's a house that likely has many counterparts throughout Chicago—a cozy, obviously comfortable place whose architectural touches fill the place with character, yet with an old-house to-do list that never seems to get shorter, no matter how much elbow grease its owners employ.
"This is a tough house," said Schiller, who said its vintage quirks could be appealing to some buyers, a turn-off to others.
"The Oak Park market can be really different," Hatcher agreed. "A lot of people who move into Oak Park want 'interesting.' They don't want a '50s ranch."
Nonetheless, in the overall marketplace, pickiness reigns, they said.
"Buyers want everything done already," Hatcher said. "They want to be able to move right in. The good thing about this house is that the mechanicals [furnace, electrical systems, etc.] are up-to-date."
Thus, there were two sets of tactics to consider. The experts said if the couple wanted to list the house right away, they could get by with some paint touch ups, furniture rearranging and hard-scrabble cleaning and weeding-out of clutter—even though the homeowners already had been at the latter for weeks.
But if they wanted to muscle ahead of the competition, the experts said, they would be better off investing several months (and some cash) in major painting, wallpaper removal, appliance replacement and more. (Our experts said they weren't generally able to offer on-the-spot price estimates for their suggested fix-ups, as that reached beyond their fields of expertise.
"Prices for those things can vary by the person who's doing the work and even by the geography of where it's being done," Hatcher said. )
Here's what McClintock and Walters got on their walk-through:
This is the strongest area of the house, needing little beyond paint touch ups and some easy furniture rearrangement, the two experts agreed. "This will be the first thing people see, and they will form an impression about this house in seconds," he said. "You have to have their eye fall on something strong, first thing."
Suggestion: Schiller urged them to put a large piece of art over the sofa as a focal point, and to paint a portion of the fireplace brick a contrasting color to frame the painting that hung there. He also suggested refinishing the front door and putting art on a vestibule wall.
The homeowners had gotten used to them, but Hatcher and Schiller found them narrow, steep and poorly lit. The passages were lined by wallpaper from a bygone era. The word "creepy" was uttered more than once.
Suggestion: Replace the existing vinyl mats on the stair treads with carpet and paint the stair risers a light color. Lighten the walls—wallpaper, begone!—and the handrail. Just bring in light, period, they said.
The issue here, both experts agreed, was the aged grass-cloth wallpaper, some of which had been used as a scratching post by a cat. As wallpapers go, this one wasn't loud, but the experts agreed that it seemed tired.
"I'm seeing a project here," Schiller said. He urged them to make it a priority.
Two downstairs bedrooms
Neither room had a door, something that didn't bother either homeowner, who used them as offices.
Hatcher said that if the buyers turned out to be childless couples who wanted home offices, the absent doors probably wouldn't be a problem.
Suggestion: Schiller urged them to cover all the bases for whoever the eventual buyer might be, and replace the doors.
Here, the parade came to a halt. The entire second floor was one luxuriously enormous bedroom—with every inch of its walls, ceiling and closet doors covered in knotty pine. Homeowner McClintock loved its North Woods feel, though Walters admitted that it sometimes made her cringe. "I'm thinking of a bowling alley," joked Hatcher, who after much thought suggested leaving the pine as-is for the short term; given more time and some money, the homeowners should paint it all a light color.
Suggestion: Schiller said to cut to the chase—paint it all as soon as possible. The knotty pine could be a turnoff that would chase sellers away, he said. Quick fixes suggested: Lighter bedding, decluttered bedside bookshelves, and a restaged sitting area that's more inviting, with a comfy chair and better lighting.
Too much white, top to bottom.
•Paint the wall above the ceramic tile a neutral wheat color.
•Spray-paint the grungy metal trim of an overhead light fixture.
•And clean, clean, clean, they urged.
•Overhead, the reaction was mixed. The ceiling was unusual—a dark tongue-and-groove cedar placed there long ago.
Suggestion: Hatcher suggested whitewashing it, but Schiller said not to bother.
•At their feet was scuffed oak flooring, which both visitors suggested downplaying with area rugs. Given more time to prepare for a sale, refinishing the floor was a quick job that ought to be taken care of, they said. "A kitchen is going to be the room that sells the house," Schiller said, adding that paint touch-ups and repainting the kitchen door would be key.
•The kitchen boasted a new stainless-fronted range, though it sat in marked contrast to the older (and somewhat worn) white finishes of the dishwasher and refrigerator.
Suggestion: Making the appliances match would help update the kitchen, the experts said. Schiller suggested finding an otherwise-fine refrigerator at a scratch-and-dent sale (with the dented area facing the kitchen wall) and obtaining a new stainless add-on panel for the dishwasher front from its manufacturer. In addition, a window valance would soften the fairly plain kitchen; cleared-off counters were mandatory, they said. Ditch the rolling countertop wine rack used for extra prep space, in order to make the kitchen seem bigger.
Then there was the master bath—or rather master half-bath, with its elegant, vintage toilet and sink—and a dubious floor.
Suggestion: For the short term, both visitors agreed, there was little to do except toss a decent area rug over the dreary vinyl floor and get a more stylish toilet seat.
If the owners had months in which to get ready, tile the tiny space to modernize it, the visitors advised.