Back when the real estate market was hot, sellers barely had to make their beds and do the dishes for their houses to attract buyers. Any extra effort often elicited multiple offers for over the asking price.
In today’s cool market, however, those same extras can mean the difference between getting one offer or none at all, says Lisa LaPorta, cohost of HGTV’s “Designed to Sell.”
Sellers frustrated with the stagnant market should consider turning their anxiety into action. As inventory grows, a few inexpensive moves can make your house stand apart.
Here are 12 cheap tricks real estate experts recommend sellers consider to speed sales:
1. Get the right mindset. Once you list your home, detach yourself. Treat the house as a commodity, which means making changes that will broaden its appeal but that may erase some of your personal style. “I tell sellers in our first meeting that I may say things that offend them, but if I do it’s because I feel it’s for the benefit of the sale,” says Dan Verbin, general manager of Re/Max Marquee Partners, which oversees 14 offices in the South Bay and throughout Greater Los Angeles.
2. Start at the curb. Look at what people see when they pull up, says Sandy Fish, broker owner of Re/Max Ranch and Beach in San Diego, where she’s been selling real estate for 20 years. Trim hedges, prune trees, mow the lawn and plant oodles of colorful flowers. If the mailbox is tired and the address numbers are falling off, replace them. Walk around the house. Get all debris -- old patio furniture, rusty barbecues -- off the property. Everything outside should look perfect.
3. Paint -- it’s money in a can. Outside, if a good power wash isn’t enough, a coat of paint is one of the best facelifts you can give a house for a relatively low price. If you don’t want to paint the whole house, do the trim. Inside, paint walls a soft neutral such as warm beige, sage or gold. Paint not only says new start, but it also masks odors.
4. Focus on the entry. Put some energy into the front door, because it makes a strong first impression. A few years ago, LaPorta fixed up a Pasadena home for her show. The home had a traditional old-fashioned front door, which looked like all the other doors on the street. She bought a stock door from a lumber supplier, painted it glossy burgundy, put a pediment over it, thick molding around it and flanked it with two large potted topiaries. The whole upgrade cost $2,000. The result? After the listing agent saw the improvements, she raised the original asking price by $40,000 to $739,000. The owners received multiple offers and sold in the high $700,000s, LaPorta said, “because we made an ordinary entry look stately and elegant.”
5. Catch up on maintenance. Get around to the repairs you should have been doing all along. “Fix the little stuff,” Re/Max Marquee Partner’s Verbin says. “Repair the cracked tile in the bathroom and torn screens. Replace broken light-switch covers and burned-out lightbulbs. Tape up or pin wires from audio systems and computers.”
These easy fixes show potential buyers that you pay attention to detail, which signals that you must care about the big stuff too.
6. Look for alternatives to expensive or messy upgrades. “Don’t take on a big remodel when you’re thinking of selling,” says Reva Kussmaul, a remodel coach and owner of Eye for Detail, in Pasadena. “Keep improvements small and manageable. A major project creates more mess and can take up time you could be on the market.”
However, do investigate small ways to get big results. If your tile is 1950s pink or 1970s brown, look into companies that can spray tile to make it a new color, she says. Miracle Method, for example, gives a clean, fresh look without the demo, dust or fat price tag.
If dated cabinets still work well, consider painting or staining rather than replacing them. Today’s house hunter prefers either dark wood cabinets in shades of espresso or ebony, or painted cabinets. Mid-toned browns and grainy golds are out. A dark stain over light, coarse-grained wood will quiet busy grain and make wood a color more people prefer, as will painting. Put on some new knobs, and for a couple thousand dollars, your kitchen will look as though it had a $20,000 makeover.
7. Consider new appliances. In LaPorta’s experience, sellers typically get every dollar back that they spend on new appliances. “When people see new kitchen appliances, they often see a new kitchen,” LaPorta says. “That rates high on people’s radar, especially men’s.”
8. Add some house bling. Make anything metal in your home look new and shiny. “People see shiny new metal and say ‘Oooh,’ and it’s not that expensive,” LaPorta says. You can pick up a new dining room light fixture for $200 and one for the porch for $40; people will notice. Change the front-door handle, faucets and curtain rods if they’re worn and dull. These should all look fresh.
If you have an ‘80s shiny polished brass fixture, try painting it with an updated metallic that looks like oil-rubbed bronze, brushed nickel or iron. If you have metal grills on your stove, spray them their original color, using paint meant to withstand high heat.
9. Start packing. “The average home would show much better if it had 50% less stuff,” real estate broker Fish says. Since you’re already going to move, give yourself a head start by packing away all the clothes, books and dishes you won’t need for the next few months. Thinning out bookcases and closets lets buyers actually see and appreciate the space and gives the illusion that the house offers more-than-adequate storage.
Take out extra furniture, especially if it’s blocking the flow of foot traffic. “It’s better to have just a corner of a room decorated nicely with a little vignette than an overcrowded space, or a room where the furniture is of mixed styles or not to scale,” LaPorta says. If you can get all the stuff off-site in a moving pod or in storage, do so. If not, stack neat, labeled boxes in the garage.
10. Remove the “you” factor. Sorry but home buyers don’t care about your trophies, your hobbies, your taste in art or your photos. Pack all that away. Depersonalizing a home lets buyers imagine themselves in the house. “You want people looking at your house, not your wedding photos,” Fish says. “Those are just a distraction.”
Once personal art is off the walls, patch and paint over holes. While you’re at it, clear countertops. In kitchens, leave out just one appliance and, on your desk, just a phone and a lamp. Think nice hotel.
11. Clean house. “Clean is a relative term,” says LaPorta, “but we often don’t notice our own dirt. Look hard, starting with the switch plate by the front door. Wipe it down along with all light switches, doors and baseboards. If you’re not the best housekeeper, hire a service. . . . Every surface should sparkle.”
12. Banish smells. When people first walk in, they should either smell nothing or a nice scent, like cinnamon or citrus. Set out potpourri, fresh-cut flowers or subtle air fresheners. Have carpets -- if not replaced -- professionally cleaned and deodorized.
Some carpet-cleaning companies will also clean hardwood, tile or stone floors and grout and buff countertops. “For a 3,000-square-foot house, expect to pay under $1,000,” says Fish, adding that it’s money well spent.
Besides making suggestions as to what buyers can or should do to get a “sold” sign out front, real estate experts also suggested a few things not to do:
* Don’t avoid an upgrade with the idea that you’ll give the new owner a carpet or paint credit.
Most buyers are tapped out and don’t want to spend a lot the minute they move in. Plus, that’s one more hassle for them. They want clean surfaces when they move in. And many people lack the imagination needed to picture how much better the place will look with new carpet. Your job is to make buyers say, “I could move in tomorrow.”
* Don’t ignore the competition. Fish helps clients get realistic about their homes by showing them what else is on the market in the same price range.
“When they see what they’re up against, including new homes, that often motivates them to get real about their price and what they should fix up,” Fish says.
* Finally, don’t get so carried away making improvements that you forget the original goal: Be a bargain.
“The best way to sell your house quickly in a down market,” real estate agent Verbin says, “is to be the best deal out there.”
Marni Jameson is a syndicated home columnist, and author of “The House Always Wins.” She may be contacted through her website, marnijameson.com.