Home Improvement

It’s not just the overall average size of the new American homes that are shrinking – down to 2,377 square feet last year from 2,438 square feet the year before, according to the National Association of Home Builders – but the stuff that goes in it, too.

Everybody knows there’s no perfect house. But with more people looking to sell than to buy, sellers need to be up front about go the extra mile to make their home stand out.

“Every house today needs to be well prepared,” says Stafford Manion, broker-owner with Gladys Manion Inc. in suburban St. Louis. “Sellers need to go much further than they used to.”

Anything untidy and poorly maintained sends up red flags that could derail sales, Manion adds.

Sellers are wise to tackle the biggest structural and aesthetic hindrances – anything septic systems that haven’t been serviced and wall cracks that have settled horribly, says Jim Ettenson of J. Ettenson Realty in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Such problems should be addressed in listing and marketing materials for full disclosure, pros say. At the same time, home flaws sometimes can be offset by showcasing a home’s positive features, says Susan Stynes, an agent with Long and Foster in Midlothian, Va. “Don’t have a master bathroom, but have privacy on a cul-de-sac, two-car garage, or finished basement? Determine positives and play them up,” says Stynes, who has used charts and spreadsheets on flyers to put pros and potential cons in plain view.

But that’s still not enough. The most seasoned experts advise taking definitive action – read: spending money – since many homes won’t appraise properly or sell if they’re not well maintained, says broker Donna Mercier with Coldwell Banker in Lake Forest, Ill.

Minor Projects for Major Impact

Sellers looking to make a bit of pre-listing improvement should start with minor home flaws – they’ll involve less time and money, yet they can make a big difference in how well buyers perceive a home’s maintenance.

Manion says anything visible that’s dated or dirty – carpet, wallpaper, paint – should get refreshed. Ettenson recently had a condo where the rooms had to be repainted, but the job was completed for just $2,500. “It made a huge difference,” he says.

Aging appliances fall into the same category. Sellers might consider replacing the worst offender with a new but basic model, or offer a cash credit to buyers toward the purchase of a new appliance, says Manion.

Because storage is so sought after, sellers can play a trick with a strategically placed armoire, which can give the impression of storage in a room with less-than-ample closet space. Best of all, the sellers can take the new-purchase armoire along with them when they move, says designer Kimba Hills of Rumba Style in Santa Monica, Calif.

Ettenson puts decluttering and depersonalizing at the top of his list. For example: Take personal photos off walls so buyers aren’t distracted and can see a room and its proportions, and follow the rule of no more than three things on any surface.

Unattractive curb appeal also is high on Manion’s list of changes, with everything from painting a front door to weeding beds, pruning dead limbs and spreading fresh mulch.

Major Improvements Take a Plan

More extensive changes require more careful assessment, since not expenses may be recouped. Among the biggest issues:

Dated roofs are at the top of Manion’s list, especially when they’re near the end of their life, which may include curling shingles. “In many areas, you can put on a new roof for $10,000,” says Manion, “and because it will come up in a building inspection it’s better to do it up front. Casual lookers also will notice the upgrade when driving by.

Standing water is another big deal because it can become mold, be more expensive to correct and is a huge deterrent to a sale. First, found out why it’s coming in, and be prepared to spend upwards of $10,000, says Mercier.

Cracks in the foundation are major but often can be easily fixed – sometimes for as little as $1,000 to $1,500, says Mercier.

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