Nearly four years ago, Chris and I downsized from a 2,000-square-foot two-storey single-family home to a 1,400-square-foot condo on one floor. This is the story of how we readied our house for sale and sold it in the dead of winter to the third couple who looked at it.
It’s hard now to remember how bad the housing market was then. In late 2011 when we put it on the market, home sales were only beginning to show activity after a long recession. Other homes already for sale in our neighborhood weren’t moving, but we decided to give it a go. We wanted out.
Before you list
The longer it sits on the market, the more trouble you have moving it because prospective buyers wonder what’s wrong with it and shy away.
Plan to spend money to get it ready to put on the market, and plan to spend money on fixing items after an inspection, though the latter is usually negotiable.
Do everything you can to make your home look its best without spending too much BEFORE you talk to a realtor. I go into detail about the specific things we did later in the post, but know that we actually did most of them before we interviewed realtors because we wanted to make a good impression.
Interview at least three realtors and choose the one you think will do the best job for you, not necessarily the one who says your home is worth the most. If all three give vastly different estimates, interview more realtors until you find some consensus. You don’t want to overprice your house, but you don’t want to under-value it either.
And don’t get sucked in by offers of discounted commission. Two of the realtors we interviewed offered to shave their commission. One of those low-balled our home value, while the other two estimates were identical, so we automatically threw out the guy who was off. Of the two remaining, we went with the one who didn’t offer to discount because we thought he knew the area better and would do more to move the house. Turns out we were right.
Talk to your realtor before you make big, expensive updates or fixes. He or she will have a better idea about what’s important to buyers in your market.
Also make sure your realtor plans to have high-quality, professional, well-lighted photographs taken of your home. People use the Internet to narrow down the homes they want to visit in person, so these photos are extremely important. You want your house to look its best so they choose to visit.
Here’s a link to the video our realtor created to market our house:
Outside, front and center
The best tip we got was from the first realtor we interviewed: Fresh paint on the outside. This may sound like curb appeal 101 but actually went much deeper.
Our entire house was cement-board siding with a south-facing front and large, west-facing gable end that took a daily beating from the sun. Our home exterior WAS a lot of maintenance, but we didn’t want to call attention to that by it looking faded. The painter thought the existing tan was a little too yellow and said we could change the color slight to remedy that with just one coat. He also suggested red mahogany instead of dark green for the front door.
Here’s how it turned out:
Next up was landscaping. The front of the main house looked fine, but the garage front (right) and side yard beyond needed work. I planted three boxwood under the garage window to match the more mature boxwood under the other two windows, pink-flowering Rose of Sharon at either end and dwarf pink spirea in between and as you turn to approach the front door. Purple chrysanthemums went in pots on the front porch and in the ground along the side yard that faced the street.
The advantage of my landscape choices: Besides providing continuity in plant type and color, they were cheap. We even found a farmer nearby selling mums for $2.50 a pot right out of the ground and loaded up.
Side by side by side
This is a street-side view of our left side yard. When we built in 1992, we never thought to consider where the builder would place the house on this wide lot. We assumed he would center it. WRONG. He positioned it at the minimum setback from the street the covenants required so he could pour a shorter driveway and save himself some money, which left us with this HUGE side yard.
Through the years this area was a flower garden. You see the remnants of the circular enclosure, as well as an entrance arbor. That circle was originally filled with tall-growing shrubs for privacy. The winter before we put the house on the market was a bad one, and about half the mature shrubs died. Some of the remaining ones were diseased, so instead of replacing anything, we had it all removed.
We worried realtors would tell us either to replant it or take it out completely and seed with grass. Instead they said it looked as if I’d already laid out the flower beds for the new owner. By the time the house sold it was all under snow anyway, so I’m REALLY glad we didn’t do any more here.
In the back we tidied up, of course. Some siding had to be replaced on the back garage before painting, as well as some brick mold around a few windows. Chris did that himself.
The patio concrete was cracked, so I positioned the porch furniture over the crack and was going to buy an outdoor rug to hide it (sneaky, I know), but the realtor said not to bother, that people expect cracked concrete in a 20-year-old house. The buyers never brought it up.
Prepping your home for sale can be summed up in three words: Clean, repair, declutter.
Did I say clean? Let me say it again: CLEAN! Clean like you’ve never cleaned before. There is absolutely NO substitute for this. We took good care of our home as a matter of principle and were surprised when realtors gushed over it, though we knew every flaw. Apparently, most homes get the crap beat out of them on a regular basis, and the owners are oblivious slobs.
If you have pets, this goes double. Nothing turns off buyers more than smelling your pet when they walk in the front door. We’ve always had cats. No one has EVER been able to smell them out. It’s called “keeping the litterbox clean.” That means sifting out the big stuff periodically and changing the whole she-bang at least weekly. I’ve never owned a dog, so I have no specific advice to offer on that score.
Anyway, we didn’t do any painting inside beyond touch-ups. Mr. Clean wall erasers became my best friend, and we bought them in bulk at a warehouse store. I scoured reachable traffic areas of every inch of all the walls, millwork and doors to make them look as good as possible. Then we bought a few quarts of paint in matching colors and finishes and touched up scratches.
We also had some nail pops in the drywall and ceiling plaster, as well as a couple hairline ceiling cracks and rust spots from upstairs bathroom accidents. For $100 we hired a drywall contractor (not busy because it was late fall) to patch it all. It took him about an hour. He suggested we get a Kilz spray product for ceilings to cover his patches and the two stains. It blended in beautifully. The buyers didn’t notice either rust stain. The inspector found them however, but accepted our honest explanations.
I’ll go through the rest of the house room by room.
- Restyled and simplified the display in the china cupboard
- Reduced the gallery wall of pictures on the staircase, patched holes and painted over
- Cleaned the stained portion of the staircase with Old English to cover its many, many scratches
My husband and I used this room as a home office. I originally had another corner desk and hutch in it, too. I no longer used that, so we got rid of it. The goal was to make this 15-by-15-foot room look as large as possible and play up the exquisite custom cabinetry Chris designed and built.
When I painted the rest of the woodwork in the house sage green, my goal was eventually to paint the bookcases to match, but I never got there. And boy, were these shelves ever scratched up. But again, Mr. Clean wall erasers to the rescue!
- Edited our book and pottery collection to show off shelves to advantage. Note that all family photographs have been removed.
- Edited wall art, then touched-up holes
- Cleaned inside bottom cabinets as well, decluttered and arranged. The bottom panels on this unit were hinged to open out, and the insides were a mecca for spider’s eggs. We sucked those babies up with the central vac.
- Repurposed furniture from upstairs to create a seating vignette by the window. I recovered these chairs to match the window treatments with fabric on hand so they looked like they belonged.
- Restretched carpet. Because we once had so much heavy furniture in this room, the carpet had buckled right smack down the center. We thought we’d need to clean it after stretching, but honestly, you couldn’t tell there was ever a problem. Cost: $50.
This was my favorite room in the house. Everybody loved that fireplace, which is a good lesson to you if you’re building. Don’t skimp on the fireplace. The difference between a meh fireplace and a great one is probably about $500. Spend it.
If you’ll notice, we left a family portrait on the mantel. There were also two high school graduation photos of our daughter at left, beyond the camera’s reach. The realtors all said to leave them, that it put a face on the home’s caretakers without overdoing it.
Beyond that, all I did in this room was clean everything thoroughly and edit the tchotchkes. There was a pet stain that wouldn’t come out just beyond the right arm of the sofa. You can’t see it here, but I set a decorative chest on it.
PS: Chris made the cherry tea table at left, the coffee table, and the hanging cupboard. Isn’t he talented?
- Removed all pictures but the one over the stove
- Took everything off counters except coffee station and utensil crocks
- Removed prep island to make the kitchen look bigger
- Edited and styled the cookbook shelf
- Treated cabinets with a degreasing wood cleaner
- Removed ALL clutter from the outside of the refrigerator
- Thoroughly cleaned the inside of all appliances
Our laminate countertops were showing their age, but realtors advised against replacing.
This view of the kitchen is from the hallway that connects it to the dining room. I did have pots, pans and canisters stored on the shelves of the island.
An interesting story about this island: The realtor wanted to photograph the kitchen with and without it. We then removed it at his suggestion to make the kitchen feel bigger, but the photos he used were the ones WITH the island. Go figure. When the prospective buyers tendered their offer, they asked that the island and matching cookbook shelf be included. We knew we wouldn’t use these where we were going, so we agreed.
Chris designed and built both pieces from scraps left over from other woodworking projects. They cost us next to nothing, but they helped sell our house.
Too matchy-matchy, I know. Trust that my design taste has matured. We didn’t really do much to this room beyond cleaning. We asked the realtor if we should remove the leather chairs to make the room look more spacious, but he said no. He thought the fact that the room could manage two good size chairs and ottomans convinced people it was a big master.
The photo on the right shows the bathroom. While the sink/dressing area was spacious, the shower/water closet was small. When we built the house we actually shrank it down to make room for a HUGE master closet which, of course, you can’t see. This entire house had terrific closet space, which definitely was a selling point (but we still had to declutter to make the closets LOOK spacious).
The Fiberglas tub in this bathroom was cracked, which Chris had patched, and its towel bar was broken. It looked pretty sad. We did some research and found we could replace the towel bar and have a professional fix the crack. It cost about $200, and it looked brand new. Wish we’d done it sooner, but it sure beat replacing the whole unit.
We didn’t need to do much of anything in this bathroom. Yes, the light fixture is VERY dated, but again, the realtors said this wasn’t a big deal.
However, in the bedrooms we:
- Edited furniture
- Edited wall art
- Edited knickknacks
- Decluttered walk-in closets to look spacious and organized
The realtor said it didn’t matter that the rooms weren’t set up as bedrooms. It did matter that whatever WAS in them showed off their size.
Taming the Beast
Um, that would be my husband’s woodworking shop, which was, as you can see, a nightmare. The realtor said not to worry about it AT ALL (same for garage). Because these were work areas, the consensus was the clean mantra didn’t need to be chanted. Whew!
As a postscript, Chris took two weeks of vacation for the move. Packing up the shop and garage was left until that time, and it took all 14 days. He was still finishing up five days after closing when we were supposed to be out, while I rested up over at the new place.
Rely on your realtor to shepherd you through the rest
- Bird nests in the attic
- A window with a broken seal
- Some GFI outlets that didn’t trip
- A leak in the garbage disposal
- A leak in one of the bathroom sinks.
- A smidgen of mold on one beam in the attic, caused by insulation blocking off a soffit vent.
We didn’t know about ANY of this stuff or we would have fixed it for our own health and well-being! Our realtor negotiated away some other things noted by the over-zealous inspector but advised us to fix the aforementioned.
Our realtor then:
- Arranged for reliable subs at a reasonable price and scheduled all the repairs. He actually had a designated staff person whose job it was to do this with for every seller.
- Took the charges out at closing so we had no additional out-of-pocket expense.
- Stipulated in our offer that we had five days after closing before the new owners took possession. It isn’t unheard-of for people to move out in anticipation of closing next day and then the sale falls through.
- Specified changing closing to a more convenient location.
We had a lot to do to get ready to move from a house we lived in 20 years. He took on some of that stress for us and earned every bit of his “undiscounted” commission.
What else didn’t we do?
We didn’t replace (or even clean) carpet. Keep in mind it wasn’t filthy and worn out, okay? But it wasn’t new either. We didn’t update any light fixtures, bathroom fixtures, cabinets, countertops or appliances. The people buying your home probably plan to make changes. It’s likely they won’t share your tastes, so let them choose their own “big” stuff.
What matters most about a home?
- Structural integrity.
- Age and condition of roof
- Age and condition of the HVAC
- Absence of environmental pollutants (radon and out-of-control mold)
- Offering a home warranty
Nothing attracts a buyer more than a roof and HVAC that have been replaced within the last five years. We had both. Our house sold before ALL others in our neighborhood that went on the market before it.
We listed on Nov. 1, 2011, had two showings before Thanksgiving, then nothing until after the first of the year. Our realtor assured us this was normal, that the market would pick up after the holidays, and he was right. That first couple the first week of 2012 made an offer the day after they saw the place. Another showing was scheduled for later in the week, and we canceled it. We closed in late February and turned over the keys March 1.
A couple of the homes in our neighborhood that hadn’t sold switched to OUR realtor when their previous contracts were up. He later told us that though some of those homes were bigger than ours, they weren’t in as good condition, and so when they sold it was for less than ours. We didn’t get what we asked either, but we countered to split the difference between asking price and first offer, and the buyers agreed.
In retrospect, we probably could’ve held out for more; our buyers were that crazy about our house, and they were preapproved for more money. But we decided not to be greedy. We were anxious to move on, we needed to move on, and so we did. And we’ve never looked back.
May you have the same luck in selling your home.