Don’t Go Overboard When Getting a House Ready for Sale

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Tony Mascone has accepted a job offer in Colorado and has until December to sell his house in New Jersey. He and his wife, Liz, have been discussing what to do to get the place ready for the market.

Time is working both for and against them, real estate agents have told them. Inventory has not been increasing as fast as in the past 18 months, and if that trend continues, they will be dealing with less competition. The autumn market, which is the second most important of the year, starts right after Labor Day, so they have a few weeks to get the house ready to show.

There are other things working in their favor. The school district they live in is considered the region’s best, and that attraction has been enough to offset some of the negative effects of the real estate downturn. Prices have continued to increase rather than decline, although only about 5 percent last year, compared with 15 to 20 percent in 2003 and 2004, which housing economists are calling a more “normal” rate of growth.

The house next door sold a few months ago for $375,000, which was 96 percent of the asking price and represented a profit of $175,000 for the owners. The Mascones paid $280,000 for their house four years ago, and have not needed to put very much into it, other than some landscaping in the front, which, Tony said “brought the front of the house in line with the other houses on the street.”

When he accepted the job offer more than a month ago, Tony began coming up with projects that he believed would make the house more competitive with comparable houses on the market in the neighborhood. One of those projects was to renovate the kitchen, including putting in tile counters and backsplashes to upgrade from the laminate that served them and the previous owners well.

“This is something I can do,” Tony said, “and I don’t think it will take a lot of time. We’re also thinking of putting in a new floor in the kitchen and perhaps change the appliances.”

Liz emphasized, however, that the “we” Tony was referring to was actually “he,” and turned to the real estate agent they had decided to work with for help.

“She talked him out of a wholesale kitchen renovation because it would take too much time and it really wasn’t necessary,” Liz said. “She said if Tony wanted to remove the old wallpaper from the kitchen and paint, and if he really had his heart set on repainting the cabinets, that would be fine.”

Tony’s plan for a kitchen renovation isn’t motivated by a belief that he would get more money by doing so. He was, in his words, “looking at the other houses in the neighborhood and I thought that everyone’s kitchen was nicer than ours and if ours was nice, too, we could sell it faster.”

Kate Burton, a spokeswoman for CertainTeed, the building products’ manufacturer, said that Tony’s original and unnecessary plan for wholesale kitchen renovation was not uncommon.

“It is often difficult for homeowners to look at their houses objectively and come up with remodeling ideas on their own,” said Burton, who suggested that neighbors and family members are often more objective.

Veteran real estate broker Joanne Davidow suggested that too often, people who are focused on selling their houses quickly often come up with a list of projects that create lengthy delays instead.

“They end up missing the window of opportunity to sell,” she said. “In addition, most of the projects are completely unnecessary to the sale or reflect their own tastes rather than those of the majority of buyers in their market.”

Her favorite example is the man who added a $60,000 kitchen addition that didn’t increase the value of the house and was bulldozed within six months of the purchase by the new owner.

“Cosmetic changes are important,” said longtime agent Bari Shor. “If the rooms look dark and small, a lighter paint can make them look bigger. That can go for the kitchen, too. With so many houses on the market these days, buyers do have a lot of houses from which to choose and are taking their time deciding, but you can’t anticipate what will make them stop at your house and stay there with any degree of certainty.”

Real estate agent Diane Williams makes use of stagers to help her with the tough houses. Because she has been selling houses for so many years, she can pretty much walk into a house that has been lingering on the market and suggest changes that will move it.

“Then I hand them a list of stagers that I’ve used and suggest they contact them,” she said. “My job is to figure out the problems, but the staging professionals are designers who can do the work.”

So far, she’s had great success.

Tony has been spending the last couple of weekends following the real estate agent’s suggestions.

“It’s going really well,” she said as she loaded their two boys into the car. “We, however, are spending these weekends with my mother.”

Written by Al Heavens

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