Individual sellers can learn a great deal from mass-market homebuilders.
Take curb appeal, for example. There's a good reason builders skip every other lot when putting up model homes. Or leave out lawn-gobbling driveways. Or build models uphill from the street, never downhill. All these tricks of the trade are designed to make their homes loom as large as possible.
But while you can't rip out your driveway or make the house next door disappear, there are steps you can take to make a good first impression. If you don't try at least a few, you may not get a second chance to wow buyers with the inside of your palace. In other words, all the emphasis on interior home staging -- prepping a home's interior for maximum appeal -- could be for naught if you ignore the exterior. You have only a few key moments to spark someone's drive-up interest, so it pays to put your best facade forward.
Not many buyers will make up their minds from the curb alone. But many have found the outside of a house so unappealing that they didn't bother to go inside.
Fortunately, you can beef up your home's exterior for less than $500 and a weekend's worth of time. Power washing a stained walk or driveway is labor-intensive, but not that expensive. Ditto for trimming the shrubs, mulching the garden and planting colorful flowers.
If you have the time and money to go all out -- say, by replacing discolored siding, replacing worn-out windows or adding shutters -- you should be able to recoup most of your out-of-pocket cost.
According to the latest "Cost vs. Value Report" from Remodeling trade magazine, the projects offering the greatest return on investment involve what could be called "curbscaping." Seven of the 10 top-ranked projects are siding, window or door replacement jobs, with cost-value ratios above the average 71.6 percent.
"The high value of replacements is due partly to their relatively low costs," editor Sal Alfano said, commenting that most "immediately improve curb appeal."
But again, you don't have to go to that much trouble to make your home's exterior more inviting. All it takes is a critical eye toward detail and the desire to create attractive finishing touches that stand out from the street.
For starters, take a step back. Walk across the street and look at your place the way first-time visitors will see it. Give it a wide view, searching for positive features that can be highlighted and negative elements that can be hidden or even eliminated.
If it will help, take a photograph of your house to use as a basis for the improvements you want to make. Since color can affect your perception of problem areas, try looking at the picture in black and white, which shows the greatest contrast -- or the lack thereof.
The most obvious exterior improvement is a fresh coat of paint. Nothing creates impact more than color. Since different people have different tastes, keep it neutral, with earth tones as the main hue and stronger shades to accent the windows and doors. Keep in mind that two or three colors are enough to make a statement.
If painting the entire exterior isn't an option, consider painting at least the doors, shutters or window frames to give your place a little pop. If your front door is made of wood that has been painted, consider stripping off the paint and staining the wood, which is much more inviting.
Your front door should be visible from the street. If it isn't, add an arbor or other landscape element to point visitors in the right direction.
Potential purchasers are just as likely to show up after dark as in the daytime, so replace your front-door light fixture with a brighter, shiny one. Also, think about laying down landscape lighting. And remember to keep the lights burning in the evening. You never know when a buyer might be on the prowl.
If you have a front porch or stoop, clean or replace any furniture out there and add new, colorful throw pillows. The idea is to give visitors a place to stop and enjoy the front door.
For a little extra spark, add a polished door-knocker. Replacing an old, tarnished lockset and accenting the doorway with decorative pots or planters also are good ways to add vitality.
If you have a garage, especially one that faces the street, treat those doors the same way. If they are in bad shape, replace them. In some houses, garage doors take up half the front or more, so they contribute -- or subtract -- from curb appeal like any other element.
Remember to keep the doors closed at all times so visitors will feel the impact. You want people to see your smile, not be able to peer into your mouth.
Don't neglect the walk and driveway. They need to be clean and free of cracks. Put the kids' toys, the hose and other gardening tools out of sight.
Fresh grass or sod is another cost-effective way to dress up your property. Seeding, of course, is the least expensive way to go, but it takes time for the seed to germinate. Sod is faster but far more costly, especially if you have to hire someone to do the work. But it might be best for curing those bald spots in the lawn.
Either way, make sure you start the process long before the house goes on the market. The last thing you want visitors to see is a bunch of stakes and ropes that cordon off freshly planted areas and signs that warn folks to "Keep off the grass."
Chances are you already have shrubs and trees, so you probably won't have to invest in these key design elements. But make sure they are trimmed and tidy. Remove dead leaves, branches and debris, and add fresh mulch to dress up planting beds.
If your place is going on the market in the growing season, adding flowers is a minimal investment with a maximum payout. Fences and gates are far more expensive, but they are an excellent way to frame your entire yard and set it apart from your neighbors'.