The owners of a small split-level -- a high-school history teacher and his homemaker wife -- were at wits' end. To house their growing family, the couple was eager to sell their house and move to a larger space. But even as nearby properties were flying off the market, their place languished unsold. After six months, they decided to regroup.
An analysis by the couple's real estate agent indicated the house was correctly priced. Instead, the agent pinpointed the problem as the kitchen, which looked dated and needed a minor facelift. In response, the couple went into overdrive -- spending more than $18,000 on a major remodeling job that included new high-end cabinets and fine Italian-tile floors. They also installed all new stainless steel appliances, though the white ones in the house were still very presentable.
Soon after the renovation, the house sold. But Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home, insists the extensive kitchen renovation was "total overkill."
"These sellers spent vastly more money than necessary to make that house saleable," he says.
Though he wasn't the listing agent for the property, Davis visited it several times with potential buyers, both before and after the renovation. And he insists the couple could have done equally well with just $2,500 in kitchen improvements.
"Instead of blowing their budget and recouping a small fraction of their outlays, they could have achieved their goal by simply refinishing their existing cabinets and putting in fresh linoleum flooring," Davis says.
The moral of this true story, he says, is that expensive pre-sale improvements are rarely warranted, except for properties in very exclusive areas where buyer expectations are high.
"Why throw cash around needlessly? The sad reality is that sellers never get the chance to enjoy the expensive improvements they do before they move," Davis says.
How can sellers determine which upgrades will result in a winning sale and which will simply waste their money? Davis says it's smart to evaluate the competition before putting money into upgrades.
"Ask your listing agent to take you on a tour of all the available homes in your immediate vicinity. Create a list of the pros and cons of each property. That will help you clarify what changes are really needed to make your place show-worthy," he says.
Here are a few pointers for sellers:
-- Resist the temptation to overspend on kitchen improvements.
Of all the potential upgrades in a home, Davis says sellers are most likely to go off-course in the kitchen. That's because contractors who specialize in kitchen remodeling are often involved in extensive projects and are likely to recommend more work than is needed to sell.
"Cost overruns for kitchen improvements are rampant. Granted, your kitchen can make or break your sale. But you don't have to spend a fortune to make it look wonderful," Davis says.
For example, he says many dark kitchen cabinets, which are unappealing to contemporary buyers, can be easily refreshed by simply sanding and repainting them in high-gloss white.
For an updated look, Davis also recommends that sellers replace worn kitchen cabinet pulls and knobs with handsome new hardware in satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze. Such hardware can be obtained inexpensively through home center stores or online retailers.
-- Embrace fresh paint as a highly cost-effective upgrade.
Paint is one of the most powerful and reasonably priced tools available to sellers seeking to maximize the impact of their pre-sale dollars, says Elisa Dewees, a real estate agent who's listed and sold homes since 2000.
Still, she considers it a serious mistake to repaint in what she calls "custom colors." These include such personal choices as rose, bright green or vivid blue.
"Tastes vary widely, and it's very likely that colors which appeal to you will seem unattractive to the buyers who see your place. Remember that the last thing you want is to reduce the number of people who like the look of your house," Dewees says.
She has no financial interest in the Pottery Barn, a home furnishings retailer. But she recommends that home sellers examine the color palette shown in the company's online catalog -- subtle tones she believes reflect current homebuyer tastes. To see the catalog, go to the chain's website: www.potterybarn.com.
-- Improve the lighting in your bathrooms.
It's common for people who've lived in their home for many years to retain their original light fixtures. Indeed, the old light fixtures typically remain even after the tile work and cabinets are redone.
Dewees says that the multiple-bulb Hollywood-style lighting many people still use in their bathrooms doesn't appeal to most current buyers who want a fresher, less retro look.
"It's worth spending the time to search for light fixtures in a stylish, updated design. In many cases you can buy better fixtures for well under $100 per bathroom," she says.
-- Make carpeting a priority.
Ashley Richardson, an agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com), says many home sellers would prefer to offer buyers a "carpeting allowance" than to replace worn, stained or tired looking carpet. That's more convenient than tackling the project themselves.
But real estate agents often reject this idea, because few buyers can imagine how well the property will look once its old carpeting is replaced.
If you can't afford new carpet for the whole house, she recommends you focus on the areas most visible to visitors, such as the living and family rooms, rather than your smaller bedrooms.
-- Cut back any shrubbery that hides your home.
Some longtime homeowners become extremely fond of the greenery around their property. Even if their trees and shrubs shroud their property and make the interior seem dark, they resist cutting them back, according to Davis.
Pruning isn't usually expensive, unless major tree work is involved. But real estate specialists say that it's paramount because it's very tough to market a property hidden behind overgrown greenery of any kind.
"If people can't fully see a house, they can't appreciate it. And if they can't appreciate it, they'll never buy it," Davis says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)