A couple in their 50s ached to sell their four-bedroom family house in the suburbs in favor of a slower lifestyle in the country, where they could inhale fresh air and spend nights gazing at a star-studded sky. Soon after putting their property up for sale, they found and bought the perfect rural cottage.
Eager to move, they took all their furnishings to the new home, leaving their former house vacant. That made it much tougher to market the property, says Kurt Albers, the real estate broker who handled the listing. As he notes, when a house becomes empty, all its flaws become obvious to buyers. For example, they focus on marks on the carpet where furniture stood and on the walls where pictures once hung.
Visual eyesores aren't the only problem.
"Vacant houses often have a stale smell because the windows and doors are rarely open. And odors can be a huge barrier to getting a house sold," says Albers, who's been in the real estate business since 1994.
To make the house more presentable and get it sold promptly, Albers' clients followed his recommendations. They hired a professional cleaning crew to redo their carpets and painters to freshen the entire interior. They also ensured that all needed minor repairs, such as a shaky stair railing, were fixed. In addition, they brought back a select few items of furniture and hired a home stager to arrange them artfully.
"It's much better to market a house in move-in condition. That way, you sell faster and for more money than if the property is sold in 'as is' condition," says Albers, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com).
He says a vacant house that lingers unsold raises buyers' suspicions and can encourage below-market offers from those who believe the sellers are under pressure to move.
Why is it usually harder to sell a vacant house than one that's attractively, if only minimally, furnished? Jane Fairweather, a veteran broker who heads a real estate team with multiple agents, says the problem is that most buyers lack visual imagination.
In fact, as she points out, in a market with ample inventory, a property that's vacant may not even make it onto a buyer's "short list" because it will not show well in online pictures.
"More than 90 percent of buyers meet houses for the first time on the Internet. Online, houses that are vacant look flat and lack perspective," Fairweather says.
-- Begin your listing at a realistic price point.
Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home," advises sellers to check out their competition and adjust their pricing accordingly before putting any property up for sale.
If nearby homes are selling at a rapid clip in your area, meaning you live in a so-called "high velocity" neighborhood, Davis says you can be more aggressive in your pricing. But if the local economy and unemployment rate show signs of weakness, you should enter the market at a price point that's very conservative. This is the best way to avoid the stigma of a slow-to-sell property.
-- Fix any cosmetic flaws in your vacant home.
Davis stresses that the sellers of vacant property can't afford to present their place in anything but pristine condition.
To maximize a sale, Davis contends it's essential that vacant homes be freshly painted on the interior, in a light, neutral tone.
He also urges the owners of vacant homes to replace worn carpet and refinish (or replace) hardwood floors that need work. In addition, they should fix any unsightly areas that visitors might encounter, such as scratch marks in a cast-iron kitchen sink.
"If you don't address the minor stuff, buyers won't be able to grasp the overall beauty of the house," he says.
-- Consider hiring a professional stager.
Eric Tyson, co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," says a vacant property needs a few well-chosen items of furniture so that would-be buyers can see the scale of its rooms.
Of course, you can always rent or buy furniture to outfit a vacant home. But Tyson says a better solution is to hire a professional home stager to lend you the "props" you need to present your place thoughtfully.
Your listing agent may be trained to provide staging services. Or you can turn to professional stagers' organizations to find leads in your area. One such group is the Real Estate Staging Association (www.realestatestagingassociation.com).
-- Maintain your vacant home in show-worthy condition.
As agents know, one plus of marketing a home that's vacant is that it's so convenient to show, without the need for complex arrangements with the family living there.
A vacant house doesn't suffer the problem of dirty dishes in the sink or kids' toys spread across the family room floor. But other things can go wrong. For instance, newspapers and litter can pile up on the front lawn. Light bulbs can burn out. A leak might develop in a bathroom faucet. That doesn't count the dust and cobwebs, which are a given.
You can always hire a neighborhood teenager to pick up newspapers and do routine yardwork. But Davis says it's also important to ensure that your listing agent keep a close eye on the property, stopping by at least twice each week.
"Looking after your vacant home is part of your agent's professional responsibility, and it's not that much of a burden," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)