A couple in their 40s -- a truck driver married to a convenience store manager -- were in the throes of a nasty breakup when they rang Sid Davis to say they wanted to liquidate their property promptly.
Davis, an experienced real estate broker, knew from their address that the couple lived in a strong starter-home community with coveted one-level houses. Thus he assumed their robin's egg-blue property, with 1,450 square feet of living space and a popular floor plan, would be an easy sell.
But what Davis found upon visiting the home was disappointing. Through the turmoil of their unhappy marriage, the couple had let their property deteriorate badly.
"The carpets were shot, the paint was old and peeling and the vinyl floor in the kitchen was totally worn out. Besides, the house was jam-packed with clutter," he says.
Davis, the author of "A Survival Guide for Home Sellers," failed to convince the couple to restore the good looks of the house with fresh paint, new carpet and a replacement kitchen floor. The only thing they agree to do was to clean and clear clutter.
"Because of their resistance, we had to chop 15 percent off what the house would have sold for in good condition. Also, the sellers had to give the buyers -- a couple in their 20s looking for a bargain -- an $8,000 allowance for carpet, paint and flooring," Davis says.
Why are some sellers with a property in poor condition unwilling to do the cosmetic work necessary to maximize their profits?
Homes are allowed to deteriorate for many reasons. Elderly sellers and those confronting serious health issues are understandably more focused on their ailments than on keeping up their property. Also, cash-strapped owners of all ages who have to sell for financial reasons often lack the available funds to make a property show-worthy.
Ashley Richardson, a real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com), says people facing foreclosure sometimes become so disheartened that they can't muster the will to improve their home.
"When their finances fall apart, some people just give up hope and their coping skills decline. They default on an emotional level," Richardson says.
In some cases, she contends that spending a significant sum to prep a house in poor condition for sale is a bad idea, especially for people who must make a quick exit.
"You should limit your spending to high-visibility projects that give you the best return on investment. These include minor upgrades to your front entrance, kitchen and bathrooms," Richardson says.
Here are a few more pointers for sellers:
-- Seek out a seasoned agent for unvarnished advice.
Are you stressed out by the prospect of overseeing all the work that must be done to get your home ready for sale? If so, you'd be wise to seek a listing agent willing to serve as a project manager, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "House Selling for Dummies."
"For fear of offending you, not all agents will tell you the truth about all the work needed to make your place look good. Yet that's information you really need in order to make the right decisions," Tyson says.
As Richardson says, a reputable agent shouldn't only give you a list of tasks worth doing, but should also tell you which upgrades wouldn't warrant the expense.
"For instance, it's usually not smart to replace high-end cabinets in a rundown house. But you might want your current cabinets repainted," she says.
As the preliminary step in the agent-selection process, Richardson recommends you interview three candidates. Ask each to analyze your property and tell you which cost-effective steps would make it more saleable. Go with the one who gives the most realistic assessment.
-- Call in help to speed your de-cluttering process.
Sorting through clutter is an especially daunting prospect for seniors or those with health problems.
"People who aren't in a position to undertake all this work themselves should try to recruit help from friends or family members," Richardson says.
If no volunteers step forward, she suggests that sellers attempt to hire students or others seeking a temporary, part-time job.
Some homeowners who are selling "as is" think it's pointless to bother with the removal of clutter. But Richardson says it's absolutely necessary.
"Remember that no one, not even bargain buyers willing to accept a fixer-upper, will give you a fair price for a house so crowded with clutter that they can't even see how big the rooms are. Very few people can see past lots of junk," she says.
-- Assist buyers trying to imagine your home's potential.
Although many sellers of rundown homes can't afford to do worthy improvements, Richardson says it's still critical they make their property look at least minimally appealing.
"The reality is that all buyers first see houses online. If they don't like what they see on the Internet, they'll never go see your place in person," she says.
Besides removing clutter, you'll want to remove any furnishings that look dated. Your listing agent might lend you a few attractive pieces to make your place look better.
"Real estate people often own some good rugs, lamps and pieces of furniture that clients can use," Richardson says.
Also, she recommends that the owners of a rundown house give visitors mock-ups and contractors' estimates for needed improvements.
"The best approach is to do the cosmetic upgrades yourself before the house goes on the market. But if that's impossible, use any strategy you can to help buyers to at least realize the potential of your diamond in the rough," Richardson says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)