Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A couple in their mid-50s with grown children is eager to sell their 3,800-square-foot contemporary house in favor of an easy-to-maintain apartment nearby. If they could free their equity, they'd have funds to travel the world and pursue their passion for jazz.

But after six months and no offers, they're dispirited. They've already cut their price twice and are now offering their place -- located in a popular suburban neighborhood -- for less than similar homes nearby.

The agent is urging them to remove furnishings that reflect their quirky tastes, like the futuristic neon orange sofas in their living room. She wants them to take down art reflecting their favorite pastimes, like a couple dozen posters of jazz artists. And she advises them to pack away the many family photos they have on display.

Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home," has never seen the jazz lovers' property. But he strongly agrees it's smart for home sellers to remove any items that reflect their personal lives and tastes.

"People buy houses on emotion, not logic or reason. When you have all that personal stuff around, like all your kids' pictures, they can't get beyond that to visualize their own family living there," Davis says.

Davis insists that "less is more" when it comes to personal items.

"When I take prospects through an empty room they usually start placing their own furniture immediately. It's amazing how quickly they'll bond with a house that's free of other people's things," he says.

Davis stresses that superficial steps -- like changes to a home's staging -- are no substitute for adjusting the price of a property that's sat unsold for a long time. But assuming the property is fairly priced and in good repair, he says a limited and relatively inexpensive number of surface changes can have a dramatic impact.

Here are a few pointers for home sellers:

-- Add style to your home with classy moldings.

It's no surprise that in their model homes, builders make extensive use of decorative interior trim -- including crown moldings, chair railings and wainscoting. That's because these decorative touches give a home a finished quality that exceeds the cost of the work, says Dorcas Helfant, a real estate broker and former president of the National Association of Realtors (

"Some people who are truly handy can install their own moldings. But most sellers are better off hiring a trim carpenter. For just a few thousand dollars you can get a tremendous amount of woodwork done by a pro," Helfant says.

Davis is especially favorable to moldings painted a glossy white to contrast with walls in a light champagne or beige color.

-- Change the colors of your interior and exterior paint.

By the time their property has gone on the market, many sellers have painted a room or two.

But to maximize the showing appeal of a property, more extensive painting could be a key to enhancing salability. For example, Davis strongly recommends that all sellers repaint their front door, the most visible surface of any property. And make sure you repaint any other interior areas where wear is apparent.

As a finishing touch to add luster, Davis suggests you replace the hardware on your kitchen and bathroom cabinets, a move that should cost no more than $50 to $100.

-- Treat your place to a thorough professional cleaning.

Often when Davis tells clients to ensure their place is very clean, they respond with baffled looks.

"People think clean means washing dishes, making beds and doing a bit of dusting. But I'm talking about the kind of clean you get when you check into a high-end hotel. Anyone who is selling a home can't afford to miss a bit of dirt," Davis says.

Though books such as "Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook" can give you direction, Davis says the best way for most sellers to achieve a high level of cleanliness is to hire a professional cleaning company.

"Once you've found the right cleaning company, give them a checklist of everything you need done. Among other projects, this should include a deep scouring of bathroom and kitchen tile to remove mildew and a painstaking cleaning of all the chandeliers and light fixtures. Expect the entire job to cost in the range of $200 to $400, depending on the size of your home," Davis says.

-- Make your windows sparkle again.

The odds are your cleaning crew won't take on one piece of work vital to your home's appearance: a thorough cleaning of your windows from the exterior. But Helfant says you can't afford to skip this. Nor should you avoid cleaning all your screens, which naturally gather dust and grime.

"Screens look a great deal better when they're clean, as do windows, which sparkle in the sunlight. Remember that the first visuals buyers see when they drive up are very important," she says.

Of course, home sellers can attempt to clean their own windows. But as Davis notes, the professionals have the equipment and skills to do a superior job, especially on hard-to-reach windows. The cost for professional window cleaning? Usually less than $200, though this will depend on the size of your property and the cost of labor in your area.

-- Do the surface upgrades quickly to keep your home on the market.

Sometimes the owners of an unsold home become so disheartened that they simply remove their property from the market until they can rework the place. Davis understands the desire to take a breather from the stress of selling. But rather than doing such a timeout, he urges sellers to schedule improvements on weekdays, when few buyers are likely to come by.

"Anytime you take your house off the market you lose potential buyers." If you do your touch-ups during the week, "you could be happily surprised to find that buyer interest has picked up by the next weekend after all the work is done," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at