Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


For nearly four years, a couple in their 50s -- both professionals -- were eager to downsize from their sprawling, 30-year-old house to a much smaller townhouse in a brand-new community. Though they yearned to be free of the headaches involved in the upkeep of the family home, they dared not put their house on the market until the economy improved. Now they're ready.

Why did the couple postpone for so long? Sheryl Petrashek, the real estate broker the couple hired to list the property, says that like many empty nesters with more space than they want or need, this couple had waited for market conditions to stabilize. Now they see glimmers of recovery.

"Since the downturn, there's been a huge pent-up demand to sell among people who held back because of the recession. Now they're willing to wait no longer," Petrashek says.

Kendall Bergstrom, a veteran agent who blogs extensively on real estate, says empty nesters represent a large percentage of the homeowners planning to sell this spring and summer. But she says few are willing -- or able -- to spend a lot on upgrades to make their property more marketable.

"A lot of people have little or no equity left in their houses. The most they can or will put in their house to help it sell is maybe $2,000 to $3,000," Bergstrom says.

Even so, she and other real estate specialists say a lot can be accomplished through low-cost pre-sale improvements.

Here are a few pointers for empty nesters trying to save on the sale of their home:

-- Invite friends to a "painting party."

"Fresh paint is a key factor in making your home look good to buyers," Bergstrom says.

Yet as she points out, painting can be pricey, especially if you hire a professional painting company. Or it can be fairly inexpensive, assuming your only costs are paint and supplies.

One way around the cost of professional painters that Bergstrom advocates is to throw a "painting party" involving eight to 10 friends. Ask them to wear clothes suitable for a day of painting and feasting.

"A painting party is fun, and you can get a lot of work done by 4 p.m. By then everyone is ready for a glass of wine and a nice meal," Bergstrom says.

The concept behind a painting party -- friends helping friends -- can also translate into other pre-sale projects, such as yard work and de-cluttering, she says.

Though Bergstrom says some home sellers are apprehensive about asking friends to help, she believes this is a needless fear.

"Because many people have been struggling financially, they're more sympathetic with others. They want to collaborate and help out," Bergstrom says.

-- Do a "power cleaning" for major impact.

"People loathe cleaning -- particularly if they're overworked at the office and come home tired at night," says Mark Nash, a real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home."

But doing an in-depth cleaning can be one of the most cost-effective steps that sellers can take to distinguish their property.

"The simple fact is that clean sells. Like it or not, people do judge a book by its cover. And any house that looks the least bit dirty will nearly always be passed over," Nash says.

However, remember that pre-sale cleaning will not be the superficial work you typically do before guests come over for dinner.

"You need to do a power cleaning -- the deepest cleaning you've ever done. For example, you need to clean every window, inside and out, no matter how high," Nash says.

Are you unwilling to tackle such an in-depth cleaning? Then Nash recommends you spend the few hundred dollars it costs to hire a well recommended cleaning company.

"For sellers, an investment in cleaning services gives a tremendous bang for the buck," he says.

-- Choose a real estate agent skilled in property staging.

These days, many sellers see the wisdom of engaging a professional "home stager." This is a design-minded expert who removes excess furnishings from a property and then rearranges the remaining items to make the place seem larger and more attractive.

Hiring a professional stager can cost $500 to $1,500 or more, depending on the size of the space. But cash-short empty nesters can obtain high-quality staging services for no extra charge by selecting a listing agent trained in the art, Bergstrom says.

"Many real estate people have added staging to their skill sets," she says

-- Have your home inspected before prospects come through.

In a seller's market, some buyers might waive their right to a home inspection to make their offer more competitive.

But buyers are feeling so confident these days that they rarely pass up the chance for an inspection. And when an inspector working for the buyers finds substantial issues, it's not unusual for them to exit a transaction.

As Nash says, many smart home sellers won't risk a failed deal, which could put their moving or retirement plans at risk. To avoid this outcome, he urges sellers to hire their own inspector before their place goes up for sale.

Granted, it can cost $200 to $600, and there will be more bills if the inspector locates problems that require repair. But that could be money well spent if it preserves your chance to sell on your timetable.

"The reality is buyers are now much more willing to walk away from a deal if scary-sounding problems are identified by their inspector. The best way to avoid this crisis is to identify and resolve all the issues before anyone comes through to look at your place," Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at

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