Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


After a widow in her 80s died in an assisted living facility, it fell to her four grown daughters to prepare for sale the dated cottage where she'd raised her family.

Two of the sisters wanted to let the place go immediately in "as is" condition. Meanwhile the other two -- worried that the passe kitchen would be a problem -- proposed spending a small fortune on upgrades. To resolve the deadlock, the women called in Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker.

Davis, the author of "Home Makeovers that Sell," recommended a middle course. For only a few thousand dollars spent in the kitchen, he suggested they replace chipped linoleum countertops with mid-grade Corian ones. Also for a low price, they could replace dated metal cabinets with generic wood ones from Home Depot, which they could paint white.

"The kitchen -- which screamed 1940s -- had to be improved. But in the working-class neighborhood where the cottage was located, it was a fantasy to think they'd recoup the cost" of a top-grade remodel, he says.

The sisters were persuaded by Davis' reasoning, and the house eventually sold for full market value.

"When it comes to prepping to sell, everybody must de-clutter, clean and do basic repairs. But lavishing so much on upgrades that you raise your home above neighborhood standards is a colossal mistake," Davis says.

Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (, advises sellers to be attentive to cosmetic issues yet to limit their pre-sale spending to high-priority projects, such as minor improvements to their kitchen, bathrooms and front entrance.

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Look for an experienced agent for candid advice and guidance.

Those planning to market a home in poor condition are wise to search for 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."

Richardson says a trustworthy agent should give you a to-do list of tasks that are both reasonable and relatively inexpensive.

As the initial step in the agent-selection process, Richardson recommends you interview three candidates, asking each to critique your home and itemize cost-effective projects to make it more saleable.

"Don't be impressed by someone who pours on the flattery. Rather, you want an agent who looks you straight in the eyes and tells you what's real," she says.

-- Seek out assistance for the de-cluttering process efficiently.

Many longtime owners trying to sell a home in poor condition feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tasks facing them. De-cluttering is a particularly daunting project for those with health problems.

"What if you lack the energy, time or willpower to take on this large task? In that case, ask friends or neighbors to pitch in," Richardson says.

Davis tells the true story of a busy family that needed to sell the large home where they'd lived for more than 10 years. To speed the purging process, one of the teenagers in the family enticed his basketball teammates to help with the offer of doughnuts, unlimited pizza and soda. The teammates brought along cheerleaders, who also pitched in.

But what if no volunteers step forward? In such cases, Richardson suggests that sellers pay students or others looking for temporary, part-time work.

"Run an ad that asks for help 'pre-packing for a move.' And always be sure to check background references for any new person coming into your house," she says.

Richardson recommends you give your assistants a series of manageable tasks.

"For example, they could pack up the contents of an overloaded bookshelf or a china closet," Richardson says.

-- Help buyers envision how good your home could look.

Though many owners of rundown properties lack the funds for major improvements, Richardson says it's crucial that they make their place at least minimally appealing.

"Before going to see a house in person, nearly all buyers will preview the property online. If the place doesn't show well on the Internet, they'll never go out to see it," she says.

Besides clearing out clutter, you'll want to remove dated-looking furniture and drapes that can make your place look crowded, dark and dreary. In their place, your agent might lend you a few attractive pieces.

"Agents often have a stock of good furniture, rugs and lamps that their sellers can use during the showing period," Richardson says.

Besides adding cosmetic touches, she says those with limited funds may wish to provide visitors with mock-ups and contractors' estimates for needed improvements.

"You can always assume that buyers need help to visualize how great your home could look with the upgrades you can't afford," Richardson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at