Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Home sellers beware: Buyers are much more alert to property defects than they were in the past.

"Repeat buyers are especially wary if they once bought a house that proved to have serious problems after the deal closed," says J.D. Grewell, a veteran home inspector.

Grewell, who's affiliated with the American Society of Home Inspectors, says when he first entered the field in 1972, just 5 percent of buyers engaged the services of a professional inspector, compared with more than 60 percent now.

Eric Tyson, a consumer expert and co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," says it's critically important for sellers to address repair issues prior to hiring a real estate agent and putting their place up for sale.

He says it's always better to remedy your property's issues in advance of your listing than to risk a botched deal due to a problem that could be discovered by your buyer's home inspector.

One reason many sellers are reluctant to undertake pre-sale repairs is that they can be expensive. Another is that many people are unsure how to find reliable contractors, says R. Dodge Woodson, author of "Tips & Traps for Hiring a Contractor" and other home improvement books.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Consider hiring a home inspector to identify your issues.

Most homeowners can catalog small repair problems that must be addressed. Yet most lack the expertise to detect larger issues such as those involving a home's electrical, plumbing, heating or cooling systems. And they're ill equipped to diagnose a roof that's reached the end of its functional life.

Major problems are best detected by a qualified home inspector. To avoid late-stage revelations, Woodson recommends that sellers arrange for a pre-sale inspection to do an inventory of repair issues. One source for inspectors' names is the website of the American Society of Home Inspectors (

"An in-depth home inspection can be costly. But your money is well spent if it protects you from unpleasant surprises that could surface later and ruin your sale," Woodson says.

-- Search widely for the best contractors.

Woodson recommends against random Google searches or the use of Yellow Pages to hunt for contractors. A more dependable approach, he says, is to seek out recommendations from friends, neighbors or co-workers.

"Think of this as a treasure hunt that involves everyone you know," Woodson says.

In addition to those in your immediate circle, Tyson says you may wish to gather contractors' names through the real estate agent you've chosen to list your home.

"Realtors have a lot of dealings with contractors. They'll know if a contractor is doing a lousy job," he says.

Also, contractors may be more attentive to your project if they're aware you could complain to your agent about the quality of their work.

Besides seeking contractors' names from your listing agent, Tyson recommends you consider using an online consumer rating service such as Angie's List ( For a monthly or annual fee, this company provides reviews on service providers in metro areas throughout the country.

-- Seek multiple estimates.

Woodson, who's spent much of his career as a licensed plumber and has also run his own home improvement company, advises homeowners to obtain five estimates for any job expected to cost more than $1,000.

Five sounds like a lot of estimates. But Woodson says experience has taught him that consumers need a range of bids to gain perspective on pricing.

"Generally, you want a contractor in the middle of the pack on price. You can throw away an estimate from anyone who comes in 25 percent or more above or below the others. The company at the top is charging too much and the one at the bottom is probably cutting corners," he says.

-- Scrutinize a contractors' work by visiting other clients' homes.

After you've created a short list of contractors, you might assume that your next step is to ask any company you're considering for references. But Woodson calls this a "pointless exercise."

"What if the reference is someone's cousin or uncle? Such references are hardly objective," he says.

Also, Woodson says it's a mistake to rely on photos the contractor sends you through email.

"You'll never know if those photos have been doctored or if they show work done by a different firm," he says.

The best way to assess the quality of contractors' work is to check out their recently completed projects. Suppose, for instance, that the interior of your home needs a pre-sale paint job and a neighbor has recommended a painter.

"In that case, ask your neighbors if you can come over to examine the painter's work. They might be friendly and welcome your visit. Or they might be too busy to show you around. But either way, there's no harm in asking," Tyson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at