Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A woman owned a large colonial house close to Harvard University that she'd pampered for more than a decade. Among other features, she'd added a heated and air-conditioned conservatory. She'd also upgraded the kitchen with elegant limestone countertops.

When it came time to sell, the owner wanted a premium to reflect the exceptional condition of her house and its perfectly groomed gardens. And to the surprise of her listing broker, Fred Meyer, she soon received a bid offering every penny of that price.

"The over-the-top mint perfection of this house, along with its location, put it in a class of its own," he says.

Though the seller of this colonial was able to command a price higher than that fetched by other houses of comparable size in the area, Meyer cautions against seller hubris on pricing.

One way to get a handle on pricing for an exceptional property is to hire a real estate appraiser for an impartial evaluation.

The timing of your sale is another factor to consider when deciding how much to ask. Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (, says the owners of a showplace can be a bit bolder if they live in an area that currently favors sellers.

"But if you're selling a showplace in a buyer's market, I wouldn't go more than 3 to 5 percent above other homes of the same size in your area, even if your place is gorgeous," she says.

Here are pointers for sellers:

-- Don't assume you'll recoup every dollar spent on upgrades.

Many people who've been devoted to their properties have spent lavishly on improvements, and did so assuming they'd continue to live in the property indefinitely. Yet Helfant says sellers shouldn't assume they'll be reimbursed for every outlay they've made.

"You're especially unlikely to get all your money back for upgrades you've customized to your own particular preferences and taste," Helfant says.

"That's why builders outfitting a model home typically go for light, neutral features that appeal to the widest possible range of tastes," she says.

-- Look for a listing agent with a good eye.

"Visuals are especially important to show off a very good-looking house. These include photos for print advertising and video for online listings, including the 'virtual tours' now in widespread use," Helfant says.

She notes that an increasing number of agents are taking classes in digital photography and producing the sort of professional-quality visuals sellers need to compete.

-- Request a neighborhood-wide open house.

Some real estate experts downplay the value of an open house as a way to attract buyer interest. They say many open house visitors are either curious neighbors or wishful buyers who lack the money to go through with a purchase. In contrast, well-qualified buyers are typically guided through homes by their agents.

But Helfant says there's a way to increase the impact of an open house conducted for your showcase property: encourage other sellers in the neighborhood to hold open houses the same day, thereby increasing your potential draw.

Having multiple homes open simultaneously can be especially beneficial to the sellers of an attractive property. That's because buyers who visit multiple houses can easily make comparisons. And if your home is in superb condition, it will stand out from the pack.

-- Don't let owner pride cause you to back off from your selling plans.

Tom Early, a broker who was twice president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (, says pride is one characteristic many showplace owners have in common. As a result, they're often ambivalent about letting go and sometimes consider backing off from a planned sale.

But before retreating, Early urges you to look at the big picture -- taking into account the personal and financial implications of postponing.

"Granted, prices could rise in the future in your area. But you should factor in all the ways you could lose out by waiting," Early says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at