Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


After a routine medical scan, a divorced woman in her 50s discovered she had cancer. She needed intensive treatment that would cost a small fortune beyond what her health insurance would cover.

Due to her financial bind -- plus a yearning to live closer to family as she fought the illness -- the woman decided to liquidate her townhouse and move as soon as possible. But because the sale was unexpected, and due to her lack of cash, she let her house go on the market in "as is" condition, with disappointing results.

It's not an unusual occurrence, according to Claire Prager, a real estate broker in the field since 1988.

She says the real-life story of the divorced woman is a common scenario she's witnessed many times during her career.

"Even people with private health insurance can exhaust the funds they need to get their house ready for market if their illness has cost them their job and savings. I've seen people in this situation with $2 million houses who are flat broke and must sell," says John Rygiol, the broker-owner of an independent realty firm.

Realtors routinely advise sellers that it's wise to spend money on cosmetic improvements. That's because sellers can typically recoup more than what it costs them for minor upgrades, like painting and carpet replacement, which make a strong visual impact.

But that doesn't mean homeowners with few resources can't increase their odds of netting more for their "as is" property with little or no cash expended. Even those who must rely on volunteers to make their homes presentable are better off than sellers who do nothing to improve the looks of their place, Rygiol says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Ensure that your place is at least clean and cleared out.

"It's unbelievable the bad reaction people have to a house that's messy," says Rygiol, whose business is oriented solely to home purchasers.

Through his years selling real estate, Rygiol has observed buyers' reactions when they visit a clutter-ridden home.

"Even if your health crisis keeps you from participating, you should be able to find people to help tidy your place. Those who can't do the work themselves should locate people in their community to assist," he says.

If your family and friends are dispersed around the country and unable to help, Prager suggests you start your search for volunteers by looking on the Internet for a support group, such as a cancer survivor network or a nearby faith-based organization.

As you embark on a cleaning and de-cluttering blitz, she recommends you focus first on removing excess furniture and personal items that make it hard for those viewing your place to picture themselves living there.

"For example, I'm talking about all those photos and notes attached to your refrigerator with magnets and all those many family mementos. Get all these items packed up and put away in a storage area, such as your garage," Prager says.

Once you've cleared away your superfluous items, make sure your home is sparkling clean. A clean house is a powerful lure to get visitors to walk through the entire house rather than making a quick exit at the front door, she says.

-- Focus your painting on the most visible parts of the property.

It's unlikely you'll find volunteers to take on a large-scale house-painting project without compensation. Yet Rygiol says you should be able to recruit people who will donate their time and money to assist with relatively minor painting and touch-ups.

"Paint can cost as little as $20 a can. But if you're selling 'as is' and can't afford to paint much, focus on the highest-priority areas in the property by at least painting your front door and entryway," he says.

-- Find a listing agent skilled at home staging.

Home stagers are people hired to rearrange and supplement furnishings to make properties seem more appealing.

Mark Nash, the author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says many stagers charge at least $300 or more for a minor redo. But if you lack the funds to pay a stager, he suggests you look for a listing agent willing and able to provide such services without charging you a fee to do so.

"An increasing number of agents are trained in the art of staging and some are getting very good at it," he says.

How can you be sure that agents who claim expertise in staging will do a good job? Nash recommends you ask them to email you "before and after" photos of properties they've staged.

-- Make sure you calculate your listing price with your urgency in mind.

Despite their desire for a quick sale, Rygiol says some sellers are still tempted to "test the market" with an original list price at the high end of their neighborhood range.

But he says those in this predicament are better off pricing accurately from the outset. This means they're selling at the precise current market value of their property, or a notch below to attract bidders.

"Go around your neighborhood and look at for-sale signs as indications of the strongest and most successful agents in your area. Then call three of these top agents and ask them to come over and recommend a totally realistic selling price," Rygiol says.

He says you shouldn't necessarily select as your listing agent the one who suggests the highest list price of the three, perhaps as a form of flattery. Rather, listen intently to their advice on how your "as is" property should go on the market.

"Tell your agent you want to sell in 90 days or less, and ask what price and marketing plan will get that job done," Rygiol says.

Prager says that "as is" sellers who are realistic about the current market value of their property are the ones who fare best and sell most quickly.

"Selling a house is like everything else in the retail world -- the best price sells fastest," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at