Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A couple in their 60s were so eager to move to a retirement community that they failed to fix up the split-level place they'd vacated before it went on the market.

"It was a long battle to get that old house sold until the owners paid attention to the need for cosmetic improvements and extra cleaning," recalls Sid Davis, a long-time real estate broker and author of "Home Makeovers That Sell," who listed the property.

Despite their eventual attention to minor repairs recommended by Davis, the owners were compelled to accept an offer that Davis estimates was at least $10,000 below market value.

"When a vacant house languishes on the market for a period of time, people become suspicious that something is seriously wrong and the place gets stigmatized. That's why you want it to show in tip-top condition from the outset," he says.

Why is a vacant home often more difficult to market than a pleasantly furnished one? Eric Tyson, co-author of "House Selling for Dummies," says many vacant properties convey a chilly feeling to visitors.

"This uninviting quality makes it extremely difficult for buyers to envision themselves living there," he says.

Tyson says it's usually wise for the sellers of a vacant home to spend a few thousand dollars on cosmetic upgrades. Also, he suggests they consider engaging the services of a "home stager." This is a design-oriented professional who can lend the sellers a few key furnishings.

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Begin your listing at a realistic price point.

Whether the property you're trying to sell is vacant or still occupied by your family, you need to check out your competition and adjust your pricing accordingly, Davis contends.

"Starting off on the right foot is key. If you're in a buyer's market, you may wish to price your property just a notch below other homes in the same neighborhood," he says.

-- Address all the flaws in your vacant home.

"The sellers of an empty house should think of it as naked. In the absence of furnishings, every blemish is highlighted," Davis says.

"Take care of those stains on the carpet and marks on the hardwood floors. Also, paint all your interior walls in a light neutral shade," Davis says.

Once you believe you've resolved all the cosmetic issues -- along with functional problems like a leaky faucet -- go back again room-by-room with a clipboard to itemize items you may have missed.

-- Consider engaging the services of a professional home stager.

While many for-sale homes have too much furniture, an empty house needs a few well-chosen pieces of furniture so potential buyers can see the scale of its rooms.

Granted, you can always rent or buy furniture to outfit a vacant home. But Tyson says a better solution could be to hire a professional home stager to lend you a few well-chosen "props" to stage your place.

"Many people resist the notion of hiring a stager due to the cost. But when you're trying to sell a vacant house, paying for a minimal level of staging is usually money well spent," he says.

Your listing agent may have good leads on professional stagers in your area. Or you could consult the Real Estate Staging Association (

-- Make sure your vacant home remains in show-worthy condition.

Listing agents like vacant properties because they're so easy to show, without the need for complicated arrangements with the family living there.

"It's a definite positive that a vacant house can be shown whenever you'd like. But this availability is only a plus if its sellers keep the place in tip-top condition," Davis says.

Fortunately, a vacant house doesn't suffer the problem of dirty dishes in the sink or children's toys spread all over the family-room floor. Even so, things can go wrong. Litter and newspapers can pile up on the front lawn. Light bulbs can burn out. Faucet leaks can develop. And, obviously, dust and cobwebs are a given.

Suppose you've moved a significant distance from your old house. How can you be sure your vacant property will keep looking its best until the day it sells? Davis suggests you hire a local high school or college student to handle the mail, newspapers and routine yard work. It's also critical that your agent keep a close eye on the place.

"It's not too much to ask of your agent to check on your vacant place at least every few days. In fact, I recommend you get this promise written into your listing agreement," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at