Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Selling a Humble House in a Posh Neighborhood

Do you live in a modest house in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in your metro area? And do you plan to sell soon? If so, you could be well positioned for a successful sale.

With mortgage rates low and available homes in short supply in many coveted communities, you can probably bank on a seller's market in the near future.

"With your sale, you'll likely receive more per square foot than your neighbors in more impressive houses near you. The reason is that your place represents a lower-cost admission ticket into the same upscale community," says Tom Early, a veteran real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.

But Mark Nash, a longtime broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," cautions sellers against inflated expectations -- no matter how prestigious their neighborhood.

"Obviously, if you're selling a plain three-bedroom bungalow in a sea of elegant Tudors, you'll never get as grand a total price as (your) neighbors. Yet, if you play your cards right, you'll still benefit financially from the neighborhood's reputation," Nash says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Rule out a plan to "test the market" on price -- no matter where you live.

"Sellers who price over fair market value from the outset can be severely penalized later in the game, particularly if their house languishes unsold for a long time," says Joan McLellan Tayler, the author of several real estate books.

"When you hear other residents touting the high prices that sellers have obtained in your area, it's easy to get an overblown view. Remember that the neighbors may be confusing list prices with sale prices. Also, they likely don't know what concessions other sellers made to get their deals done," Tayler says.

Also, as Nash notes, trying to compare your "C" house with "A" properties in the same community can be like comparing apples and bananas.

When comparing your small house with one that has coveted features, make sure you and your agent adjust for the difference in amenities as well as square footage.

-- Seek to create a gorgeous front yard to frame your small place.

"There's a reason many affluent buyers favor high-end neighborhoods: They're disproportionately status-conscious. They expect friends and colleagues to drive by their house. As a result, their home's landscaping takes on special importance," Nash says.

Though the yard in front of your modest property may lack the scale of the grounds of nearby homes, you'll still benefit from carefully selected upgrades.

You may wish to consider hiring a landscape designer to create an overall plan for your yard, emphasizing blooming plants. Then, to save money, do your own installation of the trees and shrubs included in the plan.

Also, Nash urges you to ensure that all your greenery, old and new, is trimmed to below the window level, so as not to hide the intrinsic beauty of your house.

"Why mask a good-looking house? Make sure you expose your place to the world," he says.

-- Go for some exquisite detailing within your interior.

Realtors rarely recommend major renovation work, such as the addition of a full family room to a house with only a small den. That's because sellers often don't recoup the cost of the addition, even in a luxury community.

But Nash says you can expect to be well compensated for money spent on interior detailing.

"Fine finishes give buyers clues that you fit into the fancy neighborhood, even though your house is small. Affluent buyers are particularly aware of fine finishes, specialty wallpaper, crown moldings and tasteful paint tones," he says.

Don't necessarily choose the lowest bid from a painter. When it comes to painting, preparation is more important than price. To obtain a quality job, Nash says the painter should do extensive preparation of walls and trim.

"A good paint job can address a lot of flaws in your walls," he says.

-- Give your floors extra attention.

Many expensive homes, including brand-new properties, still feature wall-to-wall carpeting in many rooms. However, Nash says homebuyers are increasingly likely to favor hardwood floors -- particularly in high-end neighborhoods.

Nash urges sellers who already have hardwood floors to consider getting them refinished. Also, those living in prestigious communities may wish to replace wall-to-wall carpeting with new hardwood in highly visible parts of the property.

-- Consider hiring a home stager or interior designer.

You and your agent may have the best of intentions in attempting to improve the look of the home you plan to sell. But, as Nash says, few homeowners and agents have the good taste and skills to create the best possible look.

Sellers planning a minor interior redo may wish to hire a real estate stager to make their interior more appealing. One source of stagers is the Real Estate Staging Association (realestatestagingassociation.com).

For a major redo, consider hiring an interior designer for advice on the best paint colors and fabrics. Though a designer's services can cost up to $150 an hour or more, Nash says this expenditure could be well worth the cost if it increases the salability of your place.

"It's astonishing how a few well-chosen yet inexpensive decorating elements can transform the impression that buyers have of a home," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)