Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Sell a Run-Down Home

In many popular communities, houses on the high end are selling at a leisurely pace. But in the starter-home category, the supply-demand ratio is very much in the seller's favor.

"We're seeing starter homes sell even before they hit the multiple listing service," says Pam Gebhardt, a veteran real estate broker.

In past years, first-time buyer households were unwilling to even consider a "fixer-upper." But that's now changing in desirable areas where entry-level properties are scarce.

Gebhardt tells the true story of some clients in their mid-20s who want to live in an up-and-coming city neighborhood. To gain entry into the coveted neighborhood of their choice, the couple is now considering a house that would require extensive remodeling work. It's a duplex the current owners attempted to convert into a single-family home, but didn't finish the job.

Are you planning to sell an entry-level property in poor condition? If so, these pointers could prove of value:

-- Seek a seasoned agent for frank advice and wise counsel.

Owners planning to market a run-down home are wise to seek out a listing agent willing to serve as a project manager, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of "House Selling For Dummies."

"Not all agents will give you unvarnished advice and direction on steps you should and shouldn't take to get your house ready for market. But the right agent will spare you costly errors," Tyson says.

Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (, says a skilled agent should give you a list of doable tasks.

"For example, you wouldn't want to put high-end cabinets into the kitchen of a house that's in overall poor condition. But you might want to have your current cabinets repainted," she says.

As the first step in the agent-selection process, Richardson recommends you interview three candidates, asking each to critique your home and itemize cost-effective steps that would make it more saleable.

"You want someone who will look you straight in the eye and tell you the truth, not someone who just tries to flatter you into giving them the listing," she says.

-- Solicit help with the de-cluttering process.

As Richardson says, many owners trying to sell a home in bad condition feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the work facing them. De-cluttering is an especially daunting prospect for those with health problems.

"Sellers who can't do this work themselves should ask family members and friends to help," she says.

But what if no volunteers step forward? In such cases, Richardson suggests that owners may wish to hire students or others looking for temporary, part-time work.

"Post an ad asking for help 'pre-packing for a move.' And be sure to check background references on any stranger coming into your house," she says.

Richardson recommends you give the person you hire a series of manageable tasks.

"For example, tell them to pack up the contents of your china closet or an overloaded bookshelf. Tell them to put the packed boxes in your garage in neat stacks," Richardson says.

It may seem counterintuitive for the owners of a home priced for an "as is" sale to bother with the removal of clutter. But Richardson says it's essential.

"No one will buy a house if they can't even see how large its rooms are. People can't see past a lot of clutter," she says.

-- Give potential buyers a feel for your home's possibilities.

Though most owners of property in poor condition lack the funds for major improvements, Tyson says it's important that they make their place at least minimally appealing.

"Nearly all buyers now preview properties online. If they don't like what they see there, they're unlikely to go visit the place, even if it's priced well and located in their perfect neighborhood. That means any house that can't pass the online test will likely be overlooked," he says.

Besides clearing out your clutter, you'll want to remove any beat-up furniture or window coverings that make your place seem dark and drab. Your agent may have a stock of furnishings to lend you that would make your place look fresher.

In addition to cosmetic touches, Tyson says the owners of a run-down home should consider providing visitors with mock-ups and contractors' estimates for needed improvements.

"Always remember that most people are devoid of imagination -- meaning they'll need help to envision how great your house will look once all the necessary work is done," Tyson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at