Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Budget-friendly Tips for Pre-sale Prepping

On the national level, property values continue to rise. Indeed, homes in half the country’s metro areas gained more than $10,000 in value within a year. What’s more, there’s a severe scarcity of property in the starter home category.

The statistics come from Zillow, which tracks housing markets throughout the country.

“We’re in the midst of an inventory crisis that shows no signs of waning -- impacting potential buyers all across the country,” says Svenja Gudell, Zillow’s chief economist.

With too many buyers chasing too few available properties, is overconfidence justified on the part of home sellers? Not at all, real estate experts say.

“In every city and every neighborhood, there are always sellers who either can’t get their house sold or who are getting only weak offers,” says Eric Tyson, a consumer advocate and co-author of “House Selling for Dummies.”

Despite inventory shortages, most buyers retain high standards and find it tough to picture themselves living in a house with peeling paint, cluttered rooms or mold-ridden bathrooms.

At a time when sellers are riding high, is it worth it to plunge precious savings into a home just to make it more aesthetically appealing to buyers? Yes, says Dorcas Helfant, the broker-owner of several realty offices.

“For a relatively small sum -- usually under $10,000 -- and a little hard work, sellers can often transform a ho-hum place into a much more likable one. Usually, the return on investment is well worth it,” says Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Bring class to your property with interior moldings.

There’s a reason homebuilders make extensive use of decorative interior trim work, such as crown moldings, chair railings and wainscoting. That’s because these embellishments give a home a finished quality that usually exceeds the cost of the work, says Sid Davis, author of “Home Makeovers That Sell.”

“For a few thousand dollars, (homeowners) can get a lot of quality woodwork done,” Davis says.

Davis tells a true story to illustrate the appeal of well-crafted interior trim. He recalls handling two listings for 1950s-era cottages with nearly identical floor plans and price tags. But one had extensive moldings and the other had none.

“A couple in their 20s had been scouring the neighborhood for the perfect starter home. After looking at the two cottages, they immediately picked the one with the moldings," Davis says.

-- Freshen the paint in more rooms.

Replacing bright or unusual colors with neutral shades is standard practice when prepping a home for sale. But to put your place in superior showing condition, further painting could be warranted. For example, Davis strongly recommends you get a first-class paint job on your front door, the most visible surface of your property. Also, have a painter freshen any walls or rooms that need touchups due to wear.

“To give your place a finished quality means every single ding must be filled in, sanded and redone. Search all your high traffic areas for imperfections,” says Davis, adding that professional painting shouldn’t cost more than $200 to $600 per room.

“Remember to ask your contractors to paint your moldings in a light, contrasting tone, such as glossy white, so they’ll pop out and look sensational,” he says.

As a finishing touch to add luster, replace all the hardware on your kitchen and bathroom cabinets, a step that should cost no more than $150.

-- Do an intensive cleaning in your property.

Often when Davis tells clients to make their property immaculate, they respond with puzzled stares.

If you’re unclear what it means to make your house exceptionally clean, Davis recommends you pick up a book on the topic. One reference volume he likes is “Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook.”

Though books can provide guidance, the best way for most sellers to achieve a lofty level of cleanliness is to hire a professional cleaning company -- one you find through referrals from your listing agent, neighbors or colleagues at work.

“Give the company a complete checklist of everything you need done. Be sure this includes meticulous cleaning of all your chandeliers and light fixtures, as well as deep scouring of bathroom and kitchen tile to remove all the mildew. This whole job should cost no more than $200 to $400, depending on the condition and size of your place," Davis says.

-- Remember the sparkle that comes with clean windows.

Chances are your cleaning crew won’t tackle one piece of work crucial to the look of your home: a thorough window cleaning.

“It’s amazing how well a house can look when the windows are crystal clear inside and out. People see the difference when they first drive up,” Davis says.

The cost of a professional cleaning is typically less than $200, though this depends on local labor costs and the number of windows involved.

-- Keep your home on the market while improving it.

As Davis says, some owners become so discouraged they remove their home from the market because it’s gone unsold for longer than they’d like.

But if your home is correctly priced and is still receiving showings, you still have a good shot at selling it soon, especially if you’re willing to spend the money to do a cosmetic makeover.

“Get all the cleaning, painting and trim work done quickly," Davis says. "Pick the weekdays when visitors rarely come through -- Tuesday through Thursday. Then don’t be surprised if you start seeing greater buyer interest by the time the weekend rolls around.”

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at