Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Sell a Homely House

There’s still a severe shortage of available homes -- especially in popular starter-level neighborhoods. Does this justify overconfidence on the part of potential sellers? Not at all, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (

“Home prices are still rising above incomes and way too fast in many markets,” says Yun, adding that many buyers are also frustrated by the poor selection of properties that fit their budget and wish list.

Indeed, he says the second half of the year’s selling market “got off to a somewhat sour note as sales of existing sales in July inched backward.” Despite low mortgage rates, some would-be homeowners are now starting to retreat.

In reality, real estate agents say that no matter the market, sellers should avoid complacency about demand for their property. This is especially so if the place they intend to sell is a homely house, with an unsightly or outdated appearance.

Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “House Selling For Dummies,” says the aging of much of America’s housing stock is a turnoff to many would-be buyers.

He cautions that people selling a house with a homely exterior should be doubly careful not to price it too high.

“No matter the market, people aren’t going to overpay for an ugly house,” Tyson says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Try to look at your property objectively.

“It’s a rare seller who would ever admit their property looks bad from the street,” says Sharon L. Ellsworth, a real estate broker and owner of a Re/Max Realty office.

Those seeking a candid assessment of their home’s exterior appearance may wish to survey relatives.

“More than your friends, your relatives are going to give you their honest opinion. And this can be helpful when you decide what price to ask,” Ellsworth says.

Also, take seriously the pricing recommendations of real estate pros -- particularly if two or more agents you poll recommend roughly the same list price.

-- Make sure your marketing materials emphasize the positive.

“Rarely does a house sell on advertising alone,” says Ellsworth, who’s affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

Still, creating effective marketing materials can help draw people to a property they might otherwise be unwilling to visit due to its lack of curb appeal.

“Pick out the two or three strengths of the house and be sure your agent highlights these in your marketing,” Tyson says.

What are some strong points that often influence buyers?

“Maybe you have a great floor plan, wonderful natural light, a desirable location or excellent schools. Try to remember the factors that drew you to the house when you bought it,” Tyson says.

-- Hire a top-tier photographer.

Most buyers now preview properties online before agreeing to a visit. It’s now the norm for listing agents to post at least a half-dozen pictures of a place online.

Your agent may be quite skillful with digital photography. Yet if your home shows poorly from the street, Tyson says you could benefit from the skills of a professional photographer.

“With the professional, you’ll get the best possible camera angles -- for both inside and outside shots,” he says.

Your listing agent may ask you to cover the photographer’s fees. Tyson says the money could be well spent if it brings in prospects who might otherwise shun the place.

-- Request that your listing agent stage a “broker’s open house.”

Most people are familiar with public open houses -- where anyone can show up. But Tyson says a more effective sales tool is the “broker’s open,” limited to real estate agents from the surrounding area.

“These kinds of open houses are incredibly important. That’s because the vast, vast majority of buyers still work with agents. And if agents come through the house and like it, they’re more likely to show it to their clients,” Tyson says.

A place with an unattractive façade can still attract buyer interest if it has a compelling extra, like a remodeled kitchen or a home office, he says. The key to finding willing buyers is to draw enough visitors inside.

-- Consider installing a new front door.

It’s rare for listing agents to recommend major upgrades to the exterior of a home. Costly changes to the property’s façade -- of the sort that involve architects or contractors -- are usually unwarranted.

But one upgrade that can prove worthwhile is a new front door. The cost? Usually a few hundred dollars, at most.

“The front door is the focal point of the house. If it’s attractive, people will focus on this,” Ellsworth says.

If you don’t want to spend the time or money to replace your front door, consider less costly steps such as repainting the door or adding new polished brass hardware.

-- Put a premium on cosmetic upgrades.

Not all sellers have time to make surface enhancements to their home, especially if they’re making an urgent move. But those with sufficient time and cash generally more than recoup their expenses.

“Money spent on landscaping is especially good if your house has minimal curb appeal,” Ellsworth says.

Freshly pruned shrubs and new greenery help entice buyers who might otherwise refuse to venture inside.

Usually, outlays for interior painting, carpet replacement or hardwood floor improvements also pay off.

“Do the maximum on these kinds of cosmetic upgrades. That’s what we always tell sellers,” Ellsworth says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at