Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Sensible Pre-sale Renovations

In many neighborhoods these days, home sellers have become supremely confident. A severe shortage of available homes has many relaxing on their recliners while buyers must hustle.

“As demand has outstripped supply in the housing market over the past three years, buying a home has become an exercise in speed and agility,” says Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist for Zillow, a real estate data firm.

As Terrazas notes, “The typical buyer spends just over four months searching for a home and makes two offers before successfully buying a home.”

But such a buying frenzy doesn’t mean owners can count on recouping every dollar they put into upgrades and renovations -- even in the most torrid and inventory-short areas, says Sid Davis, an independent real estate broker in the business for more than 30 years.

“Owners are always at risk of getting carried away,” says Davis, author of “Home Makeovers That Sell: Quick and Easy Ways to Get the Highest Possible Price.”

Davis stresses to sellers the importance of not topping neighborhood standards with presale improvements. While it’s important for sellers to constrain presale expenditures to what’s reasonable for the locale, it’s also critical they invest in essential and cosmetic improvements.

“If you have laminate countertops in your kitchen, they’ve got to go. Ditto for worn carpeting, kitchen appliances in dated or mismatched colors and single-pane windows that aren’t energy-efficient,” according to Davis.

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Contain your enthusiasm for kitchen improvements.

For home sellers, the road to overspending is paved with good intentions. Davis contends they’re especially likely to veer off course on kitchen improvements.

For instance, he says most sellers don’t need to tear out and replace their worn kitchen cabinets, only the cabinet doors. Or, if that’s not a feasible solution, they can freshen their kitchen’s look by sanding and repainting their cabinets in a high-gloss white.

-- Acknowledge the importance of fresh paint.

Seasoned real estate agents are nearly universal in their appreciation of a newly repainted home. Painting is one of the most cost-effective improvements sellers can do, says Elisa Dewees, a long-time real estate agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (

But Dewees considers it a mistake to repaint in what she calls “custom colors.”

“People don’t want to see your favorite colors, whether they’re pink, purple or blue. But a nice neutral tone will help them imagine living in your home,” she says.

Dewees has no financial interest in the Pottery Barn, a home furnishings retailer. But she suggests would-be sellers examine the color palette shown in the company’s catalog -- tones she believes reflect current homebuyer tastes.

-- Focus on bathroom lighting.

Many people who’ve lived in their home for a decade or longer still have the original light fixtures in their bathrooms, even if they’ve updated their tile work, cabinets and faucets.

But the multiple-bulb Hollywood-style lighting many people still use in their bathrooms doesn’t appeal to most contemporary buyers, who want a fresher, less retro look, Dewees says.

“Search for lighting fixtures that are more stylish. In many cases, you can upgrade your fixtures for $50 to $100 per bathroom,” she says, adding that sellers can find current lighting design suggestions on popular real estate TV shows.

-- Discard problem carpeting.

Many sellers would rather offer buyers a “carpeting allowance” than replace worn, stained or outdated-looking carpet. These sellers argue that it’s “inconvenient” for them to undertake the project themselves.

But real estate agents scoff at the idea of using a carpeting allowance, which they say undermines a seller’s prospects for a successful sale. That’s because few buyers can envision how much better a home will look when its bad carpeting is replaced.

“If you have an average house, replacing your carpet will cost you a couple of thousand dollars at most. But if you opt instead for a carpet allowance, buyers will assume it will cost them multiple times that,” Dewees says, noting that a growing number of buyers will refuse any property that’s not in move-in condition.

Can’t afford new carpeting for the whole house? Then focus on the areas most visible to visitors.

-- Trim trees that hide your place.

Many longtime homeowners are extremely fond of the trees in their front lawn, even if they now dwarf their property or have grown perilously close to the house.

But given that curb appeal is paramount, Davis urges sellers to spend as much as necessary to trim or remove any tree that hides their property. Otherwise, he says many buyers will summarily reject their property based solely on how it looks from the street.

“If they can’t see your house, they’ll never buy it,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at