Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Make the Upgrades That Matter

It was a forgettable cottage in a ho-hum neighborhood surrounded by other starter homes. But a builder bought the property with the intention of renovating it to flip it and make a bundle on its sale.

Assisted by his interior designer wife, the man installed fine hand-painted marble tile from Italy in the kitchen, along with pricey professional appliances from New Zealand. He also spent a small fortune on exquisite lighting fixtures throughout the house.

By the time the renovation was done, the builder had nearly doubled his initial investment, counting the purchase price. But his attempts to recoup the money failed miserably. After the place languished unsold for many months, he pulled it off the market rather than take a big loss.

“The man was trigger-happy when it came to upgrades. Though his renovations were tasteful, he spent way more than he could ever hope to receive on the sale. He overshot the neighborhood’s standards and simply priced himself over the market,” says Stacy Berman, the listing agent for the property.

Berman, who long managed a realty firm in Washington, D.C., says it’s not only flippers who sometimes spend too much for improvements in hopes of promoting a sale. Occasionally, owner-occupants make the same mistake.

“The moral of the story is that as a seller you want to be particularly cautious about how you invest your pre-sale dollars. You want to spend what’s necessary to make your place show-worthy and in good repair. But you don’t want to overspend on super-high-end improvements that will never pay you back,” Berman says.

How can you determine which upgrades to make? The best approach is to get multiple opinions from real estate agents in advance of doing any renovation work, says Sid Davis, author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home.”

Davis, a veteran real estate broker in Utah, says it’s also wise to assess your competition prior to pouring any money into improvements.

“Go around and visit all the other for-sale houses in your immediate area as if you were a buyer ... make sure your home meets the neighborhood’s standards, though without going way over the top,” Davis says.

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Avoid getting carried away with fancy kitchen improvements.

For sellers, the road to overspending is paved with good intentions. Owners are especially likely to veer off course on kitchen improvements.

Davis 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.

-- Focus on painting high-exposure areas.

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 North Carolina-based broker who coaches other real estate professionals.

“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.

-- Illuminate your bathrooms.

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 that many people still use in their bathrooms doesn’t appeal to most contemporary buyers, who want a fresher, less retro look.

“Search for lighting fixtures that are more stylish. In many cases, you can upgrade your fixtures for $50 to $100 per bathroom,” Dewees says.

-- Refresh your 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 the sellers’ 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 that are most visible to visitors.

“If you can impress buyers with great carpet on the first floor, they might be more forgiving about your poor carpet on the second floor,” Dewees says.

-- Take out any greenery that shrouds your property.

Many longtime owners are loath to touch the trees that grow in their front lawn. Even if their trees now dwarf their property or have grown perilously close to the house, they’ll resist cutting them down.

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

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

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at