Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Redos and Redon'ts

After chemotherapy and radiation for her breast cancer, a magazine designer in her 50s needed an emotional pick-me-up. Fulfilling a long-standing dream, she settled on a cosmetic makeover for her historic Baltimore townhouse, including a minor kitchen remodeling plan.

The makeover did indeed cheer the magazine designer, who achieved a full recovery from her cancer. Three years later, the moderately priced renovation also paid off financially for the woman, who put her place up for sale to take a new job in Connecticut. The well-chosen interior upgrades, including freshly painted rooms and new kitchen appliances, led to strong multiple offers and a prompt closing.

Ashley Richardson, a Maryland real estate agent who sells property through the Long & Foster realty firm, doesn’t know the woman in this true story. But she applauds her for doing her interior improvements. That way, she could enjoy the pleasures of living with the upgrades before she moved.

“So often, sellers regret they didn’t get the chance to benefit from improvements they paid for,” says Richardson, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (

But Sid Davis, a Utah-based real estate broker, cautions homeowners against excessive spending on upgrades.

“You’ll never recoup your money if you make your house a lot ritzier than your neighbors’ properties. For instance, you don’t want to pay for high-end quartz kitchen countertops if you’re living in the land of laminate,” says Davis, author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home.”

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Attempt to determine your home-selling timeline in advance.

Many sellers want to close a deal quite quickly. Perhaps they’re facing a serious health issue that requires a move to assisted living. Or maybe a divorce court is demanding they liquidate. Yet other sellers are unsure on timing.

Those in a quandary on their selling plans should try to crystallize their thinking -- with pen and paper -- before embarking on a redo of their property.

“Suppose you know you’ll retire eventually and let go of your house. If you clarify your plans and decide it will be six years before you move, you’ll want to prioritize the improvements you’d most enjoy in the meantime, like better kitchen countertops,” Davis says.

-- Don’t hesitate to consult real estate pros well in advance of a move.

Suppose you intend to downsize and sell several years in the future. Is it too soon to ask real estate agents for their advice?

No, says Dorcas Helfant, a former president of the National Association of Realtors (

“The best real estate agents aren’t looking for quick sales. They get most of their business through referrals and know that relationships with clients develop over time,” says Helfant, a broker who co-owns several Coldwell Banker real estate offices in Virginia.

She suggests you invite one or more agents over to evaluate your property, helping you create a checklist of superficial changes that could make your place a lot more appealing.

Cosmetic improvements, like painting or carpet replacement, are nearly always well worth the cost. Still, Helfant says you may need guidance in other areas, such as whether you should replace kitchen appliances with professional-grade ones.

-- Select home improvement contractors with great care.

For any given job, homeowners typically ask for three bids on the work and then pick the company charging least. But Davis questions this approach, noting that “short bidders,” who come in well under their competitors, often perform poorly, or will tack on extra charges at the end.

“Ironically, the company with the highest bid could also prove problematic. Maybe this firm is now too busy to take your job and is using a high bid to turn you down without creating ill will in the process,” Davis says.

Unless all three bidders are close in price, he says the middle one is generally your best choice.

-- Hire a home inspector to search for functional problems.

Most homeowners can readily identify minor items that need fixing around their place, such as a leaky faucet or a shaky stair railing. But what about hidden problems with plumbing, electrical, heating or cooling systems? And has the roof reached the end of its functional life?

These questions are best answered by a qualified home inspector. To avoid surprises later, Davis advocates that sellers arrange for a “pre-inspection” to get an early indication of hidden problems. He recommends you find an inspector in your area through a professional organization, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (

The cost of an inspection can easily run to several hundred dollars, especially for a large home. But as Davis says, sellers who identify and resolve repair issues early often avoid expensive and time-consuming complications later. Your buyers are still entitled to hire their own inspector, yet many waive this right after reviewing the first inspector’s report, along with receipts showing all the home’s problems were rectified.

“Surprisingly, your inspectors’ report can be a powerful tool in marketing your property,” Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at