Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

A Vacant House Can Mean a Difficult Sale

Bill Gassett, a longtime real estate agent and blogger who’s persevered through many market cycles, has a message for home sellers this fall: Don’t be complacent.

“A lot of sellers, including those with a vacant property, are under the misguided perception that everything is rosy. But all the economic indicators are screaming that there’s real cause for concern,” says Gassett, who’s sold homes since 1986.

No, Gassett isn’t predicting the kind of foreclosure crisis that rocked housing markets just over a decade ago. Indeed, he isn’t even forecasting a buyer’s market. But he urges current sellers to avoid the self-defeating strategy of trying to “test the market” with a price any higher than recent sales have yielded for comparable properties in the same neighborhood.

“If you start with too high a price in September or October, your house could still be sitting unsold during the slowest months of the year, November through January,” says Gassett, who’s affiliated with the Re/Max realty chain in Massachusetts.

Accurate pricing is especially crucial for those attempting to sell a vacant home, which can prove challenging.

Why is it often harder to sell a vacant home than one pleasingly furnished? Eric Tyson, a consumer advocate and co-author of “House Selling for Dummies,” says empty properties can convey an icy feeling to visitors.

“This makes it extremely hard for buyers to picture living there,” he says.

As Tyson says, it’s often wise for the owners of a vacant home to spend a few thousand dollars on cosmetic upgrades. Also, he suggests they consider engaging the services of a “home stager.” This is a design-oriented professional who can lend the sellers a few key furnishings.

“You don’t need many items to make a vacant house look a lot better. For example, just a few pieces of well-positioned furniture, along with some colorful area rugs, can make it seem a lot warmer,” says Tyson, who’s based in Connecticut.

Here are a few pointers for the sellers of a vacant home:

-- Fix any blemishes in your vacant place.

Sid Davis, the author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home,” says it’s crucial for the sellers of a vacant property to enter the market in immaculate condition. This means they must resolve all the minor issues, so buyers won’t remember the stains on the carpet, the marks on the hardwood floors or the dings on the walls.

“It’s absolutely essential that you paint all the interior walls before the house goes up for sale. Use a light, neutral tone. I don’t care what the paint companies tell you. You can’t patch paint and make it look right, due to fading,” Davis says.

He also urges the owners of vacant homes to replace worn carpet and refinish (or replace) hardwood floors that need work. In addition, fix any unsightly areas visitors might encounter, such as a rusty spot around a bathroom leak.

“Go room-by-room with a clipboard and then make sure you handle every little unattractive thing. Otherwise, buyers could be blinded to the beauty of your house by the small stuff,” Davis says.

-- Position a few pieces of furniture in your vacant home.

Many “lived in” homes are overflowing with excess furnishings, making the preparation for the selling period one in which listing agents urge clients to declutter.

Ironically, the problem with a vacant home is just the opposite. It needs a few well-chosen furnishings so that would-be buyers can see the scale of its rooms.

Of course, you can always rent or buy furniture to outfit a vacant home. But Tyson recommends that a better solution could be to hire a professional home stager to lend you the “props” you need to stage your place thoughtfully.

“People balk at the idea of hiring a stager. But when you’re trying to sell a vacant house, paying for minimal staging could be money well spent,” he says.

Your listing agent may have good leads on the names of professional stagers in your area. Or you could consult the Real Estate Staging Association ( Another option is to find an Interior Redesign Industry Specialist through the website

-- Maintain your vacant home in showtime condition.

Real estate agents like that vacant properties are so convenient to show, without the need for complicated arrangements with the family living there.

“In my book, it’s a plus to agents that a vacant home can be shown whenever they like. But this accessibility is only a positive if its owners, and their listing agent, keep the place in excellent condition,” Davis says.

How can you ensure that your vacant property will keep looking its best until the day it sells? Davis suggests you hire a local teenager to handle the mail, newspapers and routine yardwork. But he also urges you to ensure that the listing agent you engage keeps a close eye on the property.

“Your agent should commit to checking out your vacant home at least once per week and preferably twice. And make sure you get that promise in writing before you sign the listing agreement,” Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at