Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Home-Selling Pointers for Money-Tight Seniors

The United States could be heading toward one of the biggest generational transfers of housing in decades, say those who track the country’s real estate markets.

Many more aging baby boomers -- the eldest of whom are now in their 70s -- are expected to soon begin letting go of their big suburban houses.

Meanwhile, young families with growing offspring are eager to take over large and well-located suburban houses, which are currently in very short supply.

“Until now, lots of older folks have been clinging to their family homes. Who wants to move during a pandemic? But all that will likely change profoundly in the near future,” says Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and analyst.

Nash predicts that as early as 2021, many more boomers will be compelled to sell their spacious properties, due in large measure to health worries, but also financial concerns.

“Right now, because of forbearance programs, the mortgage payments of many seniors (like adults of all ages) have been temporarily suspended under federal rules. But after COVID-19, that will change, and all these deferred payments will come due. Owners who can’t pay up may have to sell to avoid foreclosure,” Nash says.

He says seniors who must liquidate their equity to fund their retirement years will eventually release many of the sort of properties that families so desperately wish to acquire.

In many neighborhoods, the present zeal for home-buying among young families is unusually strong.

“The buying season we’re seeing this fall more closely resembles peak market activity we’d see in the spring of a typical year,” says Chris Glynn, a senior economist for Zillow, the national real estate company.

Until now, one factor slowing the generational transfer of housing has been that many older people have deferred spending on the sorts of improvements that would make their properties more show-worthy.

“A lot of people falsely believe it costs a fortune to get a house ready for sale. That’s only the case if the place has severe problems, such as foundation issues, a leaky roof or major plumbing problems,” says Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

In reality, most properties don’t require extensive expenditures to prep them for a positive sale.

“A ho-hum house can become a whole lot more appealing with a small investment in paint and cleaning supplies,” according to Nash.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Undertake a “power cleaning” for major impact.

Doing an in-depth cleaning can be one of the most cost-effective steps sellers can take to distinguish their property from rival homes for sale in the same neighborhood.

“The simple fact is that clean sells. Like it or not, people do judge a book by its cover. And any house that looks the least bit dirty will nearly always be passed over,” Nash says.

However, remember that the kind of cleaning your place needs is not the sort of superficial work you’ve typically done in the past before guests came over for dinner.

“You need to do a power cleaning -- the deepest cleaning you’ve ever done. For example, you need to clean every window, inside and out, no matter how high,” Nash says.

Are you unwilling to tackle such an in-depth chore? Then Nash recommends you spend the few hundred dollars it costs to hire a well-recommended cleaning crew.

“For sellers, an investment in cleaning services gives a tremendous bang for the buck,” he says.

-- Find a listing agent skilled in staging.

These days, many sellers see the wisdom of engaging a professional home stager. This is a design-minded person who removes excess furnishings from a property and then rearranges the remaining items to make the place seem larger and more attractive.

Hiring a professional stager can cost $500 to $1,500 or more, depending on the size of the space. But you can obtain high-quality staging services for no extra charge by selecting a listing agent trained in the art, says Kendall Bergstrom, a veteran agent who specializes in luxury home sales.

“Many real estate people have added staging to their skill sets,” she says.

-- Arrange for a pre-listing home inspection.

In the current seller's market, it’s not uncommon for buyers to waive the right to a home inspection to make their offer more competitive. But even after a contract is signed, deals can still fall through if the buyers discover a significant problem with a place.

As Nash says, many savvy sellers won’t risk a failed deal -- one that could delay their moving or retirement plans. To avoid this outcome, he urges sellers to hire their own inspector before their place goes on the market.

Granted, it can cost $200 to $600 or more to hire an inspector. And there will be more bills if the inspector locates problems that require repair. But that could be money well spent if it preserves your chance to sell on your timetable.

“The reality is buyers are now much more willing to walk away from a deal if scary-sounding problems are identified at any point in the process. The best way to avoid this crisis is to identify and resolve all the issues before any buyers arrive to tour your place,” Nash says. (To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at