Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Freshen Up Your Lived-In House

It’s been a half-decade since an engineer in suburban Minneapolis lost her husband to a fatal stroke. Until now, this widow couldn’t bear the thought of selling the cedar-sided contemporary she and her husband had custom-built back in the 1970s.

But now that she’s entered her 60s, the engineer feels a sense of urgency about items long on her bucket list.

Due to her elaborate plans, the engineer has reluctantly decided it’s time to let go of her house and move to a place with lower upkeep demands. However, her listing agent cautions against putting the property on the market until its dated decor has been upgraded to appeal to young buyers.

Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent, doesn’t know the engineer in this true story. But she understands the rationale for updating an older home before attempting to market it. That’s because millennial buyers -- those born between 1981 and 1996 -- now make up the largest cohort of purchasers. And they’re very visual.

The good news is that many key updates are relatively inexpensive.

“Don’t be intimidated by the changes you need, because most are quite easy and cosmetically based,” says Richardson, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com).

Having an updated kitchen is one key to attracting young buyers. But it’s rarely necessary to do a major kitchen remodel. Still, it could pay you back to have dark wood cabinets repainted in white in order to brighten the space.

Many older homes have wall-to-wall carpet, another turnoff for young buyers, who vastly prefer hardwood flooring. Yet if you don’t want to spend what it costs for new hardwood, at least replace dark-colored carpeting with a lighter, neutral shade.

Before sellers decide where to invest in pre-sale home improvement, Richardson suggests they ask their agent for a checklist of cost-effective projects. Often, some of the least costly improvements -- such as painting -- can have the biggest impact.

“Look for guidance from real estate pros to make worthwhile decisions,” she says.

Here are a few other pointers for sellers:

-- Consider removing traditional furniture.

Though it’s unlikely you’ll sell your furnishings along with the house, it’s important to adapt your interior decor to the tastes of younger people, most of whom favor contemporary furnishings over traditional ones.

“They’re not revolting against tradition. But they don’t want to be reliant on tradition, either,” says Jeffrey Levine, an architect who works with both residential and commercial clients and heads his own Washington, D.C.-based firm, Levine Design Studio.

To get a feel for the sort of room layouts that typical young buyers like, Levine suggests you visit the website of IKEA, the Swedish home furniture retailer with a customer base heavily weighted toward young singles and families with school-age children.

At a minimum, you’ll want to remove bulky, old-fashioned pieces, such as large recliners, before your place goes up for sale.

-- Focus on your windows.

Levine recommends that sellers trying to appeal to young buyers, who like light, bright rooms, should remove all their heavy draperies. Often, the only rooms that need window coverings are bedrooms and bathrooms, and, even there, simple shades should suffice for privacy.

Another key step to bright, sparkling rooms is to thoroughly clean your windows, says Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home.”

“A dirty house, including one with dirty windows, is the kiss of death for anyone trying to sell,” Davis says.

-- Make your bathroom lighting more contemporary.

In their bathrooms, many older homes still feature Hollywood-style lighting with globes set on a chrome bar. But Davis says such fixtures seem dated to many young buyers, who typically want something more stylish and less cliched.

“Look for bathroom lighting with a fresher, more current look. It shouldn’t cost too much to replace bathroom lights. Often you can replace any bathroom fixture for under $100,” he says.

As to the look of bathrooms, Richardson advocates replacing the kind of pink tiling still present in many homes built in the 1950s. (Though the retro look of pink bathrooms appeals to some who relish mid-century modern architecture, it’s unlikely your young buyers will share this devotion.)

-- Freshen your home through repainting.

One sure bet for adding appeal to your interior is to repaint walls and trim throughout.

Yet Richardson says you’re much more likely to appeal to young buyers if you avoid repainting your rooms in the sort of bold paint tones that some agents call “commitment colors.” Instead, she urges you to pick paint colors that are muted, near-neutrals -- the sort of shades shown in the Pottery Barn catalog.

-- Remove family photos and other memorabilia.

There’s nothing that will date your place faster in the eyes of young buyers than personal photos.

Davis says any personal photos can make it psychologically difficult for young buyers to picture themselves living in your property.

“A fresh start is what people of any age want when they buy a house. They lose the concept of a blank canvas when they see all your memorabilia,” Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)