Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Homeowners: Planning for a 2021 Property Sale

Mark Nash was an early adopter in an accelerating trend: the retreat from urban to suburban living. The longtime real estate analyst and broker sold his vintage place in a trendy Chicago neighborhood in favor of a ranch house 42 miles northwest in the bedroom enclave of Antioch, Illinois.

“With the internet, I realized I could live wherever I wanted. So after I did some major fix-ups on my Chicago home, I put it up for sale,” says Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home.”

Given that he tracks real estate trends nationally, Nash isn’t surprised that many Americans, including families and elders of retirement age, are now retreating from city neighborhoods to greener, more placid lifestyles in suburban settings.

“The pandemic changed everyone’s perspective. It showed us how in dense cities our germs interact with the germs of other people,” Nash says.

The emerging quest for more relaxed, less worrisome suburban lifestyles is now more feasible due to the strong work-from-home trend, says Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin, the Seattle-based real estate brokerage.

“This has weakened demand for homes in urban centers,” Kelman says.

Nash says the strength of the movement toward suburban living was unexpected, and that even some of those planning such a move are surprised at the rapid change in their own lifestyle preferences. But he cautions owners against rushing to put a property on the market before it’s thoroughly cleaned, repaired and upgraded.

“Maybe you’ve adapted to your leaky roof, stained carpets and rickety railings, but most buyers won’t be willing to take on your problems unless you give them a very steep discount,” he says.

Nash predicts it could take months for those transitioning from urban to suburban life to prep their properties.

Are you a part of a pandemic-weary household now plotting a retreat to the suburbs or a smaller city? If so, these pointers could prove useful:

-- Plan well in advance for your property sale.

Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker in Utah, says those in a quandary about their selling plans should try to crystallize their thinking using pen and paper before embarking on any substantial redo of their property.

“Most people operate on a spur-of-the-moment basis. But those who plan ahead, looking at the large picture, make much smarter choices with their money,” says Davis, author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home.”

-- Request guidance from real estate pros before calling in contractors.

Suppose you decide to downsize in 2021 and know your long-time residence will need extensive work before it goes on the market. 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,” Helfant says.

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, planting flowers or pruning your trees and shrubs -- are nearly always well worth the cost. Still, you may need guidance on other steps you could take, like whether you should replace kitchen appliances that look dated yet are still functional,” Helfant says.

-- Show caution in the selection of home improvement contractors.

For any given job, sellers 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 they’ll tack extra charges on at the end.

“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.

-- Engage the services of a home inspector to identify 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 your 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 a home inspection can easily run well into the hundreds of dollars, especially for a large home. But as Davis points out, sellers who identify and resolve repair issues early often avoid expensive and time-consuming complications later. The purchasers are still entitled to engage their own inspector. But most waive this right after reviewing the first inspector’s report, along with receipts showing all the home’s problems were resolved.

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

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at