Realty Check

Whether putting your home on the market or revamping it for yourself, here's how to get the most bang for your renovation buck.

It's almost spring, a season when "For Sale" signs start blooming all over town, and homeowners allow strangers to roam through their rooms, examine their closets, peer at their ceilings, and scrutinize their kitchens. Others, stunned by rays of brutally honest sunlight, suddenly see their homes for what they are, as dated as autumn leaves. Still others, those whose houses have been on the market so long the signs have grown roots in the yard, begin to think, "Maybe we should try some of those suggestions our agent made."

Whether you're just toying with the idea of selling your house, anxiously seeking a buyer after the long winter's lull, or simply want to make improvements that will enhance your home's appeal, we have some tips for you. We asked agents for ideas that would pump up the value without busting your budget or gutting your house -- and they delivered.

Bathrooms and Kitchens

 Since updated kitchens and baths can seal the deal on a house, take a good look at yours. You may boast cutting-edge countertops and a top-of-the-line Jacuzzi, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. And in elbow grease.

• Clean grout in bathrooms.

• Recaulk around sinks, bathtubs, tile.

• Replace old faucet fixtures.

• Brighten up a porcelain tub by having it professionally reglazed.

• If your bathroom tile is an unfortunate shade of pink, aqua, or some other hue popular decades ago, Joel Hobson of Hobson & Co. Realtors suggests having a porcelain refinisher paint it white.

• Bid farewell to the old medicine cabinet, he adds, and have a plate-glass mirror installed above the vanity.

• Replace cracked vanities, commode lids, and commode tank tops. Consider the square-shaped sink bowls as opposed to the usual round style for an instant modern touch.

• If your bathroom has carpet, rip it out. Nothing dates a house like bathroom carpeting. In its place lay 20-inch by 20-inch square tiles, in less expensive vinyl or pricier ceramic or stone.

• Lighten up or neutralize decor. Lighter colors make small spaces seem larger.

• In kitchens, change cabinet handles, doorknobs, and faucet fixtures. As a fresh alternative to brass or stainless steel, try brushed nickel or pewter. 

• Granite and quartz countertops still rule in popularity, but in lower-priced homes this investment may not be feasible. Check out Formica or other manmade products, or consider concrete counters, a hip alternative to granite.

• If new countertops are not in the budget, Linda Sowell of Sowell & Co. suggests "getting more bang for the buck" by putting up a new backsplash using rectangular subway tiles available in white, glass, marble, and mosaics. 

• Instead of installing new cabinets, try replacing only the doors. This creates a new look with less mess.

• Paint cabinets. White is still popular for its clean, open look, but new trends lean toward warmer tones of red, terra cotta, and wood stain.

• Appliances make a difference. If yours are old, replace them before you sell so you can enjoy them first. Buy stainless steel or black glass ovens and refrigerators. For cooktops, go with stainless steel, or, even better, smooth tops with no visible burners.

Yards and Home Exteriors

Before people lay eyes on your state-of-the-art kitchen, your sparkling bath, or the rest of your charming inner sanctum, they see the yard, the landscaping, and the home's exterior. "So what," you yawn. "Mine looks okay."

Does it really? What about that sprinkler that's been gathering moss on the lawn since August? Or the leaves piled ankle deep on your curb? If you're serious about curb appeal, try these simple maintenance chores and not-so-drastic improvements or additions.

• By all means, says Ed Beasley of Sowell & Company, rake the leaves. "We tried to sell a house where the guy hadn't raked all year. Clients would see those leaves and be overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning them up. Whereas if he'd already taken care of that, they'd see the beauty of the trees and the pretty layout of the yard. That's just a no-brainer but you'd be surprised at how people won't do these simple things." Along the same lines, he adds, "remove dead plants. You don't necessarily have to replace them, just get rid of dead ones."

• Keep outside bushes trimmed, but take care of blooming shrubs. Ask a landscaper about the best time to prune or trim so as not to cut off flower buds.

• Put out bedding plants and re-mulch all beds.

• Trash the old timbers around your landscaping. Ask at your neighborhood nursery about stackable stones that create an attractive border.

• "A home should look safe," points out Nita Barlow of George Humphreys Realtors, Inc. "Make sure entrances are clear so people can be seen coming and going. Have adequate lighting, but not so much that it's blinding."

• Notice your driveway, Barlow adds. "If it's badly sloughed off, it's unsightly and even dangerous, so have it repaired."

• Reseal decks.

• Don't let decks, porches, and patios be catchalls for junk. As Jason Gaia of Prudential Collins-Maury Inc. Realtors puts it: "That rocker on the front porch that was cute five years ago and is now rotten? Pitch it."

• Carefully examine the exterior for rotted wood and replace it.

• Update the exterior. Replace old wrought-iron handrails with the new wooden Chippendale-style handrails. Paint the old shutters, put up a newer style, or remove them altogether.

• Replace warped front doors that have been exposed to the elements, or at least repaint or refinish them. The same applies to dull, weathered doorknobs: get new ones.

• Remove window screens, says Chet Whitsett of Crye-Leike. "All they do is catch dirt and cause wooden window sills to rot, plus they make windows look dark instead of gleaming." Which leads us to:

• Wash the windows. All experts advise this. If the thought of doing it yourself wears you out, call a professional. Costs vary depending on the number of windows, but experts say it's worth the money.

• Pressure-wash any surface that needs it. "People wash their cars but they never think of washing their houses," says Whitsett. "It makes a huge difference on siding or painted surfaces, decks, driveways, and walkways." If you don't own a pressure washer and don't feel like buying one, check into a pressure-washing service, or simply rent the washer and do it yourself.

• A streaky roof is an eyesore, but that doesn't mean it needs replacing. Mildew, fungus, and other stains can often be removed by professional roof cleaners.

Listen to Your Agent

If your house has languished on the market for months or even longer, maybe it's time for honest self-appraisal. Are you guilty of a "D" rating?

"In real estate we talk about the three Ds," says Beasley. "Difficult, dark, and dirty." Difficult means not being flexible about showing the house. "A client came home tired from a trip out of town and didn't want to fool with a prospective buyer," recalls Beasley. "A doctor was really interested in it -- but the client refused to show it, so the doctor bought another house. The homeowner missed out."

Illustrating the "dark" rating, Beasley says: "A seller thought he had arguably the finest home in Memphis -- and it was very nice. But he had 60-watt light bulbs in all the rooms, and kept curtains over all the windows. You need to get up in the morning and turn on every light. Open any drapes or curtains, and keep it that way every day till you sell it. Think of selling a house as a 50th wedding anniversary party for your parents," adds Beasley. "You want things looking bright and beautiful."

As for dirty houses, Chet Whitsett makes an obvious point, but one that some clients still ignore: "Fingerprints on the walls, grimy trim -- that turns people off. Buyers want a house as shiny as a new car. But the seller drags his heels. He wants to get top dollar for something with missing hubcaps and scratches on the hood."

Some changes may not be quite as easy as scrubbing a wall, like replacing dated wallpaper. According to Whitsett, "Homeowners will say, 'I don't want to take that stuff down.' And I have to tell them, 'A couple around the block removed their wallpaper and painted the room and guess what, their house sold.' Of course some of it might be luck; the right buyer may have come along. But details do make a difference."

Below are more tips to consider, especially if you're having trouble selling your house:

• First impressions come at the front door. While the agent is fumbling with the key, the prospective buyer is seeing cobwebs or dead leaves. So spruce things up. Put a pot of pansies on the doorstep.

• Have the keybox at the front door, not the back, where clients may have to come through the laundry room, with its pan of kitty litter and piles of dirty clothes.

• "Fresh" includes flowers and greenery inside, not artificial plants collecting dust.

• Paint interior rooms in neutral colors. You may love your peach-colored den but not everyone will. The buyer can more easily picture how her furniture will look in a home with neutral colors.

• When you show the house, take the pets and the kids and let the visitors have easy access to all rooms.

• Create a pleasant environment. Make sure all light bulbs are working, and that the temperature in the house is comfortable. Play some soft music and put some cookies or brownies on the table.

• By all means make sure the house smells good. It can be hard to tell clients their house is less than fragrant, but it's important. Says Linda Sowell: "Smells play on the emotions and emotions can sell a house. Don't overdo it with candles or potpourri. Those not only can irritate allergies, they also suggest the owners have something to hide. Opening windows, as weather allows, or putting a lemon in the disposal can help eliminate odors."

• Stage it. "I hire an interior decorator to come in and consult," says Gaia. "Suggestions include de-cluttering, especially countertops and closets. Remove some items and store them temporarily. Rent a storage pod. Rearrange furniture or add new items." Says Nita Barlow: "Stagers can add a painting or piece of furniture that will really make things pop."

• Take a new photo of the house. If it's summer and the photo shows snow on the roof, everyone will know the house has been on the market for a while.

• Use every avenue of market media -- print, open houses, TV, internet. As Gaia says, "You can't just put a sign in the yard anymore.

Price It Right  

"Taking a fresh look" applies to your bottom line as well. A good agent will keep you informed of recent sales and comps, but you, too, can pay attention to what's selling and why. And consider these expert tips:

• Have realistic expectations. Gaia says, "I do a lot of analysis on every neighborhood I work in. I look at the sales trends, the average time homes are on the market. If a seller knows on the front end that the average time is seven months, it can help him know what to expect and perhaps alleviate some of the stress."

• "You can't quantify every upgrade," says Beasley. "So lose the idea that you can make money by putting in a new faucet." But whether it's major or minor, an improvement will usually make your house more marketable and decrease your selling time. "And if you have it done," says Beasley, "that's one less thing the buyer will have to do."

• Don't offer carpet or paint allowances, says Joel Hobson. "That just implies, 'This house needs work.' Buyers tend to horrible-ize a problem; in their minds they double or triple what the cost might be. If the carpet needs replacing, go on and replace it in a neutral shade. Or rip it up and let people see the hardwood underneath."

• Talk to people on the block, says Barlow. "Ask them to tell friends and relatives about the house. They have an investment in seeing it sold."

• Finally, she adds, "be reasonable about what you expect. Be willing to accept a lower price if that's what the market will bear. And be patient. Remember, for every house, there's a buyer." 

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