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Decorating to Sell Your Home

We’re experiencing one of the best markets in years for selling real estate, with record-low interest rates and an economy that’s firmly in recovery.

Still, even in the best of markets, it takes a lot more than just putting up a sign and vacuuming the living room to sell your home. How do you decide what to spend your time and money on, and where you’re better off holding back, in order to prepare your home for a sale?

To find out, we went right to three real estate experts, in New York City, Minnesota, and Santa Fe: Diane Wildowsky, a broker with one of the New York City offices of Sotheby’s International Realty, Chas Campbell, president & publisher of MNRealty.com Inc., who sold real estate for many years and now acts as an educator, marketing consultant, and webmaster for other top realtors in the Twin Cities, and Susan Orth, broker and part owner of City Different Realty in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

First, we asked the agents what they think are the most important cosmetic improvements a homeowner can make to prepare a property for sale, and they all agreed: keeping the place immaculately clean is paramount.

Start with minimizing clutter, an activity which will also make your packing easier when it comes time to move to your new place. Before you even put your place on the market, take this time to make that trip to the Salvation Army, throwing out anything you haven’t used in a year. Once you have more room in the closets, you can further reduce the clutter around the house, putting away the things that are precious to you but which will only distract the prospective buyer, Diane Wildowksky of Sotheby’s said.

“You want prospective buyers to see the ‘bones’ of the property and not be distracted by clutter or art collections or tabletops filled with family photos,” she said. “Organize the closets, clear the kitchen countertops, remove decorative magnets and the children’s drawings off the refrigerator. Periodically we’ll suggest some furniture be removed to give a room a more open, airy feeling.”

Even though it may seem impossible to accomplish this with kids in the house, you can probably come up with a creative way to get the kids to pitch in. Wildowsky remembers one client whose child was such a Barbie aficionado that the bedroom was “a shrine to Barbie, Ken and all their family and friends.” Relocating Barbie’s paraphernalia to a floor-to-ceiling closet solved the problem without sending the girl into a state of withdrawal.

All three realtors we interviewed said that taking the papers off the front of the fridge is important, as is cleaning out the closets so buyers can see how much storage is available.

Once you’ve removed the clutter, consider having at least the bath and kitchen professionally cleaned. Chas Campbell has found that a professional cleaning “can often hedge against replacement unless something is damaged.” And a small repair of damage from water leaks, burns, or other mishaps can “stave off counteroffers for defects.”

Susan Orth said that in Santa Fe, it’s crucial to consider the home’s “curb appeal,” because buyers often make their decision in the first few minutes of seeing a home.

“Landscaping must be in order, and you should add or upgrade exterior lighting,” Orth said. “If possible, plant flowers near the door, mulch existing plants, trim shrubbery, and remove any dead plants or trees.”

As with any suggestion, take into account the particulars of your area. “In the Santa Fe area, many trees have been lost in the last couple of years to drought and the bark beetle,” Orth said. “In many areas it is almost standard practice to have dead pinion pines removed.”

However, sprucing up the place doesn’t necessarily mean that you must invest in a remodel of the kitchen or bath —removing clutter, making a few small updates, such as new drawer pulls and other accessories, as well as a thorough, professional cleaning may be enough. And sometimes a big investment won’t be what your potential buyers want.

“What one seller might choose as stylish and expensive is often ripped out and re-done by new buyers,” Wildowsky said. “We see this all the time in Manhattan. Beautiful new countertops, kitchen cabinets, appliances — sometimes never used — get ripped out and thrown away so that the new owners can install their particular style.”

Campbell agreed, pointing out that while baths add value, so do extra bedrooms, porches, and in-ground pools. “The value of any improvement is relative to the total value of the home and its current condition relative to its neighborhood,” he said.

As with everything else, a solid comparison with the other homes in your area and price range will help with these decisions. “A small kitchen remodel in a small home in a neighborhood of homes where most have been remodeled is a good thing and will always pay for itself if not more,” he said. “A grand, expensive kitchen remodel in the same home will probably not pay for itself and might possibly overprice the home for its market when it###s time to sell.”

But if you’re thinking of selling in a year or two, and your kitchen or bath is clearly outdated, doing the remodel now — so that you can enjoy the new kitchen or bath for a year or so — will still pay for itself when the time comes to sell.

While our survey isn’t exactly scientific, the National Association of Realtors did conduct a research project this winter on the values of various housing characteristics. They found that the number of bathrooms in a home does dramatically influence the selling price, with each full bath adding about 24% to the selling price, so if you’re considering adding a bath, this may be the time to do it.

Orth cites a 2003 article in Remodeling Magazine which found that a seller will get back, on average, over 90% of the money spent to remodel a bath and 77% of the money spent on a kitchen. “Again, these improvements should enhance the basic character of the home; often unique is not good when it comes to selling,” she said.

Wildowsky also stresses the importance of seeing your home in the context of its neighborhood, especially when it comes to remodeling. She tells the story of an older couple who moved into one of Manhattan’s trendiest areas, a part of the city known for its artists’ lofts complete with exposed pipes and open floor plans. The couple spent a huge sum “making the apartment look and feel like their house in the suburbs.”

After the renovations were complete, the couple tried to sell, and found it difficult to get a buyer. “The look of this space, as nice as it was, did not fit with the building or the neighborhood, and the apartment sat for quite some time before it finally sold under the asking price,” Wildowsky said.

But if you’re going to make a substantial improvement, make sure you go all the way with it. “I would either do the improvement completely or not do it at all,” Campbell said. In cases in which you know some remodeling is necessary — for example, if you have kitchen appliances so outdated they’re just one step above a wood-burning stove — you can consider including an allowance in the sales contract that will cover the cost of the improvement.

“No buyer wants to pick up where the seller left off,” Wildowsky agreed. “It’s too complicated and time consuming. So if a seller starts the project, the seller should plan to complete the project before selling.”

Likewise, when thinking about wall color, consider the huge range of tastes of your potential buyers, and don’t risk putting off a more conservative buyer by painting the walls in wildly bright colors. Also bear in mind that any room that doesn’t get enough sun will benefit from a light wall color. It doesn’t have to be painted a harsh, pure white, but a pale yellow or pleasant, light beige will help make a room appear to have more light.

“Dark colors will often make the room look smaller and it may be harder for the buyer to imagine their furniture and personal pr