I just sold my home in this awful market and I believe how I went about making that happen will benefit you. I made a lot of mistakes along with the things I did right - you'll benefit from what I learned, and hopefully will end up where you want to be, when you want to be there, and without nerve damage in your hands. For me two out of three was pretty good.
You may already have your house on the market, you may already have a place you want to move to, you may just be toying with the idea of selling - what I am getting at is that you may or may not be prepared. I was not. At all. I had no thoughts of selling and moving, only dreams of doing so about 5 years down the road when my son graduated from high school.... then, an opportunity presented itself and I started to research places to move to.
1 week later I saw a photo of a house for sale as I was putting the WSJ into the recycle bin, 1 hour later I was on the phone to the real estate agent for that house. Let's call her Sally, and 2 days later I was in SC, standing in that very house.
But, for the 2 days before I got there I looked at all the homes that were online in that area and so I was pretty familliar with what was available. When the house I went up to see turned out to be too small for me, Sally suggested another house, but being that I had done my homework, I told her that I had seen that particular house online, and that I didn't want to waste her time because there was no way in the world I would ever buy that home - the home I am now sitting in while I write this 'ible. How I got from there to here is what I want to share.
Step 1: Step 1 - Supplies
- Almost mandatory - a gas powered pressure washer. This may be the best $400 investment you make in selling your home. I found mine on Craig's List for $250 but Home Depot has the same one for $399. If you read the instructions and take care of the thing it will last.
- Leaf blower (mine had a vacuum too). I highly, highly recommend Stihl. The first leaf blower I bought from Home Depot lasted for 20 minutes and died. The Stihl, which I went and bought the next day, is more powerful, has variable speeds, is quieter (ha ha just kidding), is a joy to start up, and it came with an instruction book written by someone who was not translating English from another language, it was actually readable. Best of all it came with safety glasses - how cool is that?
- Ear protection - I am so serious here, you will be using that pressure washer and leaf blower everyday for awhile. Save your hearing. What? I said SAVE YOUR HEARING!
- Primer - yes you will be painting. I used Glidden from Home Depot and was very satisfied.
- Good paint in a high-gloss or semi-gloss, don't use flat paint, it's hard to clean, it's not shiny and pretty. Flat paint is great at covering imperfections, if you don't have imperfections then there is no reason to use a paint that has no sheen and looks dull - because it is dull. Humor me here and at least get eggshell. I was very happy with Home Depot's color matching and their paint. I think you have to use two coats no matter what paint you use - not because it might not cover well but there are always going to be spots, streaks, whole sections that you missed on the first go around.
- Nice small flexible metal scraper, spackle, a case of paintable caulk in white, and a caulking gun.
- A friend who's taste you admire.
Step 2: Step 2 - Find the Weakest Part of Your Home and Make It the Best Part.
For my home this was the side yard, it was large but had such a thick canopy of trees that no grass would grow there. It was really very unattractive. 3 pallets of pine bark mulch and many days of work later, it became a Zen-like oasis. The evening I finally finished it I went to sleep on one of the lounge chairs, the bamboo leaves made this soft whispery sound in the breeze and I will never forget how at peace I was after accomplishing something I was so proud of.
Step 3: Step 3 - Make Focal Points - the Yard, the Dining Room, the Bedroom
Your eye needs a place to settle on when taking in a vista, a room, or a lawn. If there is nothing for the eye to settle on it has no direction on where it should look. If I had only mulched the side yard and not put in the stepping stones that lead your eye to the chaise lounges, there would just be nothing to look at, no potential to think how much you would like to be sitting there under the shade of the umbrella with a great book, or a friend with drinks having a happy conversation about how wonderful life is. You need to create the potential for a story.
I can best illustrate this incredibly important factor with the dining room table. Showing your home without the dining room table set up for a splendid dinner is akin to showing your bedroom to potential buyers with a bare mattress and some ratty stained pillows. A beautifully laid out dining room table with all your best china, with napkins, wine glasses, water glasses, etc has a wow factor like nothing else. Buyers who see your table set for a dinner party think "these people have friends, they don't seem desperate, they look like they are busy with their lives and having fun, I want to be sitting here with my friends..."
Invest in a coordinated duvet cover and pillow shams for your bed(s). Make sure a king size mattress has king sized pillows - and use 4 of them. White sheets look crisp and clean (I bought mine from the Vermont Company Store, online). Iron the pillow cases, the part of the top sheet that will show, the duvet cover and the shams. Don't actually sleep on the pillows, stick them in a closet all crisp and ironed ready for a showing. Yes some of this will get old and boring and you will start to think it is OK to sleep in that great looking bed and that's OK too. The point is to make that bed give the buyer the same impression as the dinning room table did. The wow factor of "I want to be in that bed, it looks so comfortable, so clean".
It can be quasi-uncomfortable to see someone's bedroom, it's too intimate to look at a total strangers' most vunerable place. Make sure your bedroom looks like a hotel bedroom, impersonal, stylish, coordinated and very inviting.
Step 4: Step 4 - De-Clutter
Either have a garage sale, give it to charity or get a storage place. This will hurt, you must be brutal with your self - think "do I want to pay to have this 20 year old collection of Saveur magazines moved? Am I ever going to read them again? Did I actually ever cook anything from them?"
I did all three things and I did the garage sale twice, once before the house went on the market and once again after I had a contract.
This is a good time to talk about storage - personally I was loath to pay for the stuff I already owned. But it was the only way I could really de-clutter, and I am so glad I did because my buyer bought my house with almost every piece of art and furniture and knick knack in it. At least put your most favorite things - such as family heirloom furniture, away, far away from the sight of a potential buyer who might just have to have that one piece to make the deal happen.
Step 5: Step 5 - De-Personalize
Anyone viewing your home is trying desperately hard to imagine themselves living there. It is far easier to imagine yourself not living in someone's home, and the decision to rule out your house in favor of going to view another house can be made doubly fast if something is spied that is really at odds with the buyer's sensibility. So, simply de-personalize. If there is the slightest chance that you and the buyer wont be sharing the same political views, child rearing views, religion, sexual orientation, favorite sports teams etc. hide the items that show what you are into - books and magazines, crosses, baseball hats with team logos, prayer mats, etc. take down all photos of you, your kids, your SO. Don't give access to your personal life to a total stranger who happens to be in your house. What race you are, what you like to do in your spare time, your ethnicity - none of this should be obvious.
Just think to yourself what you know about the last person who stayed in the fancy hotel room you are about to sleep in. Nothing. At All. Do you really want to know anything about the last person who slept in the very same bed you are about to lie on? it's like sausage making, it may taste great but you don't want to ask about the ingredients.
Step 6: Step 6 - Listen! Take Notes, Make Lists.
Even if you don't like what you are hearing from your trusted friend from the supply list in step one, the one who has good taste? Yes that one, if she says to repaint your lovely dark red dining room a lovely shade of creamy white - just do it. Why did you ask her opinion if you are not going to listen to her? Or him?
My studio behind my house had every wall painted a different (dark) color. I thought it looked great. My 'trusted friend' did not. I was amazed that it really did look better all painted the same color - I used "Architectural White".
My friend with good taste had an amazing house that always looked like it could be in a magazine. Let's call my friend 'Barbara', mainly because that is her name, well, she and I walked through my whole house, me with a note pad writing down everything she said, and her saying things such as "take down those photos.... get coordinating towels... get rid of most of the books on the shelves and put simple things there... put some candles and towels in a basket in the master bath...paint all the walls a creamy white (see? She really did say that)... take down your crazy art... Anyway, the point is make lists and follow them.
There are quite a few companies out there that will charge big bucks to "stage" your home. They make your home look so impersonal that no one can think of themselves living in it. Remember to set a stage not make a stage. Leave out the cookbook open to a pie recipe with a rolling pin and some flour next to it for a kitchen shot, put some pots on the stove with some soup steaming away in them, make your house look like it is lived in but generic enough for anyone else to imagine themselves living there as well. And wanting to.
Step 7: Step 7 - Fix, Repair, Clean, Clean Clean.
Yes, you know that the roof does not leak anymore - so get rid of the stain on the ceiling now. Yes, you know that all those wires stuck to the walls of your house don't actually go anywhere or turn anything on - so get rid of them. And yes, you know the well water stains things a bit orange and that it doesn't mean anything - but Home Depot sells a spray that gets rid of the orange color in minutes, go buy some and use it.
Go back to step 2 and see how I even got the rust stains off of the bamboo trees.
Step 8: Step 8 - the Disappearing Wire Trick
Nothing up my sleeve but elbow grease.
Step 9: Step 9 - Base Boards and Quarter Round
While you are down there.... cleaning I presume, check to see if you need some quarter round to make your floor look like it is really joined to your baseboards. It makes a big 'finished' difference. I just used a chop saw to make the cuts and 'contractor's adhesive' to attach it to the baseboard. I didn't even need to caulk. I used a type of plastic quarter round. It did not even need to be painted.
Caulk every crack you see with white paintable caulk. Then paint it.
Step 10: Step 10 - Interview Realtors
Before my house was even ready to be listed I started to interview realtors. I interviewed 4 and I suggest you do the same. I knew that I needed a realtor who would give me a great internet presence. I read the comparable house sales that all 4 realtors presented, and they were all different! Some went back 6 months and some went back 1 year. Some used only my neighborhood and some used comparable neighborhoods. I made a file for each realtor then went to look at their websites. Different comparables meant each realtor suggested a different selling price for my home. I knew my house had no curb appeal and I suspected I needed the cache that Sotheby's would bring so I saved them for last.
This is when you need to put yourself in the prospective buyers mind and think to yourself what kind of homework are they doing? What neighborhoods are they going to be looking in? What comparables best show the value of your house and why.
One realtor who boasted to be the Rio Vista (the name of my neighborhood) expert had videos of homes on his website with cheesy music playing in the background and dizzying panorama shots - I mean how 90's can you get? When I politely tuned him down he started to yell at me over the phone, he then, and I quote, said " You are dreaming if you think you can get $$$$ (the number I had in mind) for your home!" Well I dreamed all the way here to South Carolina, with a stop at the bank of course.
So in the end I did pick Sotheby's, and it was because of the web presence that gave me. They designed a whole web site for my house, besides the one that was on the Sotheby's website. They promoted my home globally and they made smashing color glossy stock brochures that just dripped quality. As a side note, the Rio Vista 'expert' had a house listed right next door, the brochures were in black and white from a copier. The house was listed for more money than mine. Guess which one sold fastest? Guess which one got full price?
Step 11: Step 11 - What You Should Insist on From Your Realtor.
- No showings without 24 hour notice - that is known as being professional.
- No showings without their presence - what I mean here is don't let another realtor take clients through your house, they may of course come along but only your realtor should be leading them around.
- Your realtor should arrive at your house 30 minutes before the prospective buyer's appointment to turn on lights and in case they are early.
- Your realtor should follow up with the other relator to see what the clients thought of the house and when they are ready to purchase it. After all, your relator qualified the clients before the appointment was made right? They are not tire kickers.
- A brokers's open-house is a good idea, make sure quality food is served, make sure your realtor makes all the other brokers fill out a questioner on what they think of the house, the price, how long it should take to sell etc.
- No open-houses - those are only for the realtors to gain new clients who might wander in. No No No. I used to be in this business so I know what I am talking about.
- Color glossy brochures - why? Potential buyers need something to show their friends! The friends need something cool to 'oooh and awww' over. Not a black and white page from a copier. For pete's sake.
- At least 20 excellent photos, taken by a professional photographer, and you should have the say of which ones go online.
- You are not going to lower your price. It's a meaningless gesture. Anyone may offer what ever they want to, which brings up #10.
- INSIST that ALL offers are presented to you (in writing of course), no matter what. I cannot tell you how many friends of mine have told me of houses they wanted to buy but the broker said the owner would not go for such a low price.... and the house sells for less than that. 3 years later. Which really leads to #11
- Chances are, unless you are in a bidding war (how cool that would be) that the first offer you get is going to be your best. Think long and hard, then longer and harder, if you really think this is a game that you want to play, before either refusing, countering or accepting the offer.
There are all sorts of websites that your house listing will automatically go into, about 25 actually, don't let your realtor fool you into thinking that this is your web presence. How hard can it be to make a real web page just for your house? But do check the information that your relator puts into these generic sites, often the
lazyoverworked relator will omit vital information - like school district, lot size, or confuse, as mine did, a tool room for a free standing shed, or a deck for a balcony.
- While we are on the subject - if you decide to forgo a realtor and try to sell your house yourself good luck with that, every single offer you get will be phrased like this "since you don't have to pay a commission I'm only offering $$". What difference is the commission if you get the price you want? Believe me when I tell you that if you have an offer, and the difference between what you are willing to accept and that offer is, is only a commission apart - well someone will give (up). Bottom line: Dont worry about the commission - get your house sold.
Do not pick a realtor based on the commission they
chargeearn. "Yous gets what yous pays for".
Step 12: Step 12 - Photographs
Insisting on a professional photographer is key. One who used HDR is even better - that enables the foliage outside to be exposed as perfectly as the room inside. I know panaroma shots are a big deal but I don't personally like them. I did not use any of the ones taken at my photo shoot for my house - I mean really, have you ever seen a round pool table?
Night shots are well worth the time and effort. They are sexy!
So why didn't I think I would ever buy the house that I am in right now? It had the worst photos of the inside I have ever seen; there were two pictures of a hallway (the same hallway) and then there was the largest ugliest brown brick fireplace you have ever seen. There were no pictures of the front of the house. When Sally drove me up to the house I fell in love with it from the driveway.
Step 13: Step 13 - Time Frame
I'm really into making lists because I like to check things off. I gave myself 3 months to get the house ready to put on the market and I made a new list almost daily. I worked all day long everyday and people would stop over and say how sad it was that I was working so hard for no money. But that is not how I looked at it - I thought instead that everything I was doing was bettering my chances of selling the house and the better it looked the more money I would get for it.
The end result was that I listed it on January 3rd, 2012 and sold it for full price 6 weeks later to the 13th person to look at it.
The excellent photographs make my little house look large and wonderful, but the facts are that it was a small 3/3, 2,100 square feet (the studio was another 600 square feet, with a bathroom), but it was 75 years old, and not on the water - a much desired perk in Ft Lauderdale. The lovely 87 year old woman who bought it was absolutely not interested in living on that side of town - but she was enticed enough by the photos to come and look. She bought everything I owned (my artwork, furniture, sculptures, plants) except my clothes and cookware. It was like having a fire without the fire. I got a chance to really start over. It's hard to even write that last part with out getting weepy but it's done. I only added that in case that might happen to you - the only things I moved with were what was in storage. If you can't bare to part with something special to you - then hide it. My realtors told me of a number of deals that fell apart over a piece of furniture.
Step 14: Step 14 - What My Accountant Says
I took a huge loss when I sold my house, from what I paid for it and what I had put into it, BUT so did the people's whose house I bought. My accountant put it this way "Ninzerbean, if you could sell your house for what you have in it then so could everyone else. If you sell your home, and buy a home that you like more, and that home is about the same price as you are selling your home for, you are ahead - because you will like it more."