The interior walls are neutral. The clutter is a distant memory. A shower door has been replaced; even the design of the bedspread has been factored in. A professional inspection and appraisal have limited any surprises down the road. Now, the Green family's Chicago home is ready for sale.
"We're paving the road to make the closing process much smoother," Dan Green said.
He even created a blog, partly as a marketing tool for his Lincoln Park neighborhood home.
In an uncertain market, a little extra work can mean not only a smoother sale or a higher listing price, but also determine whether sellers get to the closing table at all.
"Talk to Realtors and they will tell you anything you do cosmetically to increase curb appeal is going to help the resale value," said Sal Alfano, the editor of Remodeling magazine.
In addition, many buyers stretch financially to get into a home, so they may pass over one needing too much work, said David Lupberger, a home-improvement expert for ServiceMagic, which connects homeowners with screened home-service professionals.
"The last thing you want is a list of projects that has to be taken care of," he said.
Here's the bright spot: Some of the most effective improvements aren't very expensive. Giving rooms a fresh coat of paint, for example, quickly pays off.
If you're planning to add a "for sale" sign to the lawn this spring, consider these five areas while creating your to-do list.
1. First impressions count
You want to make a good impression from the moment potential buyers pull up to the house, experts say. First glimpses will include the home's exterior, the shrubbery, the gutters and the front door.
Peeling trim could be a kiss of death. Paint the exterior of the home in an odd color, and you could turn away potential buyers before they come inside. Don't underestimate the importance of good lawn care, either.
"A lawn that looks good on the outside gives the impression that someone cares about that home," said Trey Rogers, a professor of turf-grass management at Michigan State University and the author of "Lawn Geek," a book of tips on how to maintain a lawn.
His advice is to "keep it green and keep it cut." Mow the lawn to about 3 inches high at least twice a week when a home is on the market; 2 inches if the home is in a Southern state. The more it is mowed, the denser it will become. And get on a fertilization program, Rogers said, starting at the beginning of the season.
If there are small spots to fill in, bypass store-bought sod and instead borrow some grass from an inconspicuous place elsewhere on the lawn, Rogers said. The grasses will match better that way.
Early birds selling at the tail end of winter should keep the sidewalks shoveled if there is snow on the ground.
2. Neutralize and de-clutter
When it comes to preparing a home's interior, any real estate professional or stagger worth a paycheck will advise a client to go with neutral colors.
"People can't visualize beyond what they see," said Jim Gillespie, the president and CEO of Coldwell Banker. Neutral colors, including beige and ivory, have the added advantage of making a room appear larger, an effect that Dan Green noticed right away when he repainted his bedroom walls.
Removing the home's clutter is also extremely important for helping potential buyers to imagine their family living in the home, Gillespie said.
Beyond that, do some spring cleaning: Shampoo the carpets, rebuff hardwood floors and oil wood cabinetry.
3. Consider replacement projects
Sellers might consider getting a home inspection before listing their home as a way to detect any overdue replacement projects, Gillespie said. The sellers can either fix any problems or give the buyers a discount to account for the repairs. Gillespie advocates making the necessary repairs before selling.
Home buyers recognize the value of a house that doesn't need major repairs, said Remodeling editor Alfano.
"The house is probably not going to move, or you're not going to get all the value out it, if the new buyer knows they're going to have to replace the roof sometime soon," he said.
According to the 2006 "Cost vs. Value" report from Remodeling magazine, a roof replacement for a midrange home cost an average of $14,276 and returned $10,553, or 73%, at resale. Replacing vinyl siding cost $9,134 on average, returning $7,963, or 87%, at resale.
A printable PDF of the report includes regional figures.
4. Kitchens and bathrooms rule
It's no secret that buyers tend to be awed by updated kitchens and bathrooms.
"If the last time it was remodeled was in 1980, that's going to be points against, versus another house that was upgraded even five years ago with sort of a modern look," Alfano said. "It's hard to go wrong with a kitchen or bath remodel, unless you get a little too edgy with the design or the materials you use."
That said, sellers spending only a couple of years in a house probably aren't going to completely remodel either room. Sellers should zero in on where these rooms need the most improvement, said Lupberger, of ServiceMagic, and then decide how much they want to spend.
If kitchen cabinets are structurally fine but their exteriors are outdated, it might be worth it to reface them, Lupberger said. If counters are old, replacing them may add new life to the room. In the bathroom, look into resurfacing a chipped or damaged bathtub.
5. Warranty coverage and documentation
Sellers can provide some extra peace of mind to buyers by purchasing a warranty on their home that will cover such things as heating and plumbing, should the buyer run into problems after closing. The coverage is becoming a little more popular, Coldwell Banker's Gillespie said. Warranties can be bought from companies such as American Home Shield and AON.
"Little things like that . . . you need that today, to set the property apart with all the competition out there," Gillespie said.
He also recommends displaying the age of the water heater and furnace. If either one is on the older side, have it inspected for proof that it works correctly.
If you've done replacement projects in the past few years, dig out the documentation to prove it, Alfano said. If any of the improvements cut energy costs, make that known, too.
"You never really could (miss), but it wasn't on the tip of everybody's tongue," Alfano said. "Now, it's in the news all the time."