The Penny Pincher’s Guide to Selling a Home

We crunched the numbers; the results are in: the average total cost of selling a house? $20,000. Depending on your area, that number could be even higher.

$20,000 is not cheap.

We thought through all of the ways you can cut costs and still sell fast and for the most money. Our budget-friendly tips for selling a home walk you through how to find a real estate agent, the best way to prepare the interior and exterior of the house for sale, and tricks to get scrappy and market your property to the most people for the least cost.

We even created a timeline to keep you on task and on time so the process doesn’t drag on and cost you even more in the long run.

Ready to sell your house on a budget?

Selling With a Realtor Is Cheaper than Selling For Sale By Owner

If you are trying to save money while selling your house, it might be tempting to go it alone. Selling with a real estate agent actually saves you money in the long run.

A real estate agent worth their salt can help you get a sense of the local market, as well as the specific strengths and weaknesses of your home and how it compares to what is already out there. HomeLight can help you find a top real estate agent who knows the area well and who can back up their suggested listing price with data from the local market.

While a real estate agent will charge you a 6% Realtor fee, our data shows that you will save money in the long term: real estate agents generally increase the selling price by 13%. Often, a large chunk of that 6% of the fee is money they spend on innovative and thoughtful marketing strategies for your home.

We asked Suzanne Jacobus of Alan Pinel Real Estate to walk us through selling a home with a budget in mind. Suzanne has been selling homes in Danville, California for 32 years.

“There are two major reasons to go with a realtor,” Suzanne says. “If you choose to go For Sale by Owner, you are limiting your own exposure and might miss out on the perfect buyer. The second is that real estate agents are frequently trained in negotiation. You might be too emotionally invested in your home to negotiate well on your own behalf.”

In short, when you hire a realtor, you are not only hiring them, but you are hiring their skills, experience, and their network. Homelight has listed the top sellers nationwide to help you find the right real estate agent for you.

Hidden Costs of For Sale By Owner

Trying to sell on your own can come with some hidden costs, as well. For many people, a house is the single biggest purchase they will make in their lifetime. If you decide to sell without a real estate agent, you will have some extra legwork to take care of. You will be competing with other houses listed in the same market, going up against the more experienced realtors selling them.

By hiring an experienced realtor who will be able to work with the home inspectors on what you do and do not need to do before the sale, you can ensure some peace of mind down the road, and make sure you do due diligence when it comes to preparing the house for the new owners. An experienced realtor can help you with local laws (Fun fact: it is illegal in several states, including Massachusetts, to knowingly sell a haunted house without warning the new owners! Is it illegal in yours?)

These Low-Budget Fixes Make a Big Difference to Buyers

First impressions are made within seconds, whether you’re meeting someone new or sizing up a potential home. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of a good first impression when putting your house on the market- this is where you can make or break the sale. Luckily, this is also an area that you have a lot of control over! With a little planning, you can put your best foot forward.

curb appeal display with magenta and orange flowers
Source: (Gades Photography / Unsplash)

Curb Appeal on the Cheap

During the day, walk to the front of your home with a critical eye. Does the lawn need to be mowed? Do the shutters need to be repainted, or the gutters repaired? A home buyer might not even notice these things individually, but each detail adds up and creates an impression.

As Suzanne says, “Curb appeal is very important. Make sure there is a clear pathway to the front door. Small details, like clean door knobs and a clean welcome mat, make a good first impression.”

Step 1: Lawn Maintenance

It’s preferable to cut the front lawn in a neat diagonal crisscross pattern, which makes the lawn look more spacious. (Lawnmower rental, $31/per day from many national home improvement stores.)

Step 2: Make the Windows Shine

Look for grime or mold around the windows.

Step 3: Check Out Your Porch

If you have a porch, check for sagging beams or crumbling bricks.

Step 4: Trim Back Trees and Bushes

Trim tree branches, especially those close to the house: access to light is a key component of what a homebuyer will look for.

Step 5: Bring in the Florals

Some realtors recommend planting yellow flowers–yellow is an encouraging color that signifies growth and change. Pull the weeds in the front yard, and clean the light in the front entryway or replace it.

Step 6: Power Wash it Clean

If anything in the front of your home is looking a little tired, you can easily spruce it up. Rent a pressure washer (approximately $35/day from many national chain home improvement stores) to get grit and grime off the side of a house or the floor of a porch. Touch up the shutters and window details with paint. With new hardware and paint, you can have your front entryway looking brand new! Clean and simple can go a long way to building a lasting impression.

Source: (Daiga Ellaby / Unsplash)

Use Household Cleaning Supplies to Deep Clean

Pretend that the Queen and all your extremely critical relatives are coming over for dinner. Divide the house into sections to ensure you don’t miss a spot or burn out after one room. It’s easiest to tackle this project over the course of weeks instead of in one afternoon.

Clean places you don’t usually scrub: on top of the fridge, behind the stove- wherever years of dirt and grime might have accumulated. Scrub the grout in the bathroom and kitchen, and make sure there aren’t mold spots in the shower or bath. Give some attention to areas of the house you usually ignore, like utility closets and basements. Free spiderwebs and dust won’t sweeten the deal for homebuyers.

Need more advice on what to clean? Download our checklist below, or read the full deep cleaning guide.


Deodorize With Lemon and Orange

Do you know what your house smells like? Over time, we become nose-blind to smells we are frequently exposed to, but a smell makes a larger subconscious impression than we think. If you have pets or smoke indoors, be sure to clean a little bit more thoroughly. Clean out the grid for air conditioners and heaters so that you aren’t trapping in old stale smells. Ask a friend (that you trust to be honest!) to check for you.

Lemon and orange are two subtle smells that make your house smell great and remove odors. Be sure to pick up a few of each at the grocery store. You can also opt for a Buddha’s hand, which is basically a huge (and very fragrant) lemon peel. Pick one up at your local Farmer’s Market! Have an orange or lemon tree in your backyard? Even better.

display of lemons spread over a countertop
Source: (Lauren Mancke / Unsplash)

Decluttering is Free and Makes a Great Impression

After a deep clean, the next stage to empty your home of extra personal effects. “The most important thing is to declutter,” Suzanne Jacobus says.

Tidy up the front entryway: absolutely no clutter! This means clearing away everything except the bare minimum. Clean windows from the inside and the outside. These are all things you can do yourself in an afternoon or two, and won’t cost more than a little elbow grease.

Suzanne advised us to “Get rid of extra furniture and things cluttering the countertops, kitchen sink, and bathroom sink. Take away personal pictures. Prepare the house so that someone can see themselves living there. You don’t want to get caught up in your personality.”

Family photos need to come off the walls, and cluttered furniture should go into storage. Think of it as building a set: you’re trying to help a potential buyer see themselves living there, which can be difficult to do with your sports equipment lying in the front entryway. You’ll have to pack it all eventually; get a head start while you tidy.

decluttered kitchen countertops for getting the house ready to sell on a budget
Source: Naomi Hébert / Unsplash_

Keep Staging Simple and Strategic

Arrange the furniture to create a good flow from room to room. Each piece should suggest the functionality of the space.

Small touches, like a folded newspaper next to a cup and saucer in the breakfast nook, can help prompt associations, which in turn helps the buyer make a connection with your home. The key is to think small. The point isn’t to show how much furniture can be crammed into each room but to insinuate the purpose of each room so that the buyer can imagine their own belongings there.

Here’s a Quick Seller’s House-Prep Checklist:

There are some small expenses that are worth the cash. Not all of these investments are free but they will help close the sale.

  • Paint the whole house in a warm but neutral color (but try to avoid plain white!). Realtors recommend warm but light tones, like creams. Suzanne usually recommends Navajo white or swiss coffee.
  • Tidy up the backyard. This needs less attention than the front yard, but still make sure that the yard is trimmed and that hedges, trees, and plants are tidied up. If there is a deck or porch, a quick power wash or a fresh coat of paint will work wonders. For staging, a simple outdoor chair and table will look inviting, especially if you live in an area that invites outdoor living. Just make sure it stays clean of leaves and debris before a viewing!
  • Use mirrors to your advantage. Add mirrors in strategic areas to add more light and amplify natural light. This can also make rooms look larger or less boxy.
  • Take down dark curtains. You can leave the windows bare or replace them with -sheer white or cream drapes. You want to allow as much light in as possible while framing the windows!
  • Buy fresh flowers, lemons, and oranges before each open house. This creates a nice smell, as well as the subconscious suggestion of freshness and vitality.
  • Make sure the bathroom is spotless. If the grout between the tiles is yellowing or dingy, refresh it for a quick and cheap “recently renovated” look.
  • Create a color scheme throughout the house and stick to it. Keep it neutral and consistent.
  • Remove carpet to reveal existing hardwood. If you live in an older home and have carpet covering up the original hardwood floors, it can be worth it to rip up the carpet and buff up the floors. Hardwood floors have a lot of appeal for homebuyers. Rent a carpet cleaner ($30/per day) and go to town on those floors!
  • Give the kitchen a small, inexpensive upgrade by adding new sink fixtures or a pendant light. Try for something sophisticated or classical.
  • Stage the bedroom– for $50 or less at discount stores, buy an all-inclusive bed-in-a-bag.
  • Change out lighting fixtures that are older than a decade. This can update the entire room (and add more light) for very little additional cost.
  • While you’re looking at changing the light fixtures… consider warmer tone light bulbs. Warmer tones make everything look more pleasant, and will create a more inviting atmosphere.

Extra Tight on Time and Money? Complete These Tasks at the Minimum

  • Trim the landscaping. No overgrown yard or hedges and no weeds.
  • Empty out closets and storage areas.
  • Remove personal effects and any bulky furniture. Go for a bare and clean look.
  • Do basic staging in the dining room and living room.
  • Create a consistent look throughout the house.
woman holding a camera to take budget photos of a house for sale
Source: (Cameron Kirby / Unsplash)

Your Home is Ready to Show, It’s Time for Some Low-Cost Marketing

Become a master of DIY marketing to cast a wider net and enhance the possibility of multiple offers. This also shortens the timeframe that the house is on the market, which is important. The longer your house is on the market, the more likely someone will think it is overpriced, even if it isn’t. Luckily, the internet has myriad opportunities for you to showcase your house.

“You want to captivate the buyer as early in the marketing process as possible,” Suzanne says. “The longer your house is on the market, the less interest there will be.” It’s in your best interest to be proactive in finding a buyer.

Step 1: Get Out The Camera

Listings with 6 or more photos are twice as likely to get a click through. Home buyers also list photos as the most important feature of an online ad. Humans are visual creatures and can’t resist appealing photos.

The more eyes you get, the more potential buyers you reach. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true; if a home listing doesn’t include any photos, many home buyers don’t click through to read the description.

Professional photos make even more of an impact, with a study by Redfin showing that houses with professional photos sell for more money than listings with amateur photos.

Step 2: Utilize the Internet

51% of home buyers find their home online. List your home across multiple websites, like Zillow, Trulia, and Craigslist! Take photos of your Consider taking a video tour of your home and uploading it to YouTube! Utilize social media to sell your home by posting your photos and asking your friends and contacts to share.

Step 3: Know your Advantages

What is something unique and special to your home that you love? Is it easily accessible and near a busy road? Put signs up along the road! If you live in a corner lot, be sure to put up a For Sale sign on both sides.

If you’re a little off the beaten path or otherwise inaccessible, ask a neighbor near the main road if you can put a sign up in their yard. Ask local coffee shops and businesses if you can post signs. Get your neighbors involved by talking to local neighborhood groups.

close up of half an analog clock representing time savers when selling a house on a budget
Source: (Sonja Langford / Unsplash)

True Cost-Savers Get Regimented:

It’s not enough to simply think about cost-effective actions during the home sale process, you need to get organized! A well thought out timeline will help you stick to your budget. Here’s what the entire sale looks like when you’re on a strict budget.

We’ve marked specific cost-saving measures for every step of the way:

How to Save Money 6 Weeks Before Listing:

Evaluate your budget and decide on your priorities.
Do you need to move quickly because of a new job or school? Can you hold out for a better price if you don’t immediately get your asking price? Look over your budget. Sit down and decide on a plan of action. Decide on what repairs you will make and what (if any) appliances you want to replace.

Interview your agents.
As Suzanne told us, “It’s important to get a realtor who will work with you, who listens to you, and who understands what your goals and needs are. Someone who puts you at ease and makes you comfortable.”

Selling a house can be a stressful process, so you want someone you have a good rapport with. Interview a few agents –– at least two, Suzanne says –– and ask them to present possible marketing plans.

“Experience is important, though some less experienced realtors are very motivated and good negotiators. I don’t know that it’s crucial to sell a certain number of houses or have referrals. The rapport is more important. Their marketing plan, someone that you think will be a good negotiator on your behalf.”

How to Save Money One Month Before Listing:

Do your market research and learn about the local climate for sellers.
Look at online listings of houses near you, in your area and city.

Think like a buyer.
Check out the local school districts, as well as average home prices in your area. In a buyer’s market, you have to be much more price sensitive about accurately pricing your home right out of the gate.

Make repairs.
If you have any broken appliances repair them now.

Start packing.
Pack seasonal items and declutter your home now to give yourself a head start on the staging process.

How to Save Money Two Weeks Before Listing:

Declutter and stage your home.
You’ll be moving soon anyway, so now is a great excuse to pack up seasonal things or other items you won’t need for the next few weeks. Put larger items you don’t wish to use for staging into storage. Give each room a purpose, and make that purpose clear with sparse pieces of furniture- a dining room table and two chairs, or a couch and coffee table. Just enough to give the buyer some inspiration.

Take photos.
Once your house is spotless and shiny, take those marketing photos! Make sure to take photos of every room of the house during the daytime.

When You List for Optimal Savings:

  • Unleash the guerrilla marketing. Put those photos to good use by getting them circulated as widely as possible.
  • Cross list your house on websites like Trulia, Craigslist, and Zillow.
  • Put up your road signs and your flyers.

There Are Even Cost Saving Measures for After the Sale:

  • Negotiate. This is where you want a good real estate agent on your side. Work with the home inspector and the real estate agent to get all the paperwork in order. Make sure that all of the inspections are set up.
  • Scrimp on Utilities. Arrange to have the utilities shut off before you vacate. Set up mail forwarding through the post office- usually they will continue for a year, giving you time to file for a change of address.

Sell Your Home Without Breaking the Bank

With a little forethought and planning, putting a house on the market doesn’t have to break the bank. Focus first on creating your plan, finding the right realtor, and put yourself in the buyer’s shoes to find the changes you can make that will make the most difference.