Prepare Your Home For Sale in 3 Weeks or Less With This Airtight Game Plan

You vigorously scrub the bathroom only to spread lint and hair all over the countertops when you box up the accessories junk drawer.

The duster has been lost and found umpteen times with your inefficient room-by-room deep cleaning strategy.

Oh, and you better have the takeout menus handy since all of your pots and pans are in storage, making it impossible to cook even basic meals.

Whoops! Does this state of pure chaos sound familiar? It’s what happens when your attempt to prepare your home for sale turns into a logistical nightmare as you juggle getting your house ready for buyers and packing up for a big move. And no one has extra time and energy to spare.

To keep this gigantic undertaking on track, you need a practical, project-by-project game plan. We crafted this one with the help of top real estate experts who have helped many a client get from A to B while keeping their home in show-ready condition. Stick to this order of operations like a mathematician, and you can bank on flawless home prep execution.

Prepare Your Home For Sale With a Suitable Timeline

First you might be wondering: “How long will it take me to pack up and prep my house?”

According to the National Association of Realtors, homes only stayed on the market an average of three weeks in 2017. That doesn’t leave you much room for error. Many experts advise starting the packing and purging process the moment you decide to sell.

Some claim to have the answer in a strategy that promises to have you packed and prepped in a week or less. But trying to follow a “one size fits all” timeline just adds more anxiety to an already stressful and unsettled situation. Others say you need two months to get the job done right—which you may not have if your home sells fast.

The real answer to this question is: It depends.

The size of your current home (plus the size of your new one if you’re downsizing), and the number of belongings you have play a big role in the timeline. Naturally, a bigger, fuller home will require more time.

So what’s the trick that’ll help you tackle the task as swiftly and efficiently as possible? You need to stay focused on the “how” instead of “how long”—but with this 7-project plan, you can stay within the bounds of a 3-week timeline.

Start with a Packing and Home Inventory Plan

As you’re packing, start an inventory to help make sure that nothing gets lost in the move. Taking inventory while you’re moving not only helps you keep track of everything, it’ll serve double duty as an inventory to save for homeowners insurance purposes.

If you’re tech-savvy, you may want to download a home inventory app to photograph and label everything. Or you can opt for a more traditional packing method by handwriting your inventory list. Whichever option you pick, take a quick snapshot of each full box before you close it.

Clear labeling is another way to ensure everything makes it to the new house. There’s no need to get fancy or too detailed—all you need to do is to note which room the box belongs in and a general idea of the contents (such as “Kitchen – Dishware” or “Bathroom – Towels”). Just make sure to write the label on the top, the sides and on the master inventory list.

Top real estate agent Carrie Buckett, who serves Illinois and Wisconsin and is also a relocation specialist, has seen too many clients leave boxes unlabeled and stick them in the basement, thinking, “Oh, we’ll go through these later.” And they end up collecting dust never to be opened again. “Label everything,” advises Buckett. “That will help [you] in the future.”

prepare your home for sale box labeling

Remember to photograph your donation pile as it grows, too. Each item you give away can be itemized as a deduction to help offset any real estate taxes.

Now, on to the big job.

Project 1: Pack and Purge—Garage, Storage Areas and Living Room (1-3 Days)

Why start with the garage and storage areas? For most, cleaning out the garage, basement and storage closets are massive tasks even without the prospect of selling and moving looming. If you get them out of the way first, you eliminate the dread of eventually having to clean them out from the get go.

Packing up these least-used spaces first also allows you to make good headway with your packing without getting in the way of your day-to-day. Plus, your storage areas are probably filled with seldom-used or forgotten items that you won’t want or need. Cleaning these spaces out will get you into the purging mindset, making it easier purge and declutter when you start packing the main living areas.

It’s practical, too. Clearing out storage areas early means that you’ll have out-of-the-way places to neatly stack the boxes you’re taking to the new house. Using this strategy means you won’t have to scramble to hide your boxes during showings. It’ll also give you space to collect the unwanted items that you intend to donate.

Tackling the living room towards the end of project 1 is a smart idea for a similar reason. Once it’s done, you’ll have a comfortable, decluttered place inside to work as you move on to the more cramped and cluttered bedrooms.

As an added bonus, you’ve have made good headway into the packing process by checking a main living area off of the list. Plus, unlike your kitchen, bath and bedrooms, the smaller, packable clutter in the living room (like throw pillows and knickknacks) are less likely to be necessities.

Project 2: Pack and Purge—Bedrooms and Bonus Rooms (2-5 Days)

The bedrooms and bonus rooms come next because they see less traffic than the other functional spaces, like the kitchen and bathrooms. As long as you can still access the bed or desk, the rooms can serve their purpose even in the mess of moving. Plus, they’ll likely take more time to pack than you think.

If you’re like most people, you stuff all of your loose-ends into your bedrooms, offices and other ancillary rooms where they’re out of sight, out of mind. This habit is why you’ll need more boxes than you might think.

But before you dive right into packing, grab a container and fill it with all of the necessities to help you survive until you’re settled into the new house—including clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other everyday-use items.

Almost everything else in the room needs to be packed away or added to the donation pile. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

A good guideline to follow is to touch every item only once. When it leaves your hand it should either be packed or discarded. Here’s a simple solution to help you make the countless “toss or keep” decisions during the process:

  • Ask yourself: “Do I love it? Do I currently use it? Does it have sentimental value? If lost, would I miss it or replace it?”
  • If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then keep it. If not, out it goes.

Homeowners who have trouble with purging may want to consider hiring a professional organizer to help them with the packing. This will run you an average of $260 to $748 depending on how much help you need and whether your organizer charges by the room or by the hour.

While packing to move is your main goal during this project, don’t forget that you’ll soon need to stage your home for buyers, too. Keep out a few handful of decorative items to keep the packed-up bedrooms from looking too sparse.

Project 3: Pack and Purge—Kitchen and Bathrooms (1-2 Days)

After honing your packing skills on the rest of the house, you’ll be ready to handle the kitchen and bathrooms with all of their fragile and awkward items like mirrors, fine china and food processors.

As you did with the bedrooms, start by gathering up all of your everyday-use items so you don’t accidentally pack them away. Cleaning supplies and equipment should also be set aside as you’ll need them to get the house show-ready.

In the kitchen, assemble a basic cooking kit (that includes items like a medium-sized pot, a frying pan, a cutting board, a few sharp knives and other utensils), so that you can prepare meals. In the bathroom—aside from your own toiletries—keep a small stash of the basics on hand, like toothpaste and toilet paper.

Everything else needs to go through the “toss or keep” process. That includes all the food, too.

You will want to keep some items around to last throughout your final few weeks in the house. However, the majority of your pantry can be packed to move to the new home.

Just don’t toss any of those non-expired, non-perishable food items that you aren’t going to eat or move. Your local food bank will gladly accept them as a tax deductible donation.

Your Decluttering Checklist

Here's a checklist that you can print out and work through to declutter every room in your house.

Project 4: Donate & Landscape (1-3 Days)

Once the whole home is packed up, it’s time to send the donations off to their new home. This gets them out of the way and prevents you from being tempted to rethink your “toss” decisions.

Save yourself time and effort by scheduling a pickup by your local Salvation Army. When you call to schedule, double check that your local branch accepts the items you intend to donate. Make sure you’re covered when tax season rolls around by photographing your donations as they’re being loaded and get a dated receipt from the driver.

After so many days cooped up inside packing, now is a good time to get some fresh air while you clean up your landscaping. No matter the season, spruce up the home’s exterior to make it more attractive to buyers.

During the cooler seasons of fall and winter, clear the yard of debris and give trees or bushes winter pruning as needed. Enhance your curb appeal with a pop of eye-catching color by adding a colorful wreath or winter-friendly plants to your front porch. In the winter, shovel the snow and salt your driveway and walkways prior to every showing.

The landscaping project gets bigger and longer in the spring and summer when you don’t have snow and dormant trees to explain away your yard’s condition. Weeding, mowing the lawn, and trimming the greenery are just the beginning.

You’ll need to edge your walkways, spread fresh mulch, plant new flowers and greenery in barren spots—and take care of any other landscaping issues that might turn buyers off.

At this time, you should also check over your home’s exterior for any noticeable damage or deterioration to your siding, windows, gutters and roof. All of these issues should be fixed before listing or you’ll run into problems during the home inspection.

If all of the landscaping and exterior repairshave you overwhelmed, consider handing some of it over to an expert. Hiring a professional landscaper to whip your front and backyard curb appeal into shape will cost you between $380 – $1,116.

Project 5: Patch and Paint (2-3 Days)

As soon as you move tables, chairs, couches and the rest of your stuff away from the walls, you’re guaranteed to find holes, chips, scuffs and stains. And that’s exactly where you need to start on this project.

Shift all of your furniture and any lingering boxes into the center of the room. Cover them completely with old sheets or tarps to protect them from paint splatter.

Next, get a jumpstart on your cleaning by wiping down all of the walls with a grease-removing cleaner—especially the kitchen and bath. Paint won’t adhere as well to dirty walls, and some stains are even tough enough to seep through fresh paint.

Spread more tarps around to protect the floors, then cover outlets, window and door frames, and baseboards with blue painter’s tape. (FYI, taping off will take longer in the kitchen and bathrooms due to all the nooks and crannies around counters, cabinets, sinks and tubs.) Finally, fill in or patch any gouges or holes, and you’re ready to paint.

When you’re picking your paint color, think like a salesperson rather than a homeowner by selecting a neutral hue to appeal to the most buyers. But before you crack open that first gallon, you should know that one coat of paint may not be enough.

If your original wall color is dark or bright, like red or navy blue, those colors will show through a single coat of neutral paint. In that situation, you’ll need to cover your walls with a coat of primer paint first. The right primer can also reduce pet or smoke odors absorbed into your walls.

Given all the other work on your to-do list, painting the whole house yourself might not be the smart move. Fixr estimates that hiring a professional to paint the whole interior (living room, hallways, kitchen, 2 bathrooms, 3 bedrooms) runs at an average of $1,700 to $3,600 nationally.

If both your interior and exterior are in need of fresh paint, you may just be able to strike a deal to hire one crew to do the whole job.

Project 6: Deep Clean (1-3 Days)

Once the paint’s dried, your first move might be moving your furniture back into place for the showings, but not so fast. With everything out of the way, it’s time to give your place a top-to-bottom deep cleaning.

“A deep clean never fails to solicit buyer comments like the house feels solid, well-maintained, or meticulously care for—even if the house is really outdated!” says Jessica Riphenburg, one of the top agents in Madison, Wisconsin.

From the cobwebs on the ceiling, to the dust bunnies in the corners, to the crispy grime in your oven—every bit of dirt needs to go. Why? Because buyers poke around in the most unexpected places, and if they find dirt, they’ll think you don’t take care of the place.

Normally, many people clean one room at a time, but when you’re deep cleaning the whole house, that strategy wastes time and energy. Instead, take on one task at a time and get it done throughout the house before moving on to the next one.

Once you’ve done a thorough deep cleaning, it’s much easier to tidy up the house on short notice if a potential buyer drops by for a last-minute showing. Invest in an array of disposable cleaning wipes and a disposable duster to clean up any minor messes.

Your Deep Cleaning Checklist

Get deep into the clean with this checklist for making every room and surface of your house sparkle.

Project 7: Stash and Stage (1-2 Days)

Now that you have some of your belongings packed away, and others purged to free up space, it’s time to put what’s left back together in a way that’s most appealing to buyers. First, tuck away any remaining boxes that you’re moving to the new place out of sight in closets or other storage areas.

You should also tuck away all of the clothing, toiletries and other personal items you’ll need during your last few weeks in the house. Clothing and toiletries can go back into closets, dressers and medicine cabinets.

However, you’ll need to find a new home for any everyday use items normally kept out in the open, like hair brushes or hand lotion. These personal products will cause potential buyers to start thinking about you as the homeowner rather than focusing on your home. Luckily, you can keep these items out of sight, yet easily accessible, with a few decorative boxes.

prepare your home for sale storage
Credit: Vintage, Paint and More

While it is acceptable to simply tidy up as you would for company, make an extra effort to ensure their soon-to-be-former home stands out to buyers. Which means it’s time to stop thinking like a homeowner and start acting like an advertiser so you can package your home like the product it is.

Just like window dressers entice shoppers with their department store displays, you can set up your interiors to inspire multiple offers. In the real estate world, this process is called staging.

Rather than simply putting your furniture back where it was for your own conveniences, try different arrangements that create an inviting picture for buyers. For example, set a pair of armchairs by the fireplace instead of having all of your seating aimed at the television.

The same advice goes for your knickknacks and other decorative items. Now that most of your clutter is packed away, you have the surface space to create attractive vignettes. Imagine complementing your tall end-table lamp with a medium-height vase and a decorative bowl filled with wrapped mints attached by a ribbon to your real estate agent’s card.

Selling your current house and moving into a new home is a stressful undertaking. However, you’ll have a good chance for a low-stress transition if you approach the process with a project-by-project plan.

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