When putting your home on the market, you’re not competing against brand-new construction as much as you might think. According to 2018 estimates from the American Community Survey, about 43% of the nation’s 136 million housing units were built between 1970 and 1999.
In fact, research from the National Association of Realtors shows that the typical home purchased in 2018 was 1,850 square feet and built in 1990 — making it akin to an older Millennial who might have childhood memories of Rubik’s cubes, video store rentals, and cassette tapes.
There are some, ah, “seniors” in the housing stock as well. About 26% were built between 1940 and 1969 — and nearly 13% were built in 1939 or earlier, which pushes the 100-year mark.
“I have one under contract right now. It’s 106 years old,” said real estate agent Patricia Anderson. She has worked for 18 years serving the Louisiana corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and has encountered her share of old and even historic properties.
Some things, like wine, cheese, and comfy jeans, only improve with age. Older houses aren’t always known for fitting that description, but yours can. Here are our expert tips for selling an older home by positioning it as an asset and putting any nervous buyers at ease.
1. Prove you’ve kept up with the maintenance
Any buyer wants to know they’re not inheriting a maintenance headache — and with an older home, that’s a top concern. You may want to hire a home inspector or other specialist before listing so that you can get ahead of any issues that could be deal-breakers. About 39% of buyers who recently purchased new homes said they wanted to avoid renovations and problems with plumbing and electricity, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).
Buyers of old houses especially wanted reassurance about these five factors, according to Old House Web, an online community of “old house enthusiasts” since 1999:
- The state of the foundation and basement:
Aside from looking for any cracks and mold, walk around the main floors. See any bowed walls? Long cracks in the paint? Separated siding? You might need a foundation inspection, which takes about two hours.
- The age and condition of the roof:
Are there any loose shingles? Leaks? Signs that the roof isn’t level? A roof inspector can check the exterior, as well as the ceilings, walls, and attic.
- How old the plumbing is:
Does your water look cloudy, or does your home have low water pressure? Copper piping has been around for 80 years and is still considered reliable. Lead pipes are a different story — and any house that’s 60 or older could have some faulty connections, even if the whole house doesn’t need a plumbing overhaul.
- If the wiring needs updating:
Does your home have grounded outlets? Aluminum or knob-and-tube wiring? An electrical panel that can’t handle WiFi or modern appliances? If your home is 40 years or older (or if you’ve added major new appliances in the past decade), the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) of Rosslyn, Virginia, recommends an electrical system inspection.
- The size of your utility bills:
Your real estate agent will want to see your past utility bills before listing — and prospective buyers are bound to ask about the cost of heating and air conditioning, for starters. How old is your furnace or HVAC system? Are the windows and doors insulated? The Architectural Collection at Andersen Windows & Doors offers up-to-date interpretations of traditional styles, from Cape Cod to Queen Anne.
If you’ve arranged for a prelisting inspection — a home inspection before putting the house up for sale — you’ll have time to fix any serious issues that a buyer’s inspection would uncover, putting you in a better position for negotiations.
What’s more, collecting receipts and warranties for new appliances, repairs, and renovations for a home appraiser also helps show an inspector — and prospective buyers — that your house might be lived-in but it’s been well-maintained.
2. Market its unique features
One selling point of an older house is that its architecture doesn’t resemble current styles. Buyers drawn to these types of properties love the uniqueness and the quirky features, like “witch windows” angled parallel to the roof line, or milk doors: small pass-throughs for a 19th-century milkman to leave the homeowners a daily supply of dairy products.
“I’ve had buyers over the years that specifically would tell me, ‘I don’t want to see anything modern.’ They like the nostalgia of the history [it has] and the old feel of it. They like the idea that the original old floors are in it and they still creak. ‘Oh, my gosh, my grandmother had a stove like that!’… or ‘if I open this little secret door…’” Anderson said.
If your home has some historic value, such as being owned by a prominent citizen, being associated with a significant event, or embodying particular design or construction techniques, so much the better.
If your home happens to have a cold closet — an unrefrigerated closet that nonetheless kept meats, cheese, and veggies cool — that’s a perk for a home chef, a wine connoisseur, or someone with computer equipment that needs to stay chill.
Some 1920s and 1930s houses have a phone niche, a recessed nook and shelf in the wall for the wired phones and phone books of the day, which you can use for display or storage. And considering that some builders install laundry chutes by request nowadays, any home with one of those has a step above the competition.
3. Ditch dated decor
While you’ll want to emphasize your home’s charming architectural touches, you don’t want buyers to feel like they’re entering a time machine. You might not notice your popcorn ceilings or floral wallpaper in the bathroom anymore, but those types of things leap out at buyers.
Small updates like a coat of paint and new hardware on kitchen cabinets and drawers can help your home look fresh, said PDH Academy, an online continuing education provider for real estate agents, architects, contractors, and other professionals.
So can energy-efficient fixtures like LED lighting. Try replacing your bulbs with LED ones, like these 60-watt equivalent EcoSmart bulbs that mimic daylight — and help rooms show well in photographs for online listings.
4. Stage to impress
The 106-year-old house that Anderson is selling has four bedrooms, three baths, and was “lovingly restored” on the inside. But even if yours hasn’t undergone major renovations, you can stage it so that it has broad appeal.
Pare down the knickknacks and furniture so the house doesn’t look cluttered, and show off any natural materials (including any hardwood floors), advises CasaOne, a furniture rental company with offices nationwide.
For an older home that might be more compartmentalized instead of having an open layout, see if you can designate the function or versatility of certain rooms, such as a home office that doubles as a hobby space or a den for movie marathons.
Don’t forget to enhance any architectural features, such as using paint to highlight crown molding or wainscoting, a ceiling medallion in an entryway, or a fireplace mantel or ornamental fireplace insert.
5. Highlight the space you get for the money
Remember the typical home purchased in 2018 was 1,850 square feet, had three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and was built in 1990, the NAR said. About 33% of buyers who purchased previously owned homes most often considered them a better overall value.
Compared to new construction, an older home might have more square footage or a larger lot size, proving more desirable for buyers. If you have a deck, garden, patio, or porch, that’s livable space to promote, right down to the curb appeal. How about a striking view from the living room? That’s a standout focal point to underscore for buyers.
For buyers unable to see the potential because they had their mind set on certain things like an open floor plan or granite countertops, Anderson said she’ll discuss just what those desirables mean.
Perhaps a parent needs to hear they can poke their head around the corner to check on the kids instead of looking across the main living area, or with all the square footage they’ll have, they can afford to upgrade those countertops easily. “Does the house check off more boxes than it doesn’t?” she said.
Lastly, before selling your older home, make a list of everything you would have wanted to adjust in the house if you were to stay. “I try to get the sellers to think like a buyer; then they can be objective and take the emotion out of it,” Anderson said.
An older house often has “great bones,” she added. It just needs a little dressing up.