Once you’ve made the decision to list your home for sale, your first inclination is probably to start chipping away at the checklist of things you should be doing to get it into prime showing condition. But while it’s great to follow best practices, it also pays to learn from other sellers’ mistakes.
With so many complexities and decisions involved in selling a home, the occasional misstep is inevitable. But when it comes to what may be the biggest transaction of your life, a single wrong choice can end up costing a lot in terms of extended time on the market or a reduced sale price.
Here’s what not to do to save yourself some major headaches along the way.
Don’t: Get out the sledgehammer and start massive renovations.
When you start looking at your home through the eyes of a prospective buyer, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on flaws and start getting the itch to improve everything to the nth degree.
But while gutting an outdated kitchen and replacing it with the latest-and-greatest version might seem like the winning recipe for selling your home faster, calling in the demo team could backfire or lead to a lot of unnecessary expenses.
What to do instead: Call in an expert for their opinion.
Before you start any major projects, talk to a trusted real estate agent who knows the local market. If you’re going to spend the money on improvements, you want to ensure that you get the maximum return on investment — and, according to Justin Woodall, a top-selling real estate agent in Athens, Georgia, that will hinge on whether you’re listing in a buyer’s market or a seller’s market.
“When inventory is limited and supply is low, sellers have to do less to get homes to sell, as buyers are willing to be more forgiving,” Woodall explains. “But in a market like we had in the last recession, sellers had to make their homes stand out from the rest because more properties were sitting on the market for longer periods of time.”
Also, keep in mind that improvements tend to have a snowball effect. For instance, you might start out with a plan to just change the countertops, but then the cabinets look outdated by comparison. “Sometimes it’s an all-or-nothing prospect,” says Woodall.
When it comes to small, easy improvements that won’t take a chunk out of your equity, Woodall offers his top two suggestions:
- Use paint to give tired spaces a facelift:
For a relatively small amount of money, a fresh coat of neutral paint can instantly revitalize a room. Focus primarily on high-traffic areas, like entryways, hallways, kitchens, and family rooms. Some of Benjamin Moore’s most popular neutral paint colors include Stonington Gray, Revere Pewter, Wind’s Breath, and Balboa Mist.
- Freshen up your flooring:
While some homeowners might opt to offer an allowance for a carpet replacement, Woodall says that if the carpet is very old, dirty, or worn, it might be better to replace it before listing. Better yet, he recommends spending a little more for a solid-surface floor, such as hardwood or a luxury vinyl that looks like wood, which tends to attract more buyers.
Don’t: Overlook curb appeal.
It’s easy to get immersed in sprucing up the interior of your home, only to woefully neglect the exterior. But that would be a huge mistake. A buyer’s drive-by or walk-up first impression shapes their entire experience of your home.
According to HomeLight’s research, 94% of agents say buyers will pay more for a house with great curb appeal. If a prospective buyer is greeted by overgrown weeds, unkempt bushes, or peeling paint, all your hard work inside might be for naught.
What to do instead: Tend to the outdoors with care.
Woodall points out these easy but impactful ways to boost your curb appeal quotient:
- Cut back bushes and shrubs:
Trimming your shrubs will immediately give your home’s exterior a neater, tidier appearance. Save some money by giving it a go yourself.
- Lay down fresh mulch.
This is a low-cost but highly effective way to instantly refresh your curb appeal. Choose pine straw, shredded bark mulch, or whatever material is best suited to your landscape.
According to this DIY guide, you should plan on using one cubic yard of mulch for each 100-square-foot area, at a depth of three inches.
- Cut the grass.
Be sure to regularly mow and edge your grass so your home is always ready to show.
- Touch up exterior paint as needed.
While it’s not usually necessary to paint the entire exterior, refresh any peeling, chipped or faded paint so your home looks its best and to avoid raising red flags during the appraisal.
If you don’t have time to keep up with the landscaping yourself, Woodall suggests hiring a professional — a good one will know exactly what to do. “It’s a one-time expense that can transform the outside of the house for a relatively small amount of money,” he notes.
Don’t: Overprice your home.
In Woodall’s experience, among sellers who start out high on price and then reduce the price later, a vast majority end up selling for less per square foot than surrounding homes.
“A lot of that has to do with perception,” he explains “If a home is priced too high and then sits too long, it gets a stagnant feel, and buyers start to wonder what’s wrong with it. That can lead to them making a lower offer, or not making an offer at all.”
What to do instead: Back up your asking price with market data.
Woodall says it’s best to meet with an agent who can decipher market data and won’t just “shoot from the hip” when it comes to choosing a price.
When pricing his sellers’ homes, Woodall looks at not only comparable sales, but also the absorption rate, which measures how quickly homes sell in a particular location within a certain time period.
“The key is to determine how your home should be positioned, price-wise, if you want to sell in the next 30, 60 or 90 days. Do you need to be the best home out of two, or the best out of 20? That will all factor into how your home should be priced.”
If a home is priced in the “sweet spot” of what the market will bear, Woodall notes, there is typically a rush of activity and attention at the beginning, which then makes buyers want the home more and increases the likelihood of them paying closer to the list price.
Don’t: Try to sell without an agent.
Some sellers, hoping to squeeze the most equity out of their homes, try to sell on their own to avoid paying commission fees. According to the National Association of Realtors, only 7% of all home sales were FSBOs in 2019. Although some FSBOs are successful, most find it to be a costly mistake, as they don’t get the benefit of an agent’s market knowledge and team of experts to assist with the countless details involved in the process.
What to do instead: Partner with a top local agent.
Working with a trusted local real estate agent gives you access to expertise and exposure you wouldn’t have had on your own. In addition to using marketing channels to increase visibility of the listing, an agent helps you set the right price, stage the home to sell quicker, and facilitate contract negotiations, appraisals, and inspections. But keep in mind that every agent is different: It’s important to choose one with a strong track record and specific experience in your area and property type.
Don’t: Overlook the clutter.
Clutter is more than an eyesore — it could literally block the path to a successful home sale. In a research study that recorded the eye patterns of people touring homes, Anglian Home Improvements found that potential buyers spent nearly a quarter of their time focused on clutter and messiness, distracting them from other, more favorable characteristics.
What to do instead: Methodically organize your home before buyers come through.
Try these clutter-busters to make any home feel more spacious and organized, while keeping potential buyers focused on the selling points.
- Streamline the shelves.
It’s easy to jam a lot of books, knick-knacks, photos, and other miscellaneous items onto shelves and forget about them.
“Reducing the amount of visual clutter on shelves will allow the potential buyer to better visualize their items in the space,” explains Certified Professional Organizer Amy Trager. “Tackle one shelf at a time, asking yourself if these items are loved enough to warrant packing, moving, and unpacking them again.”
- Clear off counters.
A cluttered countertop could make buyers feel that there isn’t enough room in the kitchen cabinets to store the things people normally want in the kitchen, says Trager. The first step is to purge and organize the cabinets, and then move any essential countertop items into the extra space you’ve created.
- Clean up (and clear out) the closets.
A disorganized or jam-packed closet implies that the home might not have enough storage space. In clothing closets, purge and donate any unused items. Consider organizing the rest by color or category.
“Whatever kind of storage space you’re organizing, keeping like items together not only allows someone else to see how much can fit into the closet, but will also help you decide how much to keep,” notes Trager.
- Use the three-bin method.
Sherri Monte, an interior designer and owner of Elegant Simplicity, a professional organizing and design firm, likes to use the three-bin method: Start with three boxes or containers, labeled “Keep,” “Toss” and “Unsure.” As you’re sorting and organizing a room, place all the essential items in the “Keep” bin and items you no longer need in the “Toss” bin. If it takes you more than five seconds to decide on an item, it goes in the “Unsure” bin to reassess later.
Don’t: Skip the staging.
When you’re anxious to sell and move on to your next home, it might seem like a waste of time to focus on the furnishings and décor. You might be tempted to just let buyers use their imaginations, but more than 90% of top agents recommend staging a home to attract more eyeballs and help drive up the sale price.
What to do instead: Use these simple staging techniques.
- Pay attention to the furniture flow.
Consider removing some pieces that are unused or unnecessary to make rooms feel more spacious and open.“You never want people to have to squeeze past furniture to access rooms or doors,” Woodall says. (Don’t knock Feng Shui ‘til you’ve tried it!)
- Neutralize the décor.
In Woodall’s experience, homes that have bright, bold paint colors or wallpaper — or that have a very specific theme, such as country or contemporary — run the risk of turning off buyers who don’t embrace that style.
To appeal to a wider base of buyers, he recommends opting for more neutral décor. For example, you might opt for classic, timeless colors like white, beige, brown, grey, and black, and introduce different patterns and textures in accents like throw pillows and rugs. There are plenty of ways to furnish a home with neutral elements while still keeping things interesting.
- Don’t forget the finishing touches.
Lay down area rugs to warm up solid-surface floors, hang some tasteful and neutral décor on bare walls, and clear off as much countertop space as possible (including in the bathrooms).
Don’t: Fail to fix major problems.
Think a potential buyer won’t notice the damp spots in the basement, the leaky faucet in the bathroom, or the struggling HVAC system? Think again. Nearly all buyers will pay for a home inspection, at which point those types of issues will be revealed — and it could very well delay or derail the deal.
“Buyers don’t usually want to buy someone else’s problem — they want a house they can just move into,” says Woodall. “People who do want to buy problems are investors, and they usually don’t want to pay top dollar.”
Plus, in Georgia, where Woodall practices real estate, sellers are required by law to disclose any problems with the home. If a latent (hidden) defect is found after the fact and it’s proven that the seller knew about it, there could be legal repercussions later. Check HomeLight’s state-by-state disclosure guide to find out what you are required to share.
What to do instead: Address any known issues upfront.
It’s almost always better to fix major problems before listing your home. Not only will this avoid any potential legal problems, but taking care of repairs will also enable you to sell your home at a higher price.
You might consider paying for your own home inspection prior to listing, so you can tackle any issues in advance. That way, when the buyer does their inspection, you won’t be blindsided with a list of unwelcome surprises.
Don’t have the time or expertise to get everything into tip-top shape? Find a handyman or handywoman to knock out your to-do list.
Don’t: Get involved in the showings.
We get it: Showings are inconvenient. They can sometimes pop up without much notice, and it’s not always easy to pack up and leave the house. It might be tempting to just hang out while the buyer takes a look.
Bad idea, says Woodall. In most cases, if the seller is hanging around, it feels like an intrusion to the buyer and impedes their ability to look closely at the home. And if the seller tags along on the tour and offers information about the home, that can potentially hurt their negotiating ability, Woodall warns.
What to do instead: Give your buyers the space to fall in love with your home.
Simply stated, make yourself scarce — even if you just get into the car and drive around the corner. This will give the buyer the level of comfort she needs to take her time and truly evaluate the home.
“Ideally, I would prefer that the seller doesn’t meet the buyer until the closing,” Woodall says. “It’s best to let the agents handle it. They know how to get the outcome you want.”
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