Real Estate Experts Tell You How to Decorate Your Home to Sell Real Estate Experts Tell You How to Decorate Your Home to Sell

We're experiencing one of the best markets in years for selling real estate, with record-low interest rates and an economy that's firmly in recovery.

Even in the best of markets, it takes a lot more than just putting up a sign and vacuuming the living room to sell your home. How do you decide what to spend your time and money, and where are better off holding back in order to prepare your home for sale?

To find out, we went to 3 real estate experts in New York City, Minnesota, and Santa Fe. Diane Wildowsky is a broker with Sotheby's International Realty in New York City. Chas Campbell is the publisher of MNRealty.com Inc.. He has sold real estate for many years and now acts as an educator, marketing consultant, and webmaster for other top realtors in the Twin Cities. Susan Orth is a broker and part owner of City Different Realty in Santa Fe.

Going to the Experts

We asked the agents what they think are the most important cosmetic improvements a homeowner can make to prepare a property for sale, and they all agreed that keeping the place immaculately clean is paramount.

Start with minimizing clutter, an activity which will also make your packing easier when it comes time to move to your new place. Before you even put your house on the market, take this time throw out anything you haven't used in a year. Once you have more room in the closets, you can further reduce the clutter around the house.

"Put away the things that are precious to you but which will only distract the prospective buyer, says Wildowksky. "You want prospective buyers to see the bones of the property and not be distracted by art collections or family photos."

Even though it may seem impossible to accomplish with kids in the house, you can probably come up with a creative way to get the kids to help clear the clutter. Wildowsky remembers a client whose child was such a Barbie aficionado that the bedroom was "a shrine to Barbie, Ken, their family, and friends." Relocating Barbie's paraphernalia to a floor-to-ceiling closet solved the problem without sending the girl into a state of withdrawal.

All of the realtors we interviewed said that taking the papers off the front of the fridge is important, as is cleaning the closets so that buyers can see how much storage is available.

Once you've removed the clutter, consider having at least the bath and kitchen professionally cleaned. Chas Campbell has found that a professional cleaning "can often hedge against replacement unless something is damaged." And a small repair of damage from water leaks, burns, or other mishaps can "stave off counteroffers for defects."

Susan Orth said that in Santa Fe, it's crucial to consider the home's curb appeal because buyers often make their decision in the first few minutes of seeing a home.

"Landscaping must be in order, and you should add or upgrade exterior lighting," says Orth. "If possible, plant flowers near the door, mulch existing plants, trim shrubbery, and remove any dead plants or trees."

As with any suggestion, take into account the particulars of your area. "In the Santa Fe area, many trees have been lost in the last couple of years to drought and the bark beetle," Orth said. "In many areas it is almost standard practice to have dead pinion pines removed."

A Fix-Up Is Not a Remodel

Sprucing up the place doesn't necessarily mean that you must invest in a remodel of the kitchen or bath. Removing clutter, making a few small updates, such as new drawer pulls and other accessories, as well as a thorough, professional cleaning may be enough. Sometimes a big investment won't be what your potential buyers want.

"What a seller might choose as stylish and expensive is often ripped-out and re-done by new buyers," says Wildowsky. "We see this all the time in Manhattan. Beautiful new countertops, kitchen cabinets, and appliances are sometimes never used"

Campbell agrees, pointing out that while baths add value, so do extra bedrooms, porches, and in-ground pools. "The value of any improvement is relative to the total value of the home and its current condition relative to its neighborhood," he says.

As with everything else, a solid comparison with the other homes in your area and price range will help with these decisions. "A small kitchen remodel in a small home in a neighborhood of homes where most have been remodeled is a good thing; it will pay for itself if not more," he says. "A grand, expensive kitchen remodel in the same home might overprice the home for its market when it's time to sell."

If you're thinking of selling in a few years, and your kitchen or bath is clearly outdated, doing the remodel now will still pay for itself when the time comes to sell.

According to a survey by the National Association of Realtors on the values of various housing characteristics, the number of bathrooms in a home dramatically influences the selling price. Each full bath adds 24% to the selling price.

Remodeling Magazine reports that a seller will get back over 90% of the money spent to remodel a bath and 77% of the money spent on a kitchen.

Wildowsky stresses the importance of seeing your home in the context of its neighborhood, especially when it comes to remodeling. She tells the story of an older couple who moved into one of Manhattan's trendiest areas. This part of the city is known for its artists' lofts, complete with exposed pipes and open floor plans. The couple spent a huge sum "making the apartment look and feel like their house in the suburbs."

After the renovations were complete, the couple tried to sell, and found it difficult to get a buyer. "The look of this space, as nice as it was, did not fit with the building or the neighborhood, and the apartment sat for quite some time before it finally sold under the asking price," says Wildowsky.

Go All the Way With Improvements

"I would either do the improvement completely or not do it at all," says Campbell. In cases in which you know some remodeling is necessary - consider including an allowance in the sales contract that will cover the cost of the improvement.

"No buyer wants to pick up where the seller left off," says Wildowsky. "It's too complicated and time consuming. So if a seller starts the project, he or she should plan to complete the project before selling."

Likewise, when thinking about wall color, consider the huge range of tastes of your potential buyers. Don't risk putting off a more conservative buyer by painting the walls in wildly bright colors. Also bear in mind that any room that doesn't get enough sun will benefit from a light wall color. It doesn't have to be painted a harsh, pure white. Use a pale yellow or light beige to make the room appear to have more light.

"Dark colors will often make the room look smaller and it may be harder for the buyer to imagine their furniture and personal property in that space," say Orth.

"Natural light is often in short supply in Manhattan. For many buyers it is key as to whether or not they'll even look at a space," says Wildowsky. "We have an apartment on the market now that originally had dark blue walls." With a wall of windows facing only one direction, the blue darkened the far end of the space, which is where the entrance to the apartment is located. "When you first entered the apartment it was a bit of a downer." A fresh coat of off-white paint gave the apartment a lift.

"Do not risk losing one buyer to gain another by choosing personal colors for the future buyer," says Campbell. "The buyer wants to visualize their own colors or furnishings. A blank canvas is best." If the current color is light and pleasant, it is not necessary to repaint.

While you're at it, take a good, honest look at the exterior paint of your house, suggests Orth. "Exterior color should also be considered. It should not distract from the style of the home and neighborhood." Likewise, you don't want your decorating style to take over the look of the home to the point where the buyers can't imagine the house decorated in their own style.

"Many people have a hard time seeing past the design and decor," say Wildowsky. "Some apartments are so 'done' that it is impossible to disguise the look." If the design doesn't suit the buyer's tastes, it is often very hard to imagine it differently.

Orth has also seen many over-decorated homes. She stresses that the decor should complement the style of the home. "Store some art, paint and patch the walls, and remove any personal property that does not enhance the style of the home."

If you know you're going to be selling your home in a year or less, you may do better to hire a decorator to re-do the home with an eye to selling than to make it exactly the way you'd like it, says Campbell. Even though "beautiful design is a sign of quality and value. the design should be influenced by the goal of selling the place."

Other than cleaning up the clutter and perhaps painting the walls a neutral color, the best way to fix up a home for a sale is by the tried-and-true quick fixes, the experts agreed, with Campbell emphasizing "staging" - the art of moving and re-moving objects and furniture to make the space feel as open and roomy as possible.


Orth stresses the importance of the home's exterior and entryway, and suggests adding a pot of flowers to the front steps, replacing the doorknob, washing down the front door, and having the windows professionally cleaned.

For Wildowsky, the simple exercise of adding fresh flowers and turning on lamps works when preparing for a showing. Recently, she had a young bachelor selling his place, which was furnished in early college style. It was devoid of any of the decorative touches that make a place feel like home. To make matters worse "cleaning was clearly not his highest priority,"she says.

"We requested that the seller hire a commercial cleaner to scrub from top to bottom, which he did, and I requested a stipend of $200, which I used to buy inexpensive throw pillows, a lap blanket, candles, a new bedspread and pillow shams," she says.

"The first open house was held the day after the cleaning. 10 people came through that day We received 2 offers immediately and accepted an offer very close to asking price 2 days later."

"Could we have sold the apartment without having done all of that? Ultimately, yes. Did they help us sell it sooner, for an excellent price? We don't really know what difference it made, but the apartment did look 1,000% better than the day we first saw the apartment," says Wildowsky.The seller wound up keeping the throw pillows and other items, and took them with him to his new apartment.

Whether you are thinking of selling your own home or are helping clients redecorate their house before it goes on the market, remember that these changes - both big and small - will increase curb appeal and perhaps even make the sale.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design.

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