Home & Garden

Pre-sale upgrades don't have to cost a fortune

The owners of a small split-level – a high-school history teacher and his homemaker wife – were at wits’ end. To house their growing family, they were eager to sell their house and move to a larger space. But even as nearby properties were flying off the market, their place languished unsold. After six months, they decided to regroup.

An analysis by the couple’s real estate agent indicated the house was correctly priced. Instead, the agent pinpointed the problem as the kitchen, which looked dated and needed a minor facelift. In response, the couple went into overdrive – spending more than $18,000 on a major remodeling job that included new high-end cabinets and fine Italian-tile floors. They also installed all new stainless steel appliances, though the white ones in the house were still very presentable.

Soon after the renovation, the house sold. But Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home, insists the extensive kitchen renovation was “total overkill.”

“These sellers spent vastly more money than necessary to make that house salable,” he says.

Though he wasn’t the listing agent for the property, Davis visited it several times with potential buyers, both before and after the renovation. And he insists the couple could have done equally well with just $2,500 in kitchen improvements.

The moral of this true story, he says, is that expensive pre-sale improvements are rarely warranted, except for properties in very exclusive areas where buyer expectations are high.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

“Cost overruns for kitchen improvements are rampant. Granted, your kitchen can make or break your sale. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to make it look wonderful,” Davis says.

For example, he says many dark kitchen cabinets, which are unappealing to contemporary buyers, can be easily refreshed by simply sanding and repainting them in high-gloss white.

For an updated look, Davis also recommends that sellers replace worn cabinet pulls and knobs with new hardware in satin nickel or oil-rubbed bronze.

Paint is one of the most powerful and reasonably priced tools available to sellers seeking to maximize the impact of their pre-sale dollars, says Elisa Dewees, a real estate agent who’s listed and sold homes since 2000.

Still, she considers it a serious mistake to repaint in what she calls “custom colors.” These include such personal choices as rose, bright green or vivid blue.

Dewees says that the multiple-bulb Hollywood-style lighting many people still use in their bathrooms doesn’t appeal to most current buyers, who want a fresher, less retro look.

“It’s worth spending the time to search for light fixtures in a stylish, updated design. In many cases you can buy better fixtures for well under $100 per bathroom,” she says.

Ashley Richardson, an agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com), says many home sellers would prefer to offer buyers a “carpeting allowance” than to replace worn, stained or tired-looking carpet. That’s more convenient than tackling the project themselves.

But real estate agents often reject this idea, because few buyers can imagine how well the property will look once its old carpeting is replaced.

If you can’t afford new carpet for the whole house, she recommends you focus on the areas most visible to visitors, such as the living and family rooms.

“If people can’t fully see a house, they can’t appreciate it. And if they can’t appreciate it, they'll never buy it,” Davis says.