Fix This, Not That: 6 Tasks to Do (or Not to Do) Before You Sell

Online, you can find dozens and dozens of return-on-investment (ROI) calculators which aim to do the math on whether a given home improvement project is worth the money (or not). They tend to focus on how much of the remodeling spend will come back to you in the form of added value when the home is sold.  I submit that this is only one part of the equation, as the primary measurement for many home improvement projects should be tallied up in terms of lifestyle improvement over the years you plan to benefit from the increased comfort, joy or efficiency of your newly-improved home.

Surprisingly, this calculus of what home upgrades are (and aren’t) worth doing gets slightly more complicated in the context of preparing a home for sale.  It seems like it should be even more simple – dollars in vs. dollars out.  But most agents or stagers will tell you that preparing a property for listing is more art than science, in that there are many human factors that must be weighed and balanced against the costs involved.

For instance, whether a given project is worth doing sometimes depends on the current state of the property vis-a-vis local buyers’ expectations at that price range.  It can also depend on the relative aesthetic and perceptual boost that a particular project promises, and on any negatives that the property needs to compensate for.  The seller’s budget and even local municipal codes all must be factored in.

Accordingly, there’s no single set of black-and-white rules that apply to every property and every seller.  But here are some rules of thumb and food for thought that you should walk through with your agent or stager if you’re in the process of trying to figure out which tasks to do – and which to leave for your home’s next owner – before you put your place on the market.

FIX:  Paint. There is simply no accounting for the massive upgrade a fresh coat of paint can bring to the look and feel of your home, inside and out – especially given the relatively low cost and high do-it-yourself-ability of painting.  A home that is freshly painted inside and out reads as fresh, clean and ready for new life, from a buyer’s perspective.  A taupe wall with white trims and moldings has essentially become the new white wall of this generation – the aim is to go neutral, not boring.

If you can’t afford the time or cost to paint everything, take a hard look at your walls and rooms and see which hallway or room(s) need it the most.  Also, painting your trims, doors and moldings can go a long way toward de-shabbifying a place.  Similarly, on the exterior of your home, I cannot overstate the polish potential of painting the trims a bright or deep, color. Changing the color and refreshing the paint on your exterior shutters, doors and eaves gives a powerful update and burst of color to the place.

Check in with your stager and agent about your color palette for any pre-listing paint projects before you have the hardware folks mix up a vat of chartreuse semi-gloss for the kitchen walls.

DON’T FIX:  That uber-luxe kitchen remodel you always wanted. Do gorgeous kitchens sell homes? Yes. But they also easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Unless your home’s existing kitchen is truly cringe-worthy, a high-end overhaul just before listing is not likely to even recoup what you spend on it. I advise sellers who are hemming and hawing about a kitchen remodel to do it while they and their families can still enjoy it.  If you’ve already decided to move on from the home and the kitchen is so bad as to render the place un-sellable, your agent and stager can help you come up with a moderate plan for whipping it into shape without breaking the bank.  Repainting or refacing cabinets (instead of replacing them), installing butcher block counters (vs. marble or stone) and replacing your avocado green appliances with nice GE or Kenmore versions (vs. Wolf and Miele) might be the route to go.

Caveat: if your home is competing with luxury properties and you insist on listing it at top dollar, you might actually have to go with a higher-end kitchen upgrade plan before you list it. Think long and hard about whether this make more sense than simply discounting the property or offering a kitchen upgrade credit to the buyer.

FIX:   Plumbing problems.  Plumbing leaks make noise, cause damage to the wood structure and areas around them and are often believed by buyers to cost more to fix than they actually do. In some parts of the home, plumbing leaks are prone to being called out as conditions conducive to long-term structural problems by pest and structural inspectors. If you can have a handyman or plumber come in and eliminate drips and leaks, you will simultaneously eliminate some buyers’ objections or concerns about your home.

And this goes for sewer line issues, too.  An increasing number of areas are now requiring that the sewer line from home to the sewer main in the street be inspected before or during a home’s sale – and be repaired or replaced if it is cracked or broken.  If you’ve had chronic backups or your home’s sewer line is simply due for an inspection, work with your agent to get the appropriate inspector out there now to get an understanding of what sewer line work will need to be done to comply with any local point-of-sale ordinances.

A new sewer line is a great draw for a buyer, as is one with a clean bill of health. If your line does need work, you and your agent might decide not to repair or replace it, based on your budget, how much of a seller’s market your area is currently experiencing, legal requirements and standard practices in your area. But you should have the state of the sewer line in mind, for better or for worse, before you set the list price for your home and begin preparing your disclosures for prospective buyers.

DON’T FIX:  Malfunctioning, costly appliances.  Consider offering a credit for the buyer to use to replace appliances that don’t work – or don’t work well. Buyers appreciate the ability to select their own new appliances on your dime. That said, it can be difficult for some buyers to get past the collective aura of bad repair that arises when a home has a whole host of really old or beat up appliances.  In some cases, it might even make sense to simply remove an appliance entirely, without replacing it at all.  In others, a replacement or a credit might make more sense – this is a topic for discussion with your listing agent, who should have a good understanding of what’s normal in your area and important to local buyers.

If you do decide to replace an appliance, consider resources like Craigslist, where you might be able to find used items in good repair at a fraction of the new cost.

Caveat: if you are in a price point or area where the average buyer uses an FHA loan to finance their home, there are certain appliances which must be in the home at closing, like a functional stove.  Discuss with your agent before you start ditching the old appliances.

FIX:  Old and outdated hardware, fixtures and finishes.  Hardware can refer to the little metalworks that make things work (or not) throughout your home, like hinges that make a door hard to close, cabinet and drawer handles and pulls or your closet door and drawer slides.  These are all the sorts of things buyers test out while they’re viewing a home. However, it also includes things that might work fine, but look outdated, like light switches, door knockers and kick plates.  Hardware, as a general rule, is inexpensive as home fixes go – if it will make your home function more smoothly and look like it’s been well cared-for, the low investment is well worth an upgrade.

Scuffed and scratched wood floors; 80’s era carpet, gold-plate lighting and faucet fixtures and even more recent upgrades that have seen better days (e.g. bowing and warped laminate floor sections) should all go on the list of finishes and fixtures to fix or replace before you list.  All cracks, chips, scuffs and nicks should go on the list, for that matter.

The rationale is the same: they are a highly cost-efficient fix vis-a-vis the big bang they make on your home’s appearance to buyers.

DON’T FIX:  Replacing old windows.  This is a project that many crave to do, especially if the windows are single-pane, aluminum framed, or involve rotten wood casings.  But it’s also a project that can easily become extremely expensive, and one that often snowballs into costly, time-consuming framing repairs.  Aluminum frames around windows can sometimes be spruced or painted to make them look at bit better, if absolutely necessary. And even old wood windows that have issues often create a generally charming feeling that helps a buyer see the home’s potential they can restore, better than if you replace it with inexpensive fiberglass windows before listing the place for sale.

This advice is primarily for those tempted to replace a whole house worth of windows – if you have one window that is particularly offensive or allows water in, or even have multiple window panes that are cracked or broken, these are things you might want to repair or replace.  Your agent can help you make a suitable action plan on this score.

By contrast, if you have old, dinged, ugly or broken doors, toilets and sinks anywhere in your house, these are things you may want to rip out and replace before listing your home.  You might be amazed at how fast and inexpensively these fixes can be done, and how much of a stylistic upgrade and update you can get out of them.

$ell SmArt… with Art!