While the month of February warms up around Valentine’s Day, it doesn’t mean winter will soon be over. There may still be an arctic blast coming before the first tulip bulbs break out of the ground. Despite the chilly doldrums, this is a great time to begin checking off the list of things to be done before the spring real estate market bursts into full bloom.
Traditionally, the spring selling season has been the year’s busiest, a time when buyers think about finding a house so they can move in early summer and settle the kids into new schools. Sellers gearing up to put their homes on that market should start thinking now about adding a fresh coat of paint, cleaning out the garage and power-washing the driveway.
While that spring selling season is expected to be hectic, real estate experts say homeowners considering listing their homes don’t need to wait until the weather warms up. In fact, the economic downturn has created a sellers’ market, a time when there aren’t enough properties to meet the demand. It’s been created by a combination of developers not being able to build fast enough and would-be sellers being a bit wary of the market in general. And that’s made buyers a lot more flexible, said Rhonda Duffy, founder of Duffy Realty who is ranked a top selling agent in the country and Georgia by Zillow, the online company that tracks sales and prices.
“Inventory is so low right now that people don’t even have to clean their house to put it on the market,” said Duffy. “For the last year and a half, buyers have been desperate, and if you’re lucky enough to be on the market when a buyer is frustrated, you might even get multiple offers.”
Duffy believes those frustrated buyers should be a positive sign, encouraging potential sellers to take the plunge. “There’s no need to stress out about it. Buyers are getting out of the mindset that they’re going to steal a house; that’s not happening in this market. If sellers knew that, they’d have more courage.”
Duffy has a list of suggestions for sellers to take into consideration before they put their homes on the market, and cleaning is definitely one of them. But she also believes a house doesn’t need to be picture-perfect before the “for-sale” sign goes up.
“If you can enter the market now, I think you’ll find buyers from last summer who can’t find anything,” she said. “In our own stable, we have 400 to 500 still looking. Meanwhile, the number of houses on the market dropped from 2007’s 110,000 to about 30,000 — a vast difference. And we’ve had people move to Atlanta, so with close to six million people and low interest rates, a lot of buyers who want to move feel panicked because they can’t find anything.”
So instead of taking the time to complete a major renovation, Duffy encourages sellers to attend to a short list and get the process started.
“I tell my sellers to just remove the drama of getting the house ready,” said Duffy. “Have a checklist, and do it. It’s much easier than they think.”
That checklist should start with decluttering: getting all the odds and ends that accumulate on countertops, shelves and coffee tables out of the way. “We tend to keep a lot of junk,” said Duffy, “but buyers don’t want to see it.”
Buyers also don’t want to see anything that detracts from their vision of living in the space. Family photos, banners of the hometown sports team or any item that might spark controversy should be stowed away. From there, any broken items need to be repaired.
“Keeping everything in working order doesn’t necessarily mean replacing things,” said Duffy. “But things do have to work.”
Cleanliness is a clear signal that a home is in working condition, Duffy added. “Studies have shown that a clean home brings in about 3 percent more than a dirty one,” she said. “If things are clean, it gives the impression that the house has been maintained. It doesn’t give the buyer the idea that getting past the inspection is going to be hard. And it gives them confidence to pay a higher price.”
With all the attention that needs to be paid on the inside, sellers also need to remember that old adage about first impressions being strong ones.
“Focus on curb appeal,” said Duffy. “In today’s market, buyers usually look for a house online. About 97 percent of them will get the address, map it out and drive by to eliminate ones they don’t want to see with their agent. As a seller, your job is to make them excited about moving in, and that means paying attention to the front door, where a lot of homeowners never go.”
Owners who are intimidated by the idea of turning their abodes into showplaces may want to consider tapping the expertise of a home stager. The Real Estate Staging Association has about 1,200 members nationally who work with homeowners to make their residences look like model homes. Kathy Nielsen, the organization’s executive vice president, is based in Marietta where she heads Georgia Interior Solutions, a company she formed 10 years ago. Many of her clients come from referrals by real estate agents and builders who recommend her eye for noticing what owners often overlook.
“There are several common mistakes people make that I point out,” she said. “One of the first is having too many pieces of furniture. The goal is to create visual real estate; you can’t increase the amount of space a house has, but you can create a visual space just by removing extra chairs. That’s often the case in the dining room, where people usually have chairs in the corner. Just taking them away, you create more space.”
One element that should be added, she suggests, is lighting. “People have a tendency not to have enough lamps. I always suggest they have enough for the scale of the room, add light bulbs of the highest wattage and turn them on!”
Another common mistake sellers make is not cleaning enough, Nielsen contends. “It’s not enough to look clean; it’s got to smell clean, down to the baseboards. Most homeowners don’t think buyers will open their cabinets, but they will — and they’ll open drawers, cupboards, everything. Change the shower curtain. Take everything off the floor of the closets. Take out anything you don’t need, like suitcases, and put them in a storage unit - don’t just move them to the spare bedroom or the garage. And if you have a 2-car garage, be sure there’s room to park two cars in there.”
The outside of the house also needs serious attention. “Clear out gardens, trim bushes and trees, add fresh flowers and create an interest from the minute the buyers hit the driveway,” said Nielsen. “You want to get them out of their car and into the house.”
As Duffy pointed out, many buyers begin to make decisions about which houses they’ll tour by looking online. “Today, that’s where the potential buyer is shopping, so interior and exterior pictures also need to look phenomenal,” said Nielsen. “You’ve want to give them every reason to buy and not a single one not to.”
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