Don't put off getting house ready for sale


Once upon a time there was a couple with a little house in the valley. They wanted to sell their house to buy a grander one on the hillside. But every Saturday, overwhelmed at the thought of all the painting, cleaning and organizing needed to sell, the couple sighed and said "Not this weekend."

The result: The couple never sold their little house in the valley, and their dream of the grander house faded forever.

A fairy tale? Not really. Procrastination keeps many Americans from fulfilling their housing hopes, realty experts say.

"Some people actually don't put their houses on the market because they can't face getting it ready. But if you don't get going you might lose your chance at the dream house," says Carolyn Janik, author of "How to Sell Your Home in the '90s," a Penguin paperback.

Preparing a house for sale can be an onerous or costly undertaking -- depending on whether you do the work yourself or hire contractors. Still, to get the best possible price, you must do whatever it takes to make your home attractive -- even if it means painting, wallpapering or carpeting. It's essential that you clean and declutter. And it's also important that you make all minor repairs.

"A broken window just screams out 'nobody is taking care of this place'. What you want to avoid in the buyer is the feeling that the house is not loved or cared for," Ms. Janik says.

Unfortunately, there's no way to beat the system when it comes to preparing your home for sale.

Rather than cleaning a soiled carpet, for instance, you might be tempted to cover the spots with scatter rugs. But count on the fact that once you're out of sight, a buyer will pull up the carpet and see the spots underneath.

By the same token, count on buyers looking in your closets and under your kitchen sink. Count on them catching sight of the telltale water marks on the ceiling, which speak of a roof leak. And count on them noticing you patched a crack in your wall with paint and tape rather than plaster.

For some people, procrastination is a way of life. They may want to trade up to a better property. But they don't start preparing their home for sale until they face an urgent deadline such as a job transfer or divorce. They're the same ones who stayed up all night before a college paper was due and who always file their tax returns on April 15.

But, oddly, some people without a history of procrastination still delay getting a home ready to sell.

"That's because it's big work, it's hard work, and it's thankless work. You're doing all this work and spending all this money for someone else. There's an innate resentment about that," Ms. Janik says.

Perhaps you've lived in a home with dull, spotted hardwood floors for a half decade. Now that you plan to sell, you realize the floors should be polished and coated to attract a potential seller. The job costs $1,000 or a couple weekends of your own time. You know it's worth the investment to get your price. Still, you resent the fact that it will be the new owner, not you, who benefits from the floors made as bright and shiny as a bowling alley.

Smart sellers set their resentment aside and look upon basic home improvements as a financial investment. They know that homes in excellent condition sell more quickly and for more money than those with crammed closets and loose doorknobs.

For those planning to ready their homes for market, realty specialists and organizational consultants offer these pointers:

* Give yourself plenty of lead time to prepare your house before you plan to sell.

"Rome wasn't built in a day, nor can you organize a house where you spent the last 10 years in a day," says Tom Nevermann, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, new breed of professional that helps people get organized in exchange for hourly fees. You might hope to clean all your closets in one Saturday but discover it actually takes a month of Saturdays, for instance.

You can try to cut corners, but in the end it's you who will lose. Rather than sorting out everything in your closet, for instance, you might be tempted to stash the contents of your closets into cardboard boxes and put them in the attic. But guess what? The buyer will climb the wobbly staircase to your attic and get a bad impression.

* Draft a list that breaks down your chores into little pieces.

Avoid procrastination by entering into the big chore of home preparation the way you would enter the water at the beach, one toe at a time, suggests Barbara Hemphill, an organizational consultant in Washington.

As your first step, draft a detailed list, she suggests. Put a heading on the page for each activity, such as "wallpapering the living room." Then, under each heading put the steps to complete each activity in proper sequence.

For example, the first activity under wallpapering might be to call Mrs. Jones, your neighbor, to ask where she bought the wallpaper you admire. Then, to give yourself a deadline, plot the phone call on your calendar. Continue through the sequence until the wallpapering is done. Then move on to the next activity.

* Look at other homes as a motivational tool but don't buy until your house has sold.

Maybe you've thought about trading up for years. But your options may not come alive for you until you've seen what the market has to offer. Visualizing other housing possibilities can encourage you to plow into the hard work of prepping your own home for sale.

Ms. Janik, the real estate author, suggests you spend a Sunday touring model homes in the community of your choice.

But leave your checkbook at home so you don't commit yourself to buying a new place until your old one has sold.

"The market is so slow in most communities now that unless you sell your house before you buy, you may get stuck with two mortgages," Ms. Janik cautions. "And carrying two mortgages for six to nine months could wipe out any savings you could get on the purchase. You could get clipped financially on both ends of the deal."

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