The Baltimore Sun

After three years of placing her Harford County house on the market only to take it off again when interest in the house waned or when offers came in lower than expected, Christine McGreevy decided to get serious.

So, with the help of her real estate agent, she hired a home stager and professional photographer to get her house looking its best. Part of that work included sprucing up the home's exterior by replacing lighting fixtures, adding flowers and plants, placing a rocking chair on the front porch and buying a new American flag.

Within two months of completing the work she accepted a noncontingent offer for only $6,000 less than her asking price.

"We did little things that made a difference," said McGreevy, who now lives in Florida. "Curb appeal is the No. 1 thing. When I was looking for a house down here, if I didn't like the outside, I didn't go inside."

In today's struggling real estate market, buyers have the upper hand and can pick and choose from a robust housing stock. Although experts have always advised sellers to take curb appeal seriously, they say it's more important than ever to ensure that the first impression of the house stands out from others on the market.

That doesn't mean you have to break the bank. For less than $500 and a weekend worth of work, the appearance of your house can be transformed.

Lowe's Home Improvement recently completed a front entry makeover with New York interior designer Elaine Griffin, who suggested four basic elements when it comes to curb appeal chic on a budget: a dramatic front door, eye-catching outdoor lighting, lush landscaping and accessorizing with outdoor furniture if there's room.

The front door is most important, says Griffin, who suggests four coats of paint to give it a deep, rich look.

For less than $75, a new paint job and replacing hardware on the door will give the biggest bang for the buck. Other tricks of the trade include adding tall topiaries to flank the front door.

"The first impression makes all the difference," said Laura Kimball, an interior designer and Maryland chapter president of the American Society of Interior Designers, who suggests choosing a dark color for the front door or one that will accent the existing siding or brick. She also says to remove the storm door to give added impact and include a new doormat in a basic color such as black.

"If it looks worn on the outside, [buyers] are going to look for it on the inside even if the rest of the house is brand new," said Kimball.

Perhaps the least expensive way to bring a polished and appealing look to the outside of a house is simply by cleaning up the entrance.

Salli Muscella, an agent with Advance Realty of Bel Air who listed McGreevy's house, advises her clients to trim overgrown bushes, mulch the front flower beds, keep the walkway free of debris and update outside light fixtures. A nice wreath on the front door is also a way to draw attention.

"Curb appeal is, hands down, a huge [step] to success," said Muscella. "A lot of times, it's just your sweat equity that will really pay off."

Real estate experts say house hunting often starts with buyers looking at houses on the Internet and then driving by before ever making an appointment to go inside. Curb appeal plays a key role in getting them in the newly painted front door.

A recent survey conducted by window and door manufacture Jeld-Wen found 90 percent of real estate agents felt a buyer's first impression of the front entry was important to their ability to sell a home. It also found that 82 percent of real estate agents had buyers who declined to even look inside a house based on the exterior appearance.

Home stager Holly Battaglia of Holly's Home Matters says it's easy to find low-cost ways to perk up the front of a house.

She suggests making windows on the front of a house pop by removing the exterior screens.

Replace dated outdoor lights and keep up on landscaping, says Battaglia, who helped McGreevy stage her home.

Remember to keep shades and blinds open and, at night, make sure a soft, warm light is on to give the house an inviting feel. Inexpensive timers on both indoor and outdoor lights help brighten a home during evening hours.

"When you drive by a house and the blinds are down, it doesn't look warm or inviting," Battaglia said.

Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Bethesda-based Case Design/Remodeling, which includes a handyman service franchise, warns not to forget maintenance issues such as cleaning gutters and caulking around windows.

To make a statement with the home's entrance, he agrees that the front door should be repainted and landscaping should be kept up. But he also suggests resealing the driveway and replacing or repairing tattered shutters. Front porch columns are often undersized and can be replaced for about $200 each for a dramatic impact.

"If you can find a reasonable way to do just a couple of things, I think it's going to make you feel better," Millholland said. "For most people, this is their biggest investment. Living in an ugly house, there's not much joy in that."

The National Association of Realtors advises that a well-maintained and -presented home from the outside sends the message to buyers that the house is in good condition and sets the stage for good expectations of what might be inside.

Pat Hiban, a broker with Pat Hiban Real Estate Group and Keller Williams Crossroads, compares curb appeal to being unprepared for a job interview.

"Putting your house on the market and not painting your front door or mulching the yard is kind of like showing up at a job interview wearing your pajamas," Hiban said.

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