Spring Real Estate 2003

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Doing your homework
How to make your home more marketable

by Susan Golovin

Thinking of putting your house on the market? John Alexander, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Menlo Park, has been in the real estate business for 16 years. According to him, "The way to get the most for your money is to have as large a pool of buyers as possible."

Alexander, who often works in conjunction with his wife, real estate agent Darran Ross, has a lot of good advice about how to prepare your home to attract prospective buyers and entice bids.

Adding stylish drawer pulls, such as these found at Restoration Hardware in Palo Alto, is an easy way to perk up on an old-fashioned bathroom or kitchen.

"The first thing you need to do is schedule both the required property inspection and termite and mold inspections. Sometimes it can take as long as two weeks to get on their schedules and you want to have as much time as possible to deal with issues that they might find," Alexander said.

He suggests dealing with safety issues first, such as electrical wiring and any termite damage that results in weakening the structure.

"In my own house I cleared out an old deck and found subterranean termites. The side of the garage was so spongy that you could punch a hole into the wood. The buyer will assign a cost to such repairs that may not be accurate, and it's often better to fix it yourself," he said.

"If there are a lot of structural problems, you have to decide whether to deal with them or just subtract from the asking price," he added. If you choose the latter, he suggested getting an estimate of the cost of repairs and having it available for prospective buyers.

Changing something as simple as a doorknob - these are from Restoration Hardware in Palo Alto - can leave a more favorable impression on potential homebuyers.

Roof leaks are a real issue. Alexander recommends considering re-roofing "if the rest of the house is in good condition, and you think you can recoup your costs."
"You have to have a mold inspection, and it's best to take care of any work because mold problems can reduce your asking price enormously," Alexander said. "If the mold is toxic, it can pose significant health hazards, so an authorized company has to remove it." An alternative plan is to provide an estimate for the work needed.

"Make sure that you have proof of completed work. It gives the buyer confidence that the home has been maintained," he said.

Landscaping should be assessed early on. "It takes flowers a few weeks to grow in, so you want to plant them as soon as possible," Alexander said. He also recommends clearing away all brush, fertilizing and planting new shrubs if necessary.

"We bring in our own terra cotta pots to enhance the front. It's very important that the front of the house look especially welcoming," he said.

Professionally cleaning the inside of the home, paying special attention to windows and painting both inside and outside is important. "If the outside doesn't require paint, you should have it power washed to eliminate all cobwebs and signs of neglect.

"Move all your clutter into the garage. You can rent storage space and have the company come and clear out your garage," Alexander said, adding "then when you move, just have the contents transferred from storage."

Replacing or eliminating large pieces of furniture can make your home look bigger. Alexander and Ross often loan their own furniture and prints to clients in order to "stage" the home. If you don't want to hire a professional staging company, you can rent rugs and accessory pieces.

Alexander also recommends pulling up old carpeting and either putting in new carpeting or, ideally, exposing hardwood floors. "And make sure the floors are buffed," he said.

People are especially interested in kitchens and bathrooms. "Update pulls on drawers and cabinets," Alexander said. "You can get attractive, inexpensive ones and it makes a big difference." He said it's also a good idea to paint cabinets, and to replace dated faucets.

Bathrooms can also benefit from new faucets, pulls and towel bars. If it is a small space, paint it off-white. Make sure that mirrors, cabinets, walls and floor all co-ordinate. If you have an old vinyl floor, you may want to replace it.

"Hang brand-new towels to give a fresh look," he advised.

Fresh flower arrangements add the final touch. And don't forget the bathroom.
"Whatever you do, you want to get your money back," Alexander cautioned. Often, the suggested repairs and adjustments can come to as much as $20,000 to $30,000.

Now, these recommendations are for relatively quick transformation -- one to two months. If you are thinking of longer term, or, if you simply want to remodel with an eye to eventual resale, Alexander still suggests starting with inspections to avoid surprises and to be able to build on a solid foundation.

"People are looking for joined kitchen/family room orientations," he said. Completely remodeled kitchens, with granite counters, upgraded appliances and hardwood floors are a real plus. "I like to see as much hardwood as possible," he added.

Dated bathrooms are a good place to use remodeling funds. "The master bath should have a tub with a separate shower, and two sinks are better than one," he said. Adding a bathroom, especially in a home that has the bare minimum, (one and a half) is a lucrative project as regards resale.

"Replace windows framed in aluminum with, if possible, dual-pane wood. Divided-light windows (windows with cross hatchings) are especially popular. However, the crucial thing to remember is that windows should be appropriate for the style of the home," he said.

In California, indoor/outdoor living is important. Hiring a landscape architect is a good idea, especially if you are going to add hardscape such as patios and walkways. "Connecticut bluestone or slate are especially desirable," he said.

"You won't believe how many clients, when they see the improvements in their homes say 'If I had done this before, I wouldn't have moved!'" Alexander said.