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Renovating to Sell

In today's soft market, you've got to be, as my boss Gil Neary says, "the prettiest girl at the dance." That means you, as a seller, need to do all the renovations that two years ago you could have pushed off on your buyer.

But which ones? I think a good local real estate agent and an experienced contractor are your best friends here, because they know your micro-market and can tell you what moves homes and what doesn't.

But Vivian S. Toy of The New York Times just wrote a great article this past week called "Spending to Sell," and along with it is a slideshow of renovations that New York area sellers have made to prep their homes for the market. Although Toy's examples are mostly apartments, they're very current -- so let me pull out from them five tips that will help update any home for sale in 2009:

  1. Add another level of lighting. This works especially well in a "dated" space. One of the renovators in Toy's Times article helped combat boxy 1960s architecture by not just changing over the old ceiling-mount kitchen fixture, but also by adding modern under-cabinet lighting. This change alone jumped the apartment forward in time by a couple of decades.
  2. Change the color of your floors. Paint colors go in and out of fashion, but an older white or off-white is not going to kill you. However, a golden floor where the fashion is either white or chocolate brown -- that's a real problem. It's funny because refinishing a hardwood floor is not that big or expensive a job, but it does kick up a lot of dust, and as a result, buyers are scared of it. So you absolutely have to do it for them. Similarly, worn carpet is a deal-killer, so replace it now.
  3. Make minor technological changes in the kitchen and baths. When you change your counter top, a switch from a 1980s-style overmounted sink to a more updated undermounted sink will make a tremendous difference. An up-to-the-minute cutting-edge dishwasher is going to run you a couple thousand, but it may be worth it for the agent to be able to market the brand name. For baths, adding venting that's up to code, adding double sinks, installing a radiant-heat floor -- those are all changes that can make your property seem new.
  4. Fix your bathtub. This one's hard. Unlike adding a new coat of paint -- which will look pretty good unless a five-year-old does it -- a tub reglazing is only as good as your handyman's expertise. A good job is worth the $500-$750 it will probably cost, though, so ask around for references.
  5. Try to make it that last mile. We are all brainwashed by what Joe Jackson called "Ideal House" magazines -- and the truth is, most of us have to make budget compromises. The sellers in one of the Times apartments did that with their refrigerator, keeping their old boxy fridge. "Counter-depth" refrigerators are much more in fashion here, but I can understand the reluctance to spend $2,000 to be trendy, as well as the wastefulness of replacing something that probably works just fine.
    With our recent condo renovation (we were renovating to rent, not to sell), my husband and I figured that our $12,000 budget would just cover refinished floors, new paint, cleaning up the bathroom (including a re-glazed tub), and half a new kitchen. But when the job was done, our new appliances weren't the same size as the old ones, exposing hideous worn patches of kitchen floor.
    My contractor snapped at me "I told you to replace it, and it would have been easier before we'd glued on that heavy new granite counter top." Well, it's true we should have, but we didn't have the extra money -- so now we're doing a cosmetic job with stick-on-top vinyl tiles instead. You can only do what you can do, y'know?
    However, you do want to at least try to update everything. In the Times article, one of those sellers got a lot of oomph out of fancy new bathroom hardware -- if only they had remembered to change the bathroom doorknob as well!
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