Looking for a new house can be a fun and exciting experience. Less fun and exciting is selling your existing home. It’s a series of show and tell, and while your realtor will take care of the telling part, it’s largely on you to make sure your home is going to show well to potential buyers. You want the people who come tromping through your open house to be duly impressed and enchanted, and for someone to make an offer as soon as possible.
For this reason, getting your house ready to sell is a lesson in perfectionism. Every detail needs to be just right. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, time, and possibly, money. But the effort and money you spend on getting your house ready for sale will come back to you. Even just overall cleanliness can be the difference between a quick sale at asking price or your home sitting on the market for weeks and weeks with no offers.
My wife and I recently sold our first home, and are moving to the ‘burbs in a couple weeks. Using the tips below, which I learned from our realtor and stager, helped our house sell during its first weekend on the market. Success! There were obviously other factors at play (location, decorating/paint colors, etc.), but there are some things that every homeowner can do to increase their odds of selling fast and for what you’re asking.
The exterior matters. A lot. The first impression makes a huge difference. You want your house to look great from the second a potential buyer pulls up to the curb.
How your landscaping looks goes a long way towards giving a good first impression. It’s going to be what people first see, after all. Keep the lawn mowed and manicured (and do your darndest to keep it green), remove all dead plants, get the trees trimmed if necessary, etc. If you have landscape lighting, be sure it all works and that bulbs are fresh.
In the winter, or early spring/late fall, this becomes easier because things are naturally dying. If everyone’s yard and landscaping looks brown, including yours, there’s just nothing you can do about it. Snow is even better because it covers everything up and makes it all look nice and purty.
While the exterior of your home will obviously be a little dirty and grimey, do your best to clean it up. Get rid of bird’s nests, clean dirt clumps off the exterior, nail down any loose boards (if you have wood siding), ensure the gutters are free and clear of debris, and keep the walkways/patios freshly swept.
If it’s snowy season when your house is for sale, be sure that you shovel/snow blow any exterior concrete surface: driveway, patio, porch, sidewalk, etc. You don’t want a prospective buyer slipping and falling on the ice. That’ll seem like a bad omen.
Give your door a good scrub down, and possibly a fresh coat of paint. Replace the hardware if it’s beat up. Also get new mats for both outside and inside the door if yours are worn.
Here’s a pro tip: take the screens off all your windows. It makes them appear much cleaner from both outside and inside the house.
After you’ve done that, give the windows a good scrubbing, both inside and out. Of course you can always hire this job out if you’d rather not do it yourself.
Also be sure to clean out window wells if you have a basement. They’re often home to excess leaves/weeds and cobwebs. Clean them out as best you can.
I’m including the garage in this exterior section because it functions basically as such. There’s no decorating or painting in the garage so you don’t have to worry about how it looks from a design standpoint. Just be sure your tools, Christmas boxes, and other garage knickknacks are organized. That could mean DIY shelving and pegboard, or simply ensuring your piles are nice and neat. Also keep the floor freshly swept.
If it’s a 2- or 3-car garage, but one stall is used as storage, get that stuff out of there and into a storage unit. Buyers need to see the full capability of your garage.
Inside the Home
De-clutter. Big time.
This is task numero uno for home sellers. When you live in a house, especially for many years, it accumulates a certain amount of clutter. You want your house to feel warm and inviting, but that doesn’t take nearly as much stuff as you might think.
The key to de-cluttering is by pre-packing, often with the help of a short-term storage rental. Below are the areas you should focus on:
Closets. Take at least half the stuff out of all your closets, and give everything in clothing closets unified hangers (white plastic or nice wooden ones are good options). You’ll be amazed at how much better it looks. Put anything on a closet shelf into a basket (more on that later). And don’t leave anything on closet floors; no matter how organized it is, it will seem cluttered.
Kitchen counters. Get almost everything off the kitchen counters. Except for nice appliances (espresso machine, KitchenAid Stand Mixer), pack it away. You obviously use some things every day, but find places in cupboards for them while your house is showing, or live without them. This includes paper towels, toasters, coffee makers, dish clothes, etc.
Cupboards. A similar principle applies to cupboards as it did to closets. Take out any dishes that make it seem cluttered. Give the cupboards some floor space; that is, if every square inch of shelving has stuff on it, something needs to go. Pack up a couple mugs, glasses, plates, etc. You want the cupboards to feel big enough to hold anything and everything a potential buyer might have, so they need to not be filled.
Shelving. Decorations and knickknacks and manly mementos need to be extensively pared down. Your mantle should have 1-3 objects on it, not 10. The buffet in the dining room shouldn’t have anything on it. Dresser tops should be bare essentials only. People want to walk into basically a model home, not something that’s been clearly lived in, even if it’s an illusion.
Hire a stager. Many realtors will pay for a stager to come into your home (after all, the higher the house goes for, the more they make!), but if yours doesn’t, hire one out of your own pocket. They’re professional designers, and they can look at your home with objective eyes. They’ll walk in and see what potential buyers see, and figure out how to arrange furniture and spaces in ways that maximize what your home has to offer.
It can be a little stressful, as you have someone coming in and judging your space. The first thing our stager said when she walked in was, “I’m going to make comments on your decorating and furniture, but it’s not personal.” You can take or leave what they suggest, of course, but it’s in your best interest to follow their lead as much as possible.
Get rid of all personal touches. When people walk into a home that’s for sale, they want to be able to picture themselves in it, not the previous owners. Store any family photos that are displayed, as well as anything religious in nature. It will feel stale to you, but will go towards the model home look that’s appealing to buyers.
Containerize. One of the biggest tips our stager gave was to containerize everything. She said, “People like to think they live in a really organized way. They never do, but they want to think they will if they move into this house. It’s a fantasy for them.” So if you containerize your space, people will be able to see themselves living that neatly in the home, even if they never will. Buy baskets, under-bed containers, shoe organizers, etc. Nothing in your house should be free-floating; it should all have a home in a container. Get one for your living room for remotes and phone/computer charges. Get one in the nursery for diaper changing supplies instead of just having them on the changing table. Rather than clothes on shelves in your closet, get baskets. You get the idea.
Prepare for snoopers. Potential buyers will peek in all the cabinets, refrigerator, etc. If they’re buying the place, those things will be theirs after all (and people are just curious about how others live!). So tidy up your cabinets, your junk drawers, your bathroom vanities, etc. The safe places — those which can house all the junk you want — are things that clearly aren’t staying with the house: desks, dressers, curio cabinets, etc.
Freshening Your Home
Part of what can set your home apart from other is how fresh it feels to potential buyers. Are there dust bunnies in the corner? Are there scuffs on walls? Are things worn or faded? The following tips will ensure your home feels as fresh as Martha Stewart’s.
Make small repairs that you’ve been putting off. That loose doorknob on the closet? Tighten it up and get some new screws if needed. Small hole in the wall? Plaster it and paint it. Cracks in caulking? Buy a tube and get to it. Light bulb that’s been burnt out for a year? Now’s the time for a fresh one. For bigger issues, call a handyman. This is certainly an instance where you’d rather have it done right and in a timely manner versus you tinkering and doing something out of your league.
Touch up the paint all around the house. There are sure to be spots on walls where furniture has rubbed against it, where kids have gotten rambunctious, or some other ding has chipped or scuffed the color. Get the paint out of your closet (you saved any leftover from when you painted, right?), and fix any small spots that don’t perfectly align with the rest of the wall(s). Here’s a tip: for smaller spots, you can use the sample cans you bought when you originally painted (if you saved them, of course).
If you don’t have the paint — you either used every last drop, or you haven’t painted and the previous owner didn’t leave leftovers — your choice is to either let it be and know your house won’t be perfect, or re-paint. If you have time, I’d recommend opting for the latter.
Also in the paint category, re-paint all your baseboards and doorways if needed. Cleaning will help, but a fresh coat of paint (if they’re painted rather than just stained), really makes the house feel clean and fresh.
Hire professional cleaners. While you certainly have the ability to deep clean your house, it takes a lot of time and elbow grease which might be better spent on other projects, especially if you’re on a deadline. Hire professional cleaners to do a one-time deep clean a few days before your house goes on the market. It will really make everything shine. In my experience, the folks who are paid to do it will make your house much cleaner than is even possible on your own. They have some sort of wizardry in those mops and vacuums. While you’re at it, get your carpets professionally cleaned as well. It makes a world of difference.
Install new outlet covers. This is another small thing that makes a big difference in freshness. If your covers are stainless, just give them a good wipe down. If they’re white, and have yellowed or stained over time, replace them. They’re cheap and easy to replace!
Get Ready for Showings
Once your house goes on the market, be prepared for showings right away. Have a plan for stashing your dirty clothes hamper (ours went in the back of the SUV), make sure all dishes are out of the sink and put away, keep all shoes put away in closets or baskets near the entry door. It has to be spotless when people see it. Right before you leave the house for a showing, walk through each room for a quick inspection, and leave all the lights on as you leave, even in the daytime.
With a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck, your house will sell in just a few weeks or even days and you won’t have to deal with the annoyance of having your home on the real estate market!