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Preparing to Sell

When are the best times to sell my home?

Depending on where you live, the longer and stronger of the two annual peak seasons begins somewhere between late January and early March. If you're still digging out from under ten feet of snow on March 1st, your market may take a little longer to heat up.

February through May is normally the most active selling time for residential real estate. Families with children want to get their purchase or sale out of the way by late spring so moving won't disrupt the kids' schooling for the next academic year. Other people buy or sell early in the year for tax purposes, or to avoid interference with their summer vacation.

The first peak season is usually the best time to put your house on the market. High sale prices result from spirited buyer competition. Because more buyers are in the market now than at any other time of the year, your best chance of getting a fast, top-dollar sale is during the first season.

Labor Day usually starts the second peak season. This peak normally rolls through September, October, and into November. People who sell during late autumn tend to be strongly motivated. Some bought new homes in the spring before selling their old ones. Now they're slashing their asking prices.

Others are calendar-year taxpayers who sold houses earlier in the year and want to buy their new home before December 31st so they can pay tax-deductible expenses (such as the loan origination fee, mortgage interest, and property taxes) prior to the end of the year to reduce the impact of federal and state income tax. Either way, these folks are under pressure to sell.

Unless prices are rapidly increasing in your area, wait until activity slows in mid-November and then buy your next home at a discount price. You get the best of both worlds -- "sell high and buy low."

When are the worst times to sell my home?

Memorial Day usually marks the beginning of the first valley. Sales activity usually slows during June, July, and August. Buyers, sellers, and agents often take summer vacations, which reduces the market activity. Many folks spend their weekends having fun in the sun rather than looking at houses.

This season is an okay time to put your property on the market, but not the best. Houses ordinarily take somewhat longer to sell in the summer due to a lower level of buyer activity. Unless you have to sell now (or if property values are declining), wait until the fall to put your house on the market. You're likely to get a higher price after people return from vacation.

The second peak season usually drops dead a week or so before Thanksgiving. With the exception of a few, mostly desperate, sellers and bargain-hunting or relocating buyers who stay in the market until the bitter end of December, residential real estate sales activity ordinarily slows significantly by mid-November.

This real estate Death Valley is generally the worst time of year to sell a house. Even our brilliant pricing techniques may not be able to save you from getting your financial bones picked clean by bargain-hunting vultures if you're forced to sell at this time of the year. Don't put your house on the market during Death Valley days unless you have absolutely no other alternative.

Why is proper presale preparation of my house so important?

Getting your house ready to put on the market takes time. Exposing your property to the market before it looks its best gives buyers and agents who tour the house a bad initial impression. It's nearly impossible to get them back for a second look after you correct the showing flaws.

If you make the right improvements when fixing up your property, you increase the odds of selling it quickly for top dollar. If, conversely, you make the wrong changes to your property, you waste the time and money you spent, prolong the sale, and possibly even reduce the ultimate sale price.

Start the presale fix-up process by getting an outside opinion of your house's strengths and weaknesses. Good real estate agents are an excellent source of advice about readying your house for sale. Because agents see your house with fresh eyes, they can spot flaws you no longer notice. Furthermore, agents look at your house the way buyers do. They know how to prepare houses so that they're appealing for marketing -- a process sometimes referred to as staging. And, last but not least, because agents work on commission, good agents don't want to waste your time or theirs trying to sell a house that's not up to snuff.

What is curb appeal and how do I make sure my house has it?

Most buyers make snap judgments about your house, and buyers begin forming their opinion of your house long before they go inside. Curb appeal, the external attractiveness of your property when viewed from the street, is critically important. Here are some tried-and-true ways to enhance your house's curb appeal:

- Painting: Painting your house's exterior before you put it on the market gives the biggest bang for your fix-up buck - if you use colors that conform with your neighborhood's decorating norm. Now isn't the time to make a fashion statement! White, light grays, or soft tans are safe choices for exterior walls. If your house doesn't need a new paint job, at least touch up window frames, front shutters, gutters and down spouts. Also, be sure to give your mailbox and front door a fresh coat of paint.

- Lawn: A freshly mowed, neatly trimmed lawn gives your house a well-maintained appearance. Don't leave toys, lawn equipment, or garden hoses scattered around the yard. You can make your grass look extra lush and green by fertilizing it in the appropriate season.

- Sidewalks: Sweep your sidewalks daily. Keep your walks free of snow and ice in the winter.

- Shrubbery: Remove or replace any dead or dying trees, hedges, or shrubs and prune anything that looks scraggly or overgrown. Cut back overgrown shrubs that block windows and keep light from entering your house.

- Flowers: Filling flower beds with seasonal flowers is an inexpensive way to add color and charm to property.

- Repairs: Be sure that all gutters and down-spouts are in place and clean. Replace missing roof shingles and broken or cracked windows. Repair cracks in your driveway and remove large oil stains. Replace or repair broken stairs, torn window screens, broken or missing fence slats, and defective doorknobs. Make sure that your front and back doors, garage doors, and all windows open easily. Check exterior lights to be certain that they're working properly.

- Windows: Keep your windows spotless inside and out throughout the marketing period. When you're not home, curious buyers attracted by the For Sale sign will peek through the windows to size up your house. Don't let their first impression be windows covered with cobwebs and smeared with fingerprints.

- Eliminate or hide clutter: Clear everything you don't need out of the garage. Friends and family who live nearby can be a great source of temporary places to stash your excess stuff. If you can't clean your garage out, at least keep the door closed to conceal the mess from prying eyes. Don't have a fleet of cars, trucks, boats, and campers cluttering up your driveway or parked in front of your house.

You probably lack both the time and the desire to do all this prep work yourself. If you can afford it, make your life easier by hiring competent folks to help you with these chores. Your real estate agent can probably refer you to people who specialize in this kind of work.

What can I do to the interior of my home to help the sale?

Curb appeal draws buyers into your house. But appealing interiors make the sale. You don't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on your house prior to putting up the For Sale sign. On the contrary, the little things you do generally give the biggest increase in value. Concentrate on the three Cs -- clean up, clear out, and cosmetic improvements.

Just because we recommend using neutral colors doesn't mean that you should make your house boring. Use fabric -- area rugs, table cloths, napkins, sofa cushions, window curtains or drapes, bedspreads and quilts, bath and hand towels, shower curtains, and so on -- to create temporary color accents in rooms. Unlike other more permanent improvements, you can take these items with you for use in your next home. You can also use flower arrangements to add bright splashes of color to rooms.

- Clean, scrub, and polish: Your stove, oven, refrigerator, microwave oven, and other appliances must be spotlessly clean inside and out. Scour walls, floors, bathtubs, showers, and sinks until they sparkle. Don't forget to clean the ventilating hood in your kitchen.

- Eliminate odors: Buyers will notice strong smells as soon as they walk through your front door, so eliminate smoke, mildew, and pet odors. Cleaning drapes and carpets helps get rid of odors. Remove ashes from the fireplace. If you're a smoker, clean all ashtrays daily and take your smoking breaks in the great outdoors until you sell your house. Use air fresheners or citrus-scented potpourri to keep your house odor free. Whether you do the work or hire someone, make sure that your house is spotless and smell-less.

- Fix drippy faucets: If any of your sinks or bathtubs drain slowly, unclog them. Just as car buyers love to kick tires, some property buyers test houses by flushing toilets and running water in sinks and bathtubs to check drains.

- Get rid of clutter: Keep clutter off kitchen counters and dirty dishes out of the sink. Eliminating clutter and excess furniture makes rooms appear larger. Store, sell, or give away surplus or bulky furniture. Recycle those stacks of old magazines and newspapers you've been saving for no good reason. Dump all that junk you've accumulated over the years in your attic and basement. Closet space sells houses. Clean and organize closets, bookcases, and drawers.

- Profit from your junk: Ironically, the clutter that reduces your house's value is far from worthless. On the contrary, your junk is someone else's treasure. Make a donation to your favorite charity and earn a tax deduction (be sure to ask for a donation receipt). Have a garage sale.

- Make cosmetic improvements: Painting isn't expensive if you do it yourself, but be careful when selecting interior colors. Avoid cherry red, canary yellow, cobalt blue, emerald green, and other bold colors with strong visual impact. You may love the effect, but you aren't the buyer. Stick to conventional whites, soft pastels, and other neutral colors that won't clash with most prospective buyers' tastes. If, like most basements, yours is dark and gloomy, paint the walls and ceiling a light color and put the highest wattage lightbulbs you can safely use in your light fixtures to brighten the space up. Repair cracks in the floor.

What happens during an inspection?

Prudent purchasers will have your property thoroughly inspected before they buy it. Expect inspectors to poke into everything -- your house's roof, chimney, gutters, plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and cooling systems, insulation, smoke detectors, all the permanent appliances and fixtures in your kitchen and bathrooms, and the foundation. They'll also check for health, safety, and environmental hazards.

Should I consider having my home inspected before putting it on the market?

The best defense is a good offense. Beat buyers to the punch -- get your inspections before they get theirs. Discover everything wrong with your house before putting it on the market. Defusing a crisis begins by discovering that a problem exists. Consider these four reasons to have your property thoroughly inspected before putting it on the market:

- Damage control: Suppose that your house needs a new foundation. The problem is there whether you know about it or not. Why wait passively for an ultimatum to fix the foundation at a cost established by the buyer's inspection or kiss the deal good-bye? If you discover the problem before marketing the house, you can disclose it to prospective buyers with a repair estimate. Your negotiating position is much stronger if you know about problems in advance -- and accurately know the cost to correct them. Some buyers won't want to tour your house if they know that it needs a great deal of repair work. Forget them. Concentrate on buyers who are willing to do corrective work after the closing if your price and terms are fair.

- Financial planning: It's very important to have a realistic estimate of your present house's net proceeds of sale before committing to buy a new home. If your house needs major repairs, you'll pay for them one way or another -- either by doing the repairs yourself, by reducing your asking price to reflect the cost of repairs, or by giving buyers a credit to do the work. Latent defects -- flaws hidden out of sight behind walls or concealed in inaccessible areas, such as under your house or up in the attic where you can't see them -- are time bombs. A good premarketing inspection can reveal all these problems.

- Fine tuning: Professional property inspectors can help you spot minor defects, such as dirty filters in the heating system; ventilation problems in the basement, garage, or crawl space; blocked gutters; loose doorknobs; stuck windows; a missing chimney hood or spark arrester, and so on. Eliminating small maintenance problems like these gives prospective buyers who tour the property a favorable -- and correct -- impression that your house is extremely well-maintained.

- Peace of mind: The inspector alerts you to health and safety precautions you should take. Installing smoke detectors, grounding electrical outlets, and keeping flammable products away from furnaces, heaters, and fireplaces, for example, make your house safer for the next owner and safer for you as long as you continue living in it.

What happens when you 'stage a house'?

Staging a house goes way beyond your efforts to make it look nifty before having friends over for a dinner party. If you've ever visited a new home development and walked through the builder's model home, you know exactly what staging is. Builders usually do extremely elaborate staging jobs.

What can I do to better stage my house?

Here are some staging tips that you can use to increase your house's emotional appeal:

- Kitchen: Aromas from fragrant goodies like freshly baked gingerbread or just-brewed coffee bring back wonderful memories of home. Conversely, many people find odors from pungent foods such as liver, fish, and cabbage to be a turnoff.

- Bathrooms: Always have fresh towels in bathrooms. Buy new shower curtains; old ones are usually mildewy. Put new soap in the soap dishes.

- Collections: Everyone has collections -- family photos on the wall, autographed baseballs, dolls, trophies the kids won in school, whatever. You're not running a museum or a curiosity shop. Put away your collections so people focus on the task at hand -- buying your house.

- Clear everything off your refrigerator. Most folks use magnets or tape to stick everything from vacation snapshots and finger-painting masterpieces to notes for the kids and "to do" lists on the surface of their refrigerator.

- Comfort: Keep your house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A house that's too hot or too cold isn't inviting.

- Fireplace: Functioning fireplaces are utilitarian (another heat source) and romantic (candlelit dinners by the fire). If you have a fireplace, spotlight it. Polish your fireplace tools. Pile logs neatly in the fireplace. When your house is shown on cold fall or winter days, nothing says "Welcome" like the warmth, glow, crackle, and smell of a blazing fire.

- Flowers: Vases of colorful, fresh flowers spotted throughout the house make a wonderful impression on prospective buyers. You don't have to spend a fortune. Bouquets of carnations, daisies, tulips, or other seasonal flowers from your local supermarket are fine.

- Furniture: Rearrange furniture to create a warm, inviting feeling.

- Light: Bright, well-lit houses seem more spacious and cheerful. During the day, open all your curtains and drapes. If the view is unattractive, get sheer window coverings that let light through, but mask the view. When you show your house, brighten up rooms by turning on all your lamps, even during the day. Be sure hallways and stairways are brightly lit. Don't forget to turn on closet lights, oven lights, and the lights over your stove and kitchen counter.

Prospective buyers often drop in or drive by in the evening to see how your house looks at night. Interior lights that can be seen from the street make a house look cozy and inviting. From sunset until you go to bed, keep at least one light on in each room that faces the street.