Dressing up your home to look its best

You've started packing boxes, lined up the movers, and hired a real estate broker to plunk a "for sale" sign out front.

Now you just need to find a buyer - one whose check will clear the bank.

To find the right buyer, you need to make a good impression, experts say.

When Sandra Drover and her husband, Paul, put their three-bedroom, split-level home in Peabody, Mass. on the market, they painted the house and put in new carpet.

But that wasn't half the work.

It's cleaning time, all the time

"The worst part was preparing for showings," she says. With three kids under age 7, she spent hours cleaning up for showings and never turned any buyers away at any time of day.

"We were looking at houses too, and were really turned off by full litter boxes and clothes hanging in the shower," she says. "So we worked to make it look like nobody lived there - no children, only statues."

It isn't just toys and stacks of old mail that need to be cleaned out. Don't be surprised if the broker asks you to hide some furniture, too.

Buyers like open spaces. And rooms that are too crowded often look small, says Lou Hrono, a real estate agent with Re/max Associates in Medford, Mass.

If you have a lot of stuff, consider renting a storage space to hold a portion of it until your house sells, says Eric Tyson, co-author of "Home Selling for Dummies.

What you pay in rent could pay off in a higher sales price, Mr. Tyson says."In a strong market, people think their house will sell itself, but they don't realize that if they put some work in they can get a lot more for it."

You want the house to look polished, says Mr. Hrono. "First impressions are so huge," he says. "The place to put a shine on is the front and the first step in the entry."

Among his suggestions: mulch the garden, paint at least the trim in front and any flaking walls or ceilings inside, repair drawers that don't work, plane down doors that won't close, and clean the windows.

"My basic rule of thumb is to fix anything cheap or free that will bring a return," he says.

But you don't want to spend thousands of dollars fixing up a house that you're about to sell.

In the end, the Drovers' work netted them $148,000 for their house on a busy street - $6,000 less than their asking price. "A lot of people really low-balled us," says Mrs. Drover.

Don't get upset by low offers.

"Sellers take it very personally if people don't like their house," says Hrono.

Two more rules during showings are: Never turn down a showing, and make it as easy as possible for agents to bring prospective buyers through the house.

Brokers often avoid a house where the seller has turned down a showing, Hrono says.

To make the house more available, provide a lock box with a key. And accept any showings where an agent calls the night before.

Then leave the house when the potential buyer drops by. The buyer really doesn't want you there, Hrono says. And you don't want to be there. You might unintentionally say something that jeopardizes the sale, or you come across as too eager to sell. By leaving, you let the brokers do the selling.

But will the check clear?

Once your gleaming house has snared an offer, you have to make a seller's hardest decision: Do you accept?

By accepting a buyer's offer, you take your house off the market, says Daryl "Jess" Jasperson, president of Re/max International in Denver. That's basic contract law. "That's the biggest Catch 22 for sellers," he says.

If the first sale falls apart, you may have missed other potential buyers. And if new buyers see that your house has come back on the market, they may wonder what's wrong with it.

Several rules can help you navigate such pitfalls, says Mr. Jasperson.

Clearly you want the highest offer. But you also want the offer with the least likelihood of falling apart. A buyer with cash, for example, is preferable to one who still has to apply for a mortgage. (See story above.)

Once you've accepted an offer, expect your buyer to insist on a home inspection.

The home inspector is likely to find some repairs you'll need to make. But none should come as a surprise.

"The home inspection is not a time for renegotiating" the price, says Hrono.

At closing time, sellers have the least to do. But before you close, protect yourself. If you don't have a place to live, build in 30 days to look for a new place before you turn over the keys.

And if that isn't enough, have your agent include a 30-day rent-back clause in the purchase and sale agreement, so you can continue living in your house even after you've sold it.

Rents are calculated according to how much it costs the new buyer to pay for the mortgage, taxes, and other fixed expenses while you're living in the house.

*Send e-mail to evarts@csmonitor.com

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