Small, sensible improvements can sell a house

#283 in a series of true experiences in real estate
May 1999, Hills Newspapers

Last year we sold a house belonging to a woman we never met. Phyllis, as I’ll call her, was older and she needed daily help in life. Phyllis’ niece, coming to her aunt’s aid from her home in South Carolina, had located an assisted living community in Oakland where Phyllis felt comfortable, and had overseen Phyllis’ move there.

Phyllis’ house in the Berkeley hills was packed to the rafters with her lifelong collection of antique furniture and bric-a-brac, and it fell to Jane to dispose of these. Over a period of months, Jane flew to California as frequently as she could. She stayed in Phyllis’ house, usually for a couple of weeks at a time, while she worked at her task.

Jane wanted to know from Anet and me the usual things: how much the house was worth, how quickly it would sell, and what should be done to the house before selling. As it was Phyllis’ money she would be spending on the house, Jane was anxious to spend it wisely.

It was a good situation for us. Jane had little emotional attachment to the house; it was not a struggle for her to let it go, nor did she feel any need to defend what it was. Her objective was to provide as best she could for her aunt, and this we shared, so we were free to make suggestions about what would make the house appeal to buyers.

We stressed that the house could be sold as it was. Beyond clearing and cleaning and obtaining some reports, there was no doubt in our minds that a buyer for the house would be found. It was generally in good repair; the roof was new, all the windows had been replaced not long before, and the kitchen and bath were in reasonable shape. But there were things about the house that, if changed, would greatly approve the appearance of the house.

For example, the exterior was painted a bright apple green. Phyllis had chosen the color; she must have liked it, but we felt it would be off-putting to many people. Also, it was a wood-sided house, rather plain, and of no particular style. We thought it could use a focal point, something to catch the eye and hold it. After some consideration, we came up with the idea of adding a prominent wooden trellis at the front of the house.

The fireplace had been boarded up. We wanted it exposed and made, if it not too expensive, a working fireplace. The wooden floors in the house were in poor shape, damaged by pets and an over-flowing bath. The living room ceiling was covered with acoustical tiles which looked out of place, wrong for the house. And the walls, in some cases loudly wallpapered, looked sad.

We talked with Jane about all of these things and decided to get inspections and bids before deciding what, if anything, to have done. A carpenter bid on building the trellis, our painters told us what they’d charge for painting and also for covering the acoustical tiles with Sheetrock. We got a bid for refinishing the floors and replacing the damaged portions. There would also be expense in washing all the windows, general cleaning, hauling, and hanging some new curtains.
With all the costs in hand, we talked with Jane and estimated for her what we thought the price of the house would be if the work was done. We agreed on painting inside and out and on restoring the fireplace. The termite work wasn’t critical; we didn’t plan to address it at this end. Everything else seemed worth doing except we wondered if the trellis and the living room ceiling redo were really necessary.

The trellis would cost about $500; the ceiling about the same. What would we get for spending this money beyond the satisfaction of seeing the house look better? Was the expense justified?

There were no guarantees, but Jane chose to do it all and, as it turned out, we think that the house sold for considerably more because of it. Painting and cleaning and beautiful floors sparked up the house considerably. Filmy white curtains and bouquets of flowers added to a fresh, airy look. A couple of light fixtures were changed and the fireplace brick scrubbed. We kept some of Phyllis’ furnishings to use, including a lovely old brass bed and a patchwork quilt. The overall effect was terrific.

The addition of the wide trellis was, at least to my eye, a masterstroke. I looked again today at the before and after photos, and am still impressed by how much visual interest the trellis lends to the house. We had it painted white like the window trim, a nice contrast against the new soft gray-green of the house. As far as the living room ceiling is concerned, no one noticed the ceiling at all once the tiles were gone, and I consider that a success.

What would the house have sold for if these things had not been done? There were several offers from buyers and the house sold for more than any of us had anticipated. The people who bought the house were very pleased to buy it.

We don’t think they could say what they would have paid if the house had been different. Probably most buyers aren’t aware of the individual cosmetic details that cause them to buy a particular house. These buyers, for instance, had been looking at larger houses because they have a lot of belongings, and at first they felt that this house was too small.

They came to our Sunday open house at the beginning, went away to look at other houses, then returned to linger, and they ended up buying it. Why was that? Which of the characteristics of the house caused them to make their decision?

At about the same time we were marketing this house, we put another on the market, a completely different situation. The owners had died; their children were selling. The house needed a lot of work: roof, heating system, kitchen and baths all would need replacing. We couldn’t pick out anything that could be done for a reasonable amount of money that would make a substantial difference in the appearance of the house.

Our recommendation was to get reports and bids for repairing the basic systems of the house to provide to buyers. We asked that all the belongings except a table and chairs (it’s always a good idea to provide a place to sit down) be cleared out of the house, and we hired a crew to clean the house thoroughly. Our clients agreed. Brand clean windows did make a huge difference for the better and so did some garden trimming and tree pruning.

We think that the best price was received for this house (there were also several bids on this one) by doing very little. The buyer was someone who intended to do a complete renovation before moving in. He was glad to have written evaluations of the house and to receive it cleaned, but it’s unlikely that he would have paid a higher price if, for example, the house had just been painted.

At least that’s our best guess, the best that our experience has taught us.

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