When preparing home for sale, how much is too much?

#546 in a series of true experiences in real estate
February 2008, Hills Newspapers

We had more trouble than usual deciding what to do to one house to make it ready for buyers to see. Our experience with other houses has been fairly straightforward. We walk through the house, make notes, talk to the owner, then schedule a physical inspection.

We also look at closed sales in the area of similar houses and go to see houses that are currently on the market. During the inspection we learn about the underlying condition of the house and we think more about what the surfaces look like. Often our stager comes too and gives us her input on what changes would have the most positive impact.

We make up a tentative list of things to be done and we get bids. It is then possible to make up a budget and to sit down with the owner to discuss our recommendations. Usually, what we all agree should be done is fairly easy to decide, but not in this case.

The house was not as old as a lot of the houses we list for sale. It was custom built in the 1960s by a man who intended to spend the rest of his life there. He built it all on one level, included only 2 bedrooms with a full bath for each, and a half bath, too, convenient to his large shop area.

Oak floors were laid except in the baths, which are all ceramic tile, and the kitchen and family room areas were floored with top-grade linoleum. The kitchen was done well for a kitchen of its time with formica countertops, blond wood cabinetry, and a built in electric cooktop and double ovens. Dishwasher, of course, garbage disposal, copper vent hood.

The builder had 3 large aluminum-frame sliding glass doors installed, and elsewhere in the house, extra large aluminum-frame plate glass windows. The current owner had left every detail in place. Other than reroofing, very little had been done; nothing was changed, not even the floor-to-ceiling drapes or paint, inside or out.

Except for the water heater, the basics of the house checked out great. But pretty much everything else was looking worn and, depending on your point of view, either outdated or wonderfully intact. Before anything was decided, we invited agent friends to look at the house. Some said, “Geeze, get rid of those light fixtures and that decorative metal grill in the living room.” We also heard, “The golden bottle glass in the built-ins has got to go!” And “I’d change out the electric cooktop if I were you, nobody wants electric these days.”

But others said, “Wow, oh boy, all the original stuff – it’s perfect! Don’t change a thing.”

We didn’t know what to do. We wanted to tell our seller that money he would spend on the house would come back to him in price, but we were having trouble with that too. If we got involved in changing out sliding doors or any windows, it was going to be expensive.

Making changes in the kitchen wouldn’t be easy either. If we changed the cooktop, what about the ovens? And if we changed them, wouldn’t the rest of the kitchen look mismatched?

The bathrooms looked ok – one bathroom in 1960s blue, the other in 1960s pink – although some of the ceramic tiles and grout didn’t have a “today” look, but maybe that was the point: a 1960s collectible. Like a car from the same period, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

So why didn’t we clean the house and stop there? We asked ourselves that question many times over several weeks before the owner moved and whatever we were going to do would have to begin.

We got bids from painters, floor refinishers, tile people. We talked to landscapers and tree trimmers and also a window glass replacement man. We checked out sliding glass doors and ovens and cooktops. We met cleaning people and repairmen at the house. We called in a kitchen cabinet refinisher specialist.

We made list after list of things we’d love to see done, added up the costs and gasped, then talked till we were blue about whether it would matter if the fence was replaced or left alone; if the plate glass windows would be a draw; on a scale of 1 to 10, where did exterior painting fall?

Still, we collected numbers and made lists and no decisions were reached. We were going nuts with this one. We scheduled a meeting with our seller, and we sat down with him and told him everything we knew and everything we guessed. If he did nothing, we thought he’d sell for X. If he did all the cosmetics and some of the repairs, we guessed he could get XX. Whether it would make sense money-wise for him to do anything beyond this, we just didn’t know.

Our seller was great. He listened, he looked at the numbers, and he chose to do all of the cosmetics, most repairs, and then some. For example, he decided that it was right for the house that it be completely painted inside and out.

And so we scheduled the work, spent quite a lot of time at the house doing things ourselves, and thought the result looked really good. The house was completely refreshed, it certainly was a collector’s item, which many of our visitors noted and appreciated, and we played Beetles records all through our open houses.

There is no doubt that the seller sold for more than if nothing had been done. Did he double his money? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he, we and the new owners are satisfied.

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