Ten Must-Do's When Preparing to Sell Your House

House for Sale

(Photo via Thinkstock.)

The buzz in the unseasonably warm air right now is that this spring housing market is going to be a dynamic one in some of the more desirable towns around Boston. It could end up being the best year for sellers since 2005. The confluence of great weather, historically low rates, a relatively stable local economy, and pent-up demand is indicating that it’s a pretty good time to sell. Buyers for houses under one million dollars are finding themselves regularly shut out during bidding wars.

So if you are finally putting your house on the market, here are some tips to get ready:

1. Hire a trusted, experienced Realtor. (Full disclosure: I am one.). Or even better, hire successful partnership (as distinct from a successful agent, who delegates all the real work to assistants), for the same commission percentage that you would pay one agent. Either way, a great agent or agent partnership is worth the commission, which, after all, is built into the market pricing and can be viewed as paid for half by buyers and half by sellers. Good agents know how to market and price a house, have been in most of the comparables, know the other agents in towns, and should be able to offer valuable insider information.

You should plan to interview three or four candidates. Don’t make decisions based purely what listing price suggestions they give you (since the agents are only interpreting data and are offering opinions of value). Avoid one of the biggest and most common mistakes sellers make, and do not let an agent “buy” the listing, only to drop by the price later. And don’t let them happy talk you to death. Hire a straight shooter. Ask to see references and the past 12 months of their sales data. Pay close attention to the ratio between the original list prices and sale prices of their listings, as well as the average days on the market for their listing history. Don’t be quick to blame the agent for one or two overpriced houses, as the prices are ultimately set by the sellers. But if most of the houses were overpriced and/or stayed on the market longer than the average of houses in the same range, a red flag should go up. The market data will tell them and you where the house should be priced. Whoever you hire should be guiding you through the preparation process, including most of the below suggestions.

2. Insist that an agent hires a professional photographer. Look at their marketing materials for other houses. Are the photos good enough to be in a newspaper or magazine? They should be pretty close to it. Don’t let them go for quantity over quality. Do you really need 18 shots of your bathrooms? Lighting and staging is key. You may need to hide or store some of your furniture and rent some new staging stuff. More likely, you can make do with what you have and a few sets of people who should know how to edit the decor. Less is more.

3. Does the agent know how to write decent marketing copy? Do they spend money on floor plans and other valuable tools that go above and beyond Agency 101? Are their materials clean and professional, or are they cheesy and fluffy? For example, are their head shots more prominent than photos of your house?

4. Listen to your agent when they give suggestions on how to ready your house for the market. Try as hard as you can to look at your house with objective eyes. Go see other houses on the market in the price range. No doubt you will feel your house is far superior than all of them. But you will be wrong. Try to look at them as a buyer with X amount of dollars to spend. Don’t justify a premium on your house; instead try to figure out why as a buyer you might look for reasons not to buy your house versus the others. Make improvements and updates and/or adjust the price accordingly. Your agent should certainly be tactful, but they should also be honest. You are hiring the agent as an impartial set of eyes and a trusted adviser.

5. Once your house in on the market, though, your agent should be no longer impartial. Your agent is there to get you the highest possible price, with the best conditions, in the shortest amount of time possible. Your house is now a new product being launched. Your agent is the marketing team and the head of sales. The rest of the agents are the sales force. Their job is to educate and motivate the sales force. My business partner and I do this by feeding them at a catered brokers preview, extolling the myriad of positives about the house and the insanely great price versus the competing inventory. Successful agents, even well-fed agents, are not stupid, though. They will all be talking about the price with each other as they walk out. They don’t want to be selling the Commodore 64 of houses when they can more easily sell the iPad 3 of houses down the block for the same price. If there is a buzz and if the house is priced well, they will be in their cars and on the cell phones calling their clients and telling them to come out to see the house as soon as possible.

6. Motivating agents is primarily a function of price. But you must put your best foot forward. You may need to do as little as dusting your fabulous high-end furniture. But you will probably at least need to de-personalize, de-clutter, clean, pack stuff away in storage, and do some touch-up painting. More likely, you should spend a few hundred or thousand bucks to do some more major painting. It is the best bang for the buck, hands down. Paint hides age. Paint refreshes. Paint modernizes. Paint cleans. Paint can remove red flags that don’t actually indicate anything serious, like a long-repaired water leak.

7. For the love of Pete: Wash the windows!

8. Do as much as possible to boost your curb appeal. At the very least, weed, manicure, rip out overgrown shrubs, and lay down some dark mulch for a finished, landscaped look. Make sure there is no peeling paint or crumbled masonry around the entrance.

9. You should probably not do a pre-marketing home inspection. As with all of these pointers, I am just expressing my personal opinion. But if you are not prepared to fix everything a home inspector finds, you better be prepared to disclose the newly discovered flaws.

10. Tour your house with your agent, who should have already been on hundreds of inspections and should know enough to warn you about what may or may not be a potential problems in an actual buyer’s home inspection. If you have been lax about maintenance, you should price the house accordingly or prepare yourself to possibly have to re-negotiate when the buyer’s inspector uncovers problems. And your agent should be able to help you judge how reasonable such requests are. Basically, if another buyer is likely to ask for the same thing, you should be prepared to take care of it by repair or a cash adjustment.