Spending a Little on Home Renovations Can Make You a Lot

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It’s the home seller’s equivalent of the chicken and the egg.

If I put a lot of money into fixing up my house, will I make it back? Or should I just sell it the way it is?

Those are the questions real estate professionals deal with every day determining when’s the right time to put a property on the market and where to set the asking price. And while there are no easy answers — since everything depends on circumstances — there’s one thing they universally agree on.

Even if you’re not going to fix the heater or the plumbing or put in a new kitchen, at least make your house look fresh and clean. In an age when many buyers do much of their investigating in their living rooms at their computer screens, if they don’t like what they see initially, they’re pretty unlikely to pursue it further.

“If they don’t have the money for major repairs, it doesn’t cost anything to clean,” said Jordan Wiener, who’s been in real estate since 2000. “A house has to sparkle, smell good, have nice floors and windows. Painting the bathroom is the second-cheapest thing you can do. You can get a lot of bang for the buck.”

That may sound great to some sellers, but those who are more set in their ways are often reluctant.

“Some sellers will listen and others are tired, older,” said Rhonda Rosenthal, who’s been selling homes in Montgomery County for more than 30 years. “They’d rather take a lower price and not have to do anything. Years and years ago, when we started to tell people to remove stuff from their homes, they resisted. Now everyone knows … the cleaner, brighter, cheerier house with less stuff seems to sell better.”

“Perception is everything,” said Larry Levin of Coldwell Banker Preferred in Center City. “Cleaning and de-cluttering is critical. Maybe a fresh coat of paint, deodorizing, because if it smells like 10 cats lived there, you’ll have a hard time selling at any price.

“I always do an analysis with people to have them understand what it can sell for as-is and what it can sell for if you do certain things. In some cases, with some markets, there’s no justification for doing anything more. Sometimes the market won’t support additional improvement.”

More times than not, though, real estate agents find that putting in a little now can pay off later. In fact, if the staging is really good, sellers can make their homes look like they’re right out of a catalog.

“Staging a home has become more commonplace in recent years,” said Wiener. “Bringing artwork, furniture, bedding into a home to make it look like a glamorous sample home. If a house is empty, I don’t like to show it because buyers can’t envision what it looks like. So I use professional photography. I try to set the stage for what they’ll see on the internet.”

According to Rosenthal, the less a prospective buyer has to do, the more likely the house is to be sold.

“Buyers usually come to me and say, ‘We don’t want to do a lot of work. Find us a home where we won’t have to.’ So the ones who prep their house, stage it for sale and do put some money in sell it faster.”

Some money — but don’t empty the vault.

“I’m all about the net for my clients,” said sportscaster-turned-broker Warren Flax, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Gulf War. “So I tell them to never do major renovations — like a kitchen, bath or anything involved with ripping out walls. You’re just going to lose money if you do that. You make money on the little things [like] basic landscaping, anything that helps the curb appeal, like tree trimming, gutters, even your mailbox.

“Stuff like lighting is huge. You’d be amazed how many houses have wattage below what it should be. When you walk into a home with a buyer, you want it to be bright.

“But if you put 10 to 15 grand into a new bathroom, you’re not going to increase price of home 10 to 15 grand. The average you’ll recoup is

83 to 87 percent of your investment, so why give away 13 percent of your money?”

Of course, you can’t predict exactly what improvement your buyers are looking for — they’ll all approach things a little differently.

“Young buyers want to see newer things,” said Rosenthal. “The buzzword is granite in the kitchen and bath, and hardwood floors.”

Older buyers may be more accustomed to wall-to-wall carpet. The key for both buyer and seller is flexibility.

“To be a successful Realtor, you need to be a chameleon,” said Wiener. “You’re dealing with many different types of people and backgrounds. I try to give the same level of service whether you’re dealing with a $100,000 or $10 million property. … What I love about my job is I get to be part of people’s dreams.”

Flax thinks being Jewish gives him a professional advantage. “No. 1, we’re hardworking. Two, we question everything. That’s a big help in real estate.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747

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