Small Home Improvements With Big Returns for Sellers

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Woman in her thirties painting her front door red.
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By Donna Fuscaldo

Even in a housing market where inventory is low, buyers still want a move-in ready house and are willing to pay more for one that's turn-key. Sellers can increase their listing price and decrease the time their home sits on the market just by doing a few home improvement projects, experts say. But not all projects carry the same return.

"A big mistake a lot of home sellers make is they upgrade the kitchen thinking they will make so much more money on the house. But the rest of the house still needs upgrading or repairs," says Michael Corbett, Trulia's real estate expert. Home sellers have to look at repairs as a whole rather than a sum of parts, he says.

For a kitchen renovation, Corbett says the return on the investment is typically 78 percent, which may not make financial sense for all homeowners. However, if other improvements and upgrades are made, the seller is more likely to recoup the money spent, and then some.

The home improvement priority list depends on the seller's time frame. For those looking to list in the next couple of months, they can take on bigger projects than those looking to sell in a few weeks. However, every seller can increase the interest and price tag of their home by investing in increasing the curb appeal.

"Buying a house or selling is kind of like dating," says Corbett. "A pretty face gets them in the door." Since a buyer can make a decision about a home without stepping out of the car, real estate experts say the landscaping has to be pristine, the front door painted and the windows cleaned. But it shouldn't stop there.

Brad Officer, a Re/MAX real estate agent in Jacksonville, Fla., says sellers shouldn't overlook the garage. "Have the floors painted with garage floor epoxy. It's amazing how many people comment on a clean crisp garage with a painted floor."

He adds that removing the window screen and cleaning the frames can also boost curb appeal. "Most window screens darken a home and trap dirt. Removing them and cleaning all windows before the home has been photographed will give it a much brighter appearance, inside and out."
Inside the home, there are numerous improvement projects of varying price tags that can speed up the selling process.

Painting is a low-cost way to make a home look more fresh and clean and show an owner's commitment to maintenance. However, choose the paint carefully. Red walls or wildly-patterned wall paper can limit the appeal of a home as buyers are more drawn to neutral wall colors.

"Paint freshens everything up and provides a clean and crisp feel," says Officer. "If you aren't an interior designer by trade, this is not the time to play designer. Find a reputable designer and pay them a consulting fee to pick your colors."

Other low cost improvements include decluttering the home, getting rid of old fixtures, particularly if they are brass, and ridding the home of personal artifacts and pictures. "You want to create the feeling of stepping into a hotel," says Corbett. "It should be nice and appealing for everyone."

For homeowners who have the time and the budget, remodeling the kitchen and baths will go a long way in boosting the list price. But sellers have to know their market before they start making the upgrades. Sellers living in an area where granite countertops are the norm, they better follow suit. If laminate countertops are more commonplace, then it doesn't make sense to pay for the more expensive materials.

Another more costly upgrade that is sure to get more bang for the buck is upgrading kitchen appliances. "Appliances that bling, bring the cash," says Officer. "Every homebuyer at every price range wants new or updated appliances. ... No one wants old and outdated appliances."

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Small Home Improvements With Big Returns for Sellers

If your yard looks like the set of a Tim Burton film -- before Edward Scissorhands has done his handiwork -- you need to tidy up or face rejection by buyers who will drive by and never come back.

Besides mowing the lawn, your to-do list should include trimming scraggly trees and shrubs, and removing anything that's dead or beyond resuscitation. Edge, weed and mulch garden beds. Plant annuals in a plot or pot for color (see "Cheap Ways to Improve Curb Appeal").

Cost to fix: To hire a landscaper to prune and groom a small tree and a couple of shrubs will cost about $80, according to www.diyornot.com. If you’d rather be packing boxes than mowing the lawn, you'll probably pay a lawn service $30 to $40 for up to a half acre, but you might get a neighbor kid to do it for less.

Paint over colors that reflect your taste but may put off potential buyers, such as a scarlet-red accent wall, a lemon-yellow child’s bedroom or a forest-green den. "Fun colors are for living, but neutral colors are for selling," explains home stager Chrissie Sutherland, of Ready Set Stage, in Greensboro, N.C.

Avoid using stark-white paint, though. Choose a warm neutral color -- beige, ivory, taupe or light gray -- that makes your rooms look inviting, larger and brighter. Redo painted trim in white.

Cost to fix: The national average for a pro to prep and paint a 15-by-20-foot room with one coat of latex paint is $764 nationally, according to www.diyornot.com.

If you've lived with a popcorn ceiling, you know that it accumulates dirt, defies cleaning and is hard to paint. Worse, if your home was built prior to the mid-1980s, it may contain asbestos. (It was banned in ceiling products in 1977, but existing supplies may have been used later.)

First, have the ceiling sampled and tested for asbestos by a licensed inspector. For more information, check out the EPA's "Asbestos in Your Home." If the test result is positive, hire a certified asbestos abatement contractor (not the same company that tested the ceiling) to seal it with spray paint if it's in good shape (not peeling or crumbling) and unlikely to be disturbed, or to remove the ceiling treatment and properly dispose of it -- an expensive proposition.

Removal is a messy and laborious process, with or without asbestos. The material must be wetted down and scraped and the underlying wallboard wiped clean. Once the popcorn is gone, the ceiling must usually be repaired with joint compound and repainted. Even if there’s no asbestos, you probably should hire a drywall or painting contractor for the job. (For a glimpse of the process, visit www.ronhazleton.com).

Cost to fix: About $100 to $150 per sample to test for asbestos (multiple samples may be required), and if it’s present, about $2 to $6 per square foot to seal it or $54 to $64 per square foot for removal, according to www.fixr.com. If you can get by with a painter, expect to pay about $2.50 per square foot for removal, repair and repainting, according to www.diyornot.com.

Photo by Mary Lou Skowronski, Flickr.com

Buyers these days expect hardwood floors, even in starter homes. If carpet hides your home's floors, remove it to expose them, even if the wood isn't in the best condition. If you don’t have hardwood, you may want to consider having it installed in a first-floor living area. If you must keep the carpeting, make sure it looks and smells its best by having it professionally cleaned, especially in high-traffic areas or if you have pets.

To find a cleaner certified by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification, visit www.certifiedcleaners.org. If the carpet is beyond hope, you may have to replace it. Talk with your agent about the best strategy: whether to replace it now or give buyers the option to choose what they want.

Cost to fix: A pro can clean 500 square feet for about $126, according to www.diyornot.com. The cost to install hardwood flooring runs about $2,000, including labor, for a 12-by-15-foot room, plus another $600 to sand and finish it, according to www.diyornot.com. Pre-finished laminate flooring will cost a bit less.

From switch plates to chandeliers, builder-grade, shiny yellow brass is out. Replace it with chrome- or satin-nickel-finish fixtures for a contemporary look, or an oil-rubbed bronze or black finish to update a traditional room. This is a pretty straightforward do-it-yourself job.

For instructions, watch these YouTube videos: How to Replace and Install a Chandelier from Build.com and Buildipedia DIY's How to Replace a Light Fixture.

Cost to fix: You could buy two chandeliers (to put, say, over the kitchen and dining-room tables) and a few flush-mounted lights for about $225 at a big-box store such as Lowe's or Home Depot.

Acrylic knobs in the bathroom look cheap and can be hard to grip by young, aged or soapy hands. Replace them with a faucet-and-handle set that matches the existing fixture's configuration (centerset or widespread) and meets the standard of the Americans with Disabilities Act with flipper- or lever-style handles. A polished-chrome finish will cost you the least and still be durable. Plus, the National Kitchen & Bath Association says that the finish is enjoying a surge in popularity over brushed or satin finishes.

Cost to fix: You’ll pay at least $30 for a centerset faucet, plus $75 to $150 for a plumber (or more if there's corrosion or some other difficulty), according to www.costhelper.com. You can replace a tub-and-shower faucet set for about the same amount. If you're up for DIY, see How to Install a Sink Faucet on YouTube.

Photo by paintchipdiaries, Flickr.com

Nothing says 1970s like a Hollywood-style strip of bare, round lights over your bathroom mirror. Replace it with a fixture that includes a shade for each bulb in a style and finish that complements your faucet set.

If you have a one-person mirror, you could replace the vanity strip with a wall sconce on either side of the mirror to achieve better lighting for shaving or applying make-up.

Cost to fix: A 48-inch-wide, six-light fixture with shades starts at $80 to $100 at www.lightingdirect.com. You should be able to handle this job yourself.

Photo by JU5T1N, Flickr.com

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