How to Sell an Ugly House

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Getty ImagesIf your house is something of an eyesore, you can still sell it.
By Geoff Williams

Sometimes you can't sell the house you want to sell. You have to sell the house you have.

Perhaps you're broke or rushed, and you don't have the time or money to make home improvements, like finishing the basement or painting the house. Maybe even hiring a cleaning crew to scrub down your home seems like a financial reach. You simply need to sell your not-so-awesome house.

What do you do?

Money talks. If your house is something of an eyesore, you can still sell it. But you'll almost certainly have to sell it for less than you could have otherwise.

"Price solves all problems," says Bruce Ailion, a real estate agent and attorney in Atlanta. In addition to selling homes, Ailion manages a hedge fund that buys and rehabs properties to rent or flip. So he has purchased a few dumps in his day.

"I've sold all sorts of difficult homes, cracked foundations, a side ripped off by strong winds, mold," Alison says. He adds that he was able to sell another home, which had a resident who was something of a dog hoarder. "The pet stains had pet stains, and the smell opening the door was overpowering," he says.

So as bad as your home may seem, it's probably not unsellable. But you will have to lower the price.

By how much? Bill Golden, a real estate agent in Atlanta for almost 30 years, has a simple formula. If you have repairs, and you can calculate what it would cost to repair your roof or paint the walls, "simply subtract the cost of the repairs from what the value of the home would be if the repairs were not needed," he says.

Even there, it isn't quite that simple. Golden adds that buyers will still want enough of a discount to cover what he calls "the hassle factor." Those buyers, after all, are going to have to spend time finding the right painter or flooring company or roofer or whatever contractor they need, and the buyer doesn't know if there will be additional, unexpected costs related to the repairs.

"The fine line to walk in pricing is to list it low enough that those repairs are taken into account, but with enough wiggle room to offer a further discount so the buyer will feel that it's worth taking on the project," Golden says.

Don't assume the worst. You may feel like you would never buy your home in its current state, and therefore, nobody else would either. But your real estate agent may not see this as a big deal. For instance, Kella McCaskill, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Tampa Central, in Tampa, Florida, lists some minor issues that may feel major to you:
  1. Your house is outdated.
  2. Your flooring isn't very good.
  3. You have no air-conditioning.
  4. The exterior of the house looks shabby.
  5. There's junk everywhere.
  6. You have minor mold and mildew issues.
Of course, you may wonder what a major issue would be, and McCaskell cites a few items like structural damage, water damage and drywall problems. So if the house isn't falling apart, you're probably going to get a decent price relative to the area -- just not top dollar.

Focus on the best. So your house looks shabby in some areas. Work on making the best parts of your home even better.

McCaskell says she once sold a home with interior fire damage.

"The only thing that remained intact was the exterior ... the entire inside was destroyed," she says.

So what did she do?

"We made sure the grass was cut. The outside was at its best. I wanted anyone interested in buying this home to see the possibilities. I would encourage a seller to do the same. Make the home great in the areas you can make an impact," she says.

Be transparent. If you're giving your buyer a tour, don't deny the obvious.

"Never attempt to pretend the horrible smell is not there. Yes, everyone can smell it. They can also see the trash piled to the sky in the backyard," says Chantay Bridges, a real estate agent in Los Angeles.

Trying to downplay it makes you look shifty, and now you have two problems. Who wants to buy a house that smells or is trashy from a dishonest homebuyer?

But you can turn a negative into a positive, Bridges says. "Be creative," she suggests. "Say something like, 'It's great that there's a little bit of a mess. It gives you negotiation room, and you can get a great deal because of it.'"

Clean. OK, maybe you can't hire a professional cleaner, but you can push up your sleeves and try to clean it yourself.

Here's a checklist of things to buy and tackle, according to Bridges:

Buy some bleach. "Get rid of smells and odors," she advises; you can add bleach to cups and set them in each room to neutralize smells.

Bridges also recommends going all out with your cleaning. "Shampoo the carpets," she says. "Wash the walls. Ajax. Windex. Do everything you can to present the home in the best condition possible."

Buy some garbage bags. "Get rid of clutter, trash, excess of any kind," Bridges says. "Buyers want to imagine themselves living in the home, which is tough to do with mountains of garbage everywhere."

Go outside. Everything you can do to make the yard look better, do. "Trim trees and landscaping yourself," Bridges says. "Spruce up the yard, mow the grass, pick up dead leaves, sweep, wash down [the house]. Straighten out the exterior. Clean up the garage."

Check the cabinets and organize the drawers. "Wipe down cabinets, spruce up closets, fold up towels," Bridges says. And why bother? "Buyers open cabinets and look through drawers," she says.

Remove a lot of furniture. It may improve how everything looks, according to Brad Chandler, CEO of Express Homebuyers, a real estate investment company in Springfield, Virginia.

"I'd advise the homeowner to get rid of all the clutter, knickknacks and excess," he says. "Leave only the essential pieces of furniture in each room. Then clean and scrub everything from top to bottom. Even if the place isn't in great condition, if it's at least spotlessly clean, it will be more attractive to a buyer."

Mike Minihan agrees. Minihan, managing broker of Terrace 24 Realty in Atlanta, says, "Dumpy houses are usually filled with dumpy furniture and decorations, so it's best to move everything out. This runs counter to advice an agent would give to most sellers, because a staged house usually shows much better than an empty house."

Minihan says staged homes usually work better because buyers don't have much imagination, and an empty room forces buyers to work hard to imagine their furniture and belongings in the room.

"But with the dumpy house, you are in search of a buyer with imagination, and that couch from 1981 with cigarette burns all over it is probably going impede this visionary buyer's creative process more than it will help it," he says.

And try to be confident. Almost any house, as long as it's safe to live in, is likely to be sold.

"The worst home I was able to sell had dogs living in the bedrooms, with mushrooms coming through the floors and odors that you could smell a mile away," Bridges says. She was still able to sell it, to investors who planned to renovate it -- and they paid for the house in cash.
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