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Realities of Real Estate: Play dress-up with house before selling

Now that we’ve dodged the bullet on what is hopefully the last threat of snow for the season, homeowners contemplating a move are turning their attention to spiffing the place up for sale. When it comes to the projects a seller might consider, they can be divided into two categories — major ones, where you’ll most likely need to hire a contractor, and minor ones, where Harry Homeowner can usually get the job done. So, let’s take a look at both types and help you get a handle on what’s worth doing and what’s not.

Major projects would include things like a kitchen remodel, adding a bathroom or replacing windows. In short, you aren’t likely to fully recover the cost for any of these improvements when the house is sold. Remodeling Magazine publishes an annual cost vs. value report, in which the magazine takes a look at what it costs to complete various projects and how that compares with the resale value associated with each of these projects. The survey is broken down by metro area, so as to account for the differences in construction costs across the country. For the Washington area, here are some of the numbers.

The average cost of a bathroom addition is $40,527. When the house is sold, the amount a homeowner could expect to recover is $21,459, or 53 percent of the cost. Conversely, replacing the front door will give you the highest return on your investment. A new front door will cost approximately $1,207, and you’ll get back 98 percent of that at the time of sale. Some other projects from the Remodeling Magazine report include a roof replacement ($20,338 cost; 66 percent return), bathroom remodel ($17,068 cost; 68 percent return), major kitchen remodel ($58,042 cost; 72 percent return), window replacement ($10,954 cost; 75 percent return), new vinyl siding ($12,007 cost; 84 percent return), minor kitchen remodel ($19,702 cost; 85 percent return) and a new deck ($10,696 cost; 91 percent return).

As you can see, none of these improvements will completely recover the cost. But it’s important to remember that all of these figures are averages. The numbers could vary substantially for individual homes, and, in some cases, these projects might actually be worthwhile within the context of making a property more saleable. For example, a roof might be leaking or so shot that it’s a “must do” before a house can go to market. Or those avocado green appliances aren’t quite what you could call retro; they’re just plain old. Depending on the type of house and competitive framework, it might be in a seller’s best interest to make certain investments before going on the market.

Now, let’s get to the minor projects, the kind of things most people can do themselves or with minimal help from a contractor. On the inside of your house, the big three are clean, paint and carpet. Fresh paint and carpet are fairly inexpensive and really go a long way toward revitalizing the look and feel of almost any house. And, when it comes to cleaning, we’re not talking about the kind of rudimentary “pick-up” you’d do for company; we’re talking about the type of detail work that would pass muster with a Marine drill sergeant. Get a toothbrush out and dislodge the gunk from every nook and cranny. And while you’re cleaning, remember to declutter the place along the way. You don’t need to remove every vestige of your personal life, but pack away pieces that don’t contribute much other than to make your home feel like there’s too much stuff for the space. We know this will be a lot of work, and keeping it that way while you’re on the market will be a pain, but you’ll be paid handsomely for your effort when it comes to the final sale price.

Next, don’t forget about the outside of your house. As has been said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If someone doesn’t like the look of your house from the outside, you’ll have a tough row to hoe in making up for that on the inside. When the outside looks clean, neat and well put together, buyers will come into your house with a positive attitude. If your house is a dump on the outside, buyers will be predisposed to look for problems on the inside. Fortunately, there are a number of fairly inexpensive things you can do to help the exterior of your house look its best. Here are a few recommendations.

As with the interior, get the paint out and do some touchup. Pay special attention to the front door. Just like a person’s eyes can be the window to his soul, the front door is the focal point of your home. If it’s in good shape, just paint it. And consider a color. Many homes look good with a red door; it makes them stand out and say, “Come look at me.” It’s like a red cocktail dress. And just as some nice jewelry can finish off the look of that dress, don’t forget the accessories that surround your freshly painted front door. For just a few bucks, you can get some new numbers for your house, a new mailbox or maybe new hardware for the door. Around the yard, make a few trips to the nursery to pick up some flowers, and if the grass is looking a bit shabby; there’s nothing like the instant perfection of fresh sod. To finish it off, don’t forget the mulch.

In sum, when you’re getting your house ready for sale, you don’t want to overdo it, but neither do you want to miss something that will give a buyer cause to knock you down on the price. Making the call on where to devote your time and money isn’t always easy. With the help of an experienced real estate agent and sometimes a stager, you’ll have the best shot at getting it right.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is