Fixing Up to Sell: How Much is Too Much?

A frequent question I hear from homeowners involves how much updating and upgrading to do before selling. As with most things in life, moderation is important. Spending a small fortune to upgrade the kitchen with new cabinets, countertops and appliances won’t help a whole lot if the rest of the house hasn’t been updated in 20 years.

I recommend starting in stages. It’s really hard to evaluate what needs replacing or upgrading when you can’t see through the clutter. So, before investing in granite countertops and tile floors, take the following steps:

First, take out as much stuff as possible — pack it away, give it away, throw it away. Whatever it takes to get it out of the house. Take out more than you think you need to. Go overboard on getting rid of furniture, knick-knacks, clothing, books, etc. Take just about everything off the walls. Remove everything personal. Become a minimalist. (You might find you like it!) The good news is that you have to pack all this stuff up anyway in order to move.

Once you’ve done that, clean every nook and cranny. Don’t do a surface clean — really get into corners, behind the water heater, top of the refrigerator, inside the refrigerator and oven — everwhere. Tighten loose cabinet doors, oil squeaky hinges, relace broken window panes. Do all those minor repairs that you know you should have done ages ago, but somehow never got done.

See? Now the largest and hardest part of your job is done. Plus, the hardest job is also the cheapest and now you’re done with it.

Now you can evaluate what needs to be done and figure out what makes sense money-wise. What will give you the biggest bang for your buck? Usually painting will give you great value. Neutral colors are best, but that doesn’t mean just plain white or off-white. Darker neutrals can do a great job of showing off a room. Just don’t go overboard. Have the job done professionally and well. A cheap paint job will cheapen your house.

If you have hardwood floors, show them off. Remove carpets and rugs. You may not need to have them refinished — a good cleaning and buffing can work wonders. No hardwoods? You’ll have to decide if your carpets are past hope. It’s not cheap to replace them, but it could be more expensive to leave them in place.

If your kitchen is dated, but clean and functional, it’s probably just as well to leave it as it is. Really awful appliances (broken or so dirty they can’t be cleaned) should be replaced. Don’t go with the cheapest thing out there, but there is also no need to get top-of-the-line replacements. Same goes for cabinets and counter-tops. A 20 year old laminated counter-top may be just fine if it’s been well cared-for. If it has huge burn spots where hot pots were set, then replace it.

In general, a house that has older decor but also shows that it has been well-maintained over its lifespan will hold its value over a beat-up house with a cheap face-lift. If there is just too much to be updated, you might be better off pricing it to reflect the condition and moving on.  You may just end up pointing out how much work is needed in the rest of the house and not increase the value of your home one whit.

© 2007 Susan Pruden.

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