Early this week, Chris French and his wife, Anya Landau French, turned up the volume on their vacant condominium apartment in Adams Morgan with designer-inspired contemporary furnishings — leather living room furniture, glass and metal side tables, a black dining room table and a fake TV.
The aim of the makeover was to draw a buyer who would snap up the property — a person their professional stager imagined would be in his or her late 20s or early 30s, seeking the stability of homeownership.
“It’s a bit of a mad rush,” said Chris French, an architect, about his efforts to get a head start on the spring market.
There are plenty of good reasons spring is the traditional start of the real estate season: Sellers’ yards look more photogenic. Buyers are more apt to take a fall-in-love-with-the-neighborhood walk in warmer weather. And a summer move is preferable for families with school-age children.
It may be weeks or months until most spring listings go up, but local real estate experts say now is the right time to get ready. The to-do list is long, from researching agents to painting and planting.
“There are so many things, sometimes you kind of freeze,” says Jennifer Nangle, a Bethesda-based agent with Re/Max Realty Services, the Nangle Group. “It can seem daunting, but so much of it is tidying.”
To help you manage all the tasks, we’ve consulted with local real estate brokers, mortgage lenders, contractors and other experts about the most-essential preparations.
Choose agents, contractors and other professionals carefully.
Many agents have preferred professionals they deal with, including mortgage companies, home inspectors, photographers, stagers, professional cleaners and contractors.
“We can save people a lot of headaches,” says Rachel Valentino, a Bethesda/Chevy-Chase-based agent with Keller Williams.
Some real estate teams offer packages of services, which might include professional photographers and designers or discounts on movers and home warranties.
Although buyers generally get home inspections, some sellers also arrange for a pre-listing inspection. (Nangle and some other agents recommend it.)
“They don’t want any surprises,” says Joseph C. Walker, a home inspector and president of Claxton Walker & Associates, based in Annapolis.
In addition to giving sellers important information — how many years left before a roof needs to be replaced, for example — an inspection provides a thorough to-do list.
“That way there aren’t a lot of things that could clog up the sale,” Walker says. “The seller isn’t trying to make repairs at a panic pace.”
Here are some other tips for sellers:
Gather paperwork and do the math. Now is the time to crunch numbers. What are the comparable sales? What do you owe on the mortgage? How would making various repairs improve your bottom line?
If you don’t decide to make a particular upgrade — replacing a worn floor, for example — Nangle recommends getting estimates for the work.
“I think it’s a good idea to get photos or illustrations of how it would look, and show the numbers,” she says. “It gives [potential buyers] an idea of what can be done.”
De-clutter. While you’re looking through file cabinets and drawers for tax returns and receipts, you might as well clean them out. “Seventy-five percent is a matter of freshening up and de-cluttering,” says
Brian Block, managing broker of Re/Max Allegiance in McLean.
You probably know the golden rule about clearing off counters, dressers and tables, but don’t forget inside the refrigerator and inside closets because potential buyers will look in them.
“No one likes to do it,” Valentino says. “We all procrastinate.”
Once you’ve cleaned out, you may need a storage unit to hold items until moving day, she adds.
You have to be ruthless, says Caroline Carter, owner of Done in a Day, a professional staging company based in Bethesda. Perhaps you have lovely china displayed or a world-class book collection. But Carter says, chances are, “they’re a distraction for buyers.”
It’s important for buyers to be able to see themselves, not the current owner, in the home, Carter says.
Make repairs. The Frenches renovated their one-bedroom, den condo in Adams Morgan when they bought it in 2007. They had reselling in mind, adding a window to give the den a source of natural light, reconfiguring the kitchen and foyer and adding more storage.
“We wanted to make it as functional as possible, keeping it flexible for the next owner, too,” Anya Landau French says.
But renovations don’t have to be that extensive. Carter says sellers can make easy, quick updates.
Some changes that can have a big impact include: installing new carpet, replacing hardware and pulls on kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities, reglazing bathtubs and replacing medicine cabinets.
Valentino often recommends upgrades in lighting. “People tend not to have enough lighting,” she says.
Clients may balk at spending several hundred dollars on recessed lighting, she says, “but you get the money back.”
New kitchen appliances are also often a good investment, Carter says.
“Buyers want clean, organized and move-in ready,” she says. “A buyer will often overestimate how much it is to do these repairs.”
Some experts say neutral paint and decor are best. But others argue that a little personality goes a long way. “Another agent might tell you to repaint your red dining room walls, but I say if it looks good, keep it. At the end of the day, among the three-bedroom townhouses, at least you’ll be remembered as the one with the red walls,” says Ray Gernhart, associate broker with Re/Max in Alexandria.
Prepare for rain. Spring is notoriously wet, so it makes sense to pay special attention to rain gutters and downspouts and sump pumps (and battery backups), says Cliff Kornegay, home inspector and owner of Capitol Hill Home Inspection.
Even if your roof isn’t leaking, you might want to have it inspected for damage from storms, he says.
Spring is also a good time to check the air-conditioning system — before you have to turn it on to keep potential buyers comfortable.
Kornegay recommends having the evaporator coil cleaned and drains checked, in addition to changing filters.
Landscape. It’s often an afterthought, but landscaping is essential, according to real estate experts.
“A lot of people make up their mind before they get to the front door,” Thompson says.
If you do nothing else, edge the lawn and mulch flower beds, says Donna-Marie Després, a landscape architect at Sun Nurseries in Howard County. “Everything will look tidy,” she says.
For a pop of color, pansies, impatiens and nandina shrubs are particularly hardy, Després says. “If there is a frost forecast after you’ve planted, just cover with a sheet at night,” she says.
“Landscaping has one of the biggest returns on the investment,” Valentino says.
The Frenches rented out their apartment for several years, but timed their tenants’ lease to be able to put it on the market early in the season. They hired a professional staging firm, New Vision Strategy and Design in the District, to transform the look of their apartment. “When I walk into the space, I see someone young working hard,” staging specialist Leah Fahey says of her design choice, which was executed with furnishings and decorations chosen from a company storage facility. “It’s like their first house and they want to showcase it.”
Chris French says he wanted to get the apartment on the market “ahead of any rush in inventory.”
Some local sellers were surprised last year when the spring season started heating up earlier than normal. “It depends on the weather,” Valentino says. “Traditionally, ‘spring’ starts in mid-March. But last year, it was unseasonably warm, and we started seeing buyers in mid-February. It catches sellers off guard, because it always takes them longer to get ready than they expected.”
Laura Barnhardt Cech is a freelance writer.
●Research and interview real estate agents.
●Hire a stager, inspector, photographer and other professionals as needed.
●Pressure-wash sidewalks and decks.
●Clear gutters and downspouts.
●Remove weeds, mulch; plant flowers.
●Clear cobwebs, leaves from porches, patios.
●Re-grout bathtubs and faucets.
●Have air conditioning and furnace checked.
●Paint trim, baseboards and nicks if needed.
●Clear counters, tables, bookshelves.
●Organize closets and storage areas.
●Ask a friend to give an honest assessment of smells, paying particular attention to places such as basements.