Beyond White Walls and Empty Rooms

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dorothy LaChapelle considers herself fortunate: It took her just 4 1/2 months to sell her vacant home in Herndon. And during the time it sat on the market, the 1955 brick rambler attracted three offers, which LaChapelle considers a good number these days.

It's a challenge to sell any home in this real estate market. But selling a vacant home is an even bigger task, real estate agents say. Many house hunters can't picture their furniture in a house that is completely empty. The blank walls and empty rooms leave a negative impression with many.

Although it may be more of a challenge, it is possible to sell a vacant home, agents said. Some empty houses may need to be staged -- that is, furnished and decorated specifically with the goal of luring buyers. But others, depending on their location and, most important, their price, attract offers despite their bare rooms, agents said.

LaChapelle, for instance, gives much of the credit for her sale to her decision to have the home staged. She feared that an empty house would look too cold and barren.

The stager filled those empty rooms with furniture and art -- most stagers can supply furnishings from rentals or their own stash. The tactic worked, LaChapelle said.

"I can walk into an empty room and see the possibilities for those rooms," she said. "But I have a bunch of friends who can't. I think hiring the stager paid off. I think getting three offers in this market is pretty darn good."

Greg Lydell, owner of Select Realty in Prince William County, said the struggling economy and real estate market are working together to make some vacant homes hot sellers in his submarket, the part of the region hit hardest by foreclosures.

"Instead of allowing the foreclosures to go on the market, the banks are trying to sell these empty homes quickly," Lydell said. "They need cash . . . so they are pricing them aggressively. Some are even doing repairs -- painting the walls, putting in new carpets -- and still selling them at very aggressive prices."

The key for sellers and their agents is knowing how much charm -- in furniture or art -- that a vacant home needs to impress potential buyers.

There generally are two kinds of vacant homes. There are those in foreclosure, the kind that Lydell and his company have been selling. Then there are those that are normal resales, but for whatever reason their owners are no longer living in them.

It's the second category, with their higher price tags, that are more difficult to sell when empty, agents say.

"A vacant house leaves no impression on buyers. In the world of sales, no impression is the same as a negative impression," said Jane Fairweather, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda. "If you're only competing against vacant homes, you're still okay. But if a buyer sees three vacant homes and then a fourth one that is done up smashingly, the buyer is going to remember that fourth home."

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