When Norman Alpher's 89-year-old mother died in March, the Silver Spring dentist and his siblings had steeled themselves for the grieving process.
But they weren't prepared for the bricks-and-mortar problem they inherited: selling her house.
Built 25 years ago in Silver Spring's Leisure World retirement community, the fourplex looked tired. On the fix-it list: worn carpets, old paint and doors, outdated plumbing. "My mother had been confined to a wheelchair for six years, so the place was run-down," Alpher said.
His options: Clean and pep up the place himself, eating into his own schedule? Take time out to find, hire and oversee contractors? Leave the house as-is and hope a hot market covers even lukewarm properties?
It wasn't an easy call. But Alpher was far from alone in pondering what to do.
The same choices confront a lot of baby boomers today. Even as they themselves are aging, their parents and older relatives are going into nursing homes or dying, leaving behind well-worn homes and lifetimes of possessions. According to recent AARP surveys, 83 percent of homeowners want to "age in place." And "because inflation eats into their incomes, they're less and less able to maintain a house and do upkeep," said Leon Harper, senior housing specialist at AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
Given the number of houses involved, it's not surprising that there are people willing to help, for a fee. These include companies that will manage and oversee cleanup and contractors, and others that will send housesitters with upscale furniture to make older homes look young again.
But do you need to do anything in today's market?
Not much, said Mary Jo Nash of Long & Foster Realtors in Northwest Washington. Nash always recommends an overall cleanup. But with today's brisk sales, "if everything's nice and clean, I'll leave the house as is," she said.
"If there are odds and ends left that don't look so good," Nash suggested a broader sweep. "If the furniture's really very dated and not useful, it's much wiser to get rid of it."
Nash, like many agents, will recommend contractors. And she and others will also oversee the work if a family isn't up to it or lives out of town.
For example, Nancy Taylor of Taylor Real Estate in Chevy Chase assisted Lois Oakes of Woodbine this fall in selling her father's 40-year-old home. Francis W. Brown died in 1997, but the Barnaby Woods property was tied up in probate for a while so Oakes's son moved in. When Oakes started cleaning out the house in September, "it was hard" because of the memories attached to each knickknack and book. And there were about 400 books.
Oakes said the house needed only minor, but often time-consuming, fixes, such as new paint and cleaned floors. She rejected some agents because "the impression I got was that they didn't want to do any work on the house or that some wanted to do a whole lot more than we wanted."
She hired Taylor Real Estate because its employees "knew the area, they were very helpful and they pointed out what needed to be done and gave me the estimates. They got the repair work done very quickly, and I got the bills."
Oakes said the repairs cost less than $5,000; the house, which listed for $299,000, sold within 10 days for $315,000.
"The biggest issue [with estate sales] often is that the house is out of date," Taylor said. "If the floors are stained or the wallpaper is tired, buyers today will get overwhelmed. . . . The message the property sends is that there's more work here than we want to get involved in."
Taylor will find contractors to paint, redo floors and "do what we call 'a yard zap,' " to give an older house a foot back into the 1990s. "If people spend $5,000 to $10,000 to get it in shape, they'll get $25,000 more for the property," she said.
Alpher, the Silver Spring dentist, found another alternative. He hired Moving Game, a one-woman operation, to supervise the dirty work. "I didn't have to do anything," he said.
Moving Game owner Dolores Liss, 68, has overseen about 10 estate houses this year and at least 20 other properties. She charges about $3,000 to $5,000 for work done by a "family" of contractors developed over 14 years.
"You can either spend a couple of thousand dollars to make the house ready or you can lose money in selling as it is because the prospective buyer will try to negotiate," Liss said.
Liss does not advertise; she gets her business by referral.
Though Liss describes herself as "a little bit bossy," she justifies her recommendations this way: "Lots of times I'll give sellers advice and they'll say 'I don't like that color or I don't like that kitchen floor.' But I'll say, 'You're not going to be living here, and I know what buyers want.' "
In Alpher's case, the repairs cost about $4,500 and the house went to settlement this week for $131,900, "much more than I thought we could get," Alpher said. "Had I sold the house the way it was, I couldn't have gotten within $25,000 of that price."
"For an older property, if you leave it junky, people aren't going to even look at it," Alpher said.
The key, he added, is finding the right overseer. "I would check very carefully. . . . I went on my lawyer's recommendation. You have to be very careful. . . ."
Some sellers find that they not only have to fix up an inherited house, they have to go further and make it look truly lived-in. Even in today's supercharged market, estate houses sometimes sit empty longer than other properties, which can turn off buyers. Several companies have popped up recently to fill that niche with housesitters who bring their own nice-looking furniture.
Representatives of Showcase Housesitters in Bethesda and On the Market Home Services in Alexandria said about a third of their business comes from estate houses. Heirs and other owners, they said, want the security of having a sitter plus the modernizing touch that furnishings provide.
Both seller and sitter win, said Showcase owner Valerie Houben. The seller pays nothing and doesn't have to worry about losing insurance or paying a higher rate for a vacant property. Sitters carry their own property and liability insurance, pay utilities and do yard maintenance, but they only pay Showcase about a third of the going rental rate.
Smoking and pets are prohibited, but children and spouses are welcome. Sitters have to keep the house available for showing at any time.
On the Market has similar rules, owner Christine Jordan said. Both businesses have been around for about four years.
The toughest part of the job for sitters now may be the quick property turnover. Houben said on average a sitter stays only 60 to 75 days before a contract is settled.
Debbie Fahey, who sits for On the Market, recently moved out of a four-bedroom estate house in North Arlington after only 106 days. But Fahey is used to moving: She's been in 11 houses in 3 1/2 years.
Fahey said she doesn't mind, though, because of the low rents and the often-glamorous settings. Her family has landed in a house with a pool every summer. "When I'm living in a million-dollar house and paying $700 a month in rent, you can't beat that," she said.
The owner who inherited that North Arlington property hired On the Market after seeing a neighbor's vacant house go unsold for months. The heir said she thought that an empty building couldn't be as inviting as a furnished one.
"After the Fahey family moved in and made it feel like home instead of house, the real estate agent got an offer," said the owner, who requested anonymity.
Occasionally probate proceedings, typically six months during which claims against a will or a property are sorted out, drag on. (Usually a sale can be made during probate if the money is put in escrow.) Houben said one sitter has been in a Silver Spring house for 16 months. "It's been a very good situation for the renter and for the owner to not let the house become vacant and dilapidated," Houben said. The sitter is now making an offer on the house.
What if, despite all those efforts, the house still doesn't sell? Dale Mattison, an agent at Long & Foster's Chevy Chase office, recommends reevaluating the sales price. Though heirs might think the hot sales market justifies any price, Mattison warned: "If properties are still on the market today after 60 or 90 days, the market's trying to tell you something."
Said Mattison, "You can be a little aggressive in pricing, but that doesn't mean you can go hog wild."
Putting a House on Center Stage
Estate houses, which have often lost any coherent decorating scheme over the years, can be prime candidates for "home staging," according to some real estate agents.
That's a trendy sales concept in which interiors are treated like theater sets. The idea is that rooms are to be arranged with carefully designed clusters of furniture and accessories. Crummy furniture goes and good stuff is showcased.
The idea got its start in the late 1980s, when the home sales market was sluggish. To get houses moving, some real estate offices even had decorators on the payroll to recommend designs.
Today, agents make the suggestions. "Staging a house is very important," said Sue Huckaby, an agent of Weichert Realtors in McLean. "All you have to do is look at new homes and the amount of money that builders pay to decorate new home models."
With sales rolling, fewer agents these days are recommending augmenting the decor by leasing furniture. But Antique and Contemporary Leasing on Capitol Hill, a huge furniture and accessories warehouse, still routinely works with agents on very large, vacant or harder to sell properties.
Ramona A. Greene, an agent of Long & Foster's Friendship Heights office, rented items in July to help sell boxing promoter Rock Newman's mansion on Dexter Terrace NW.
The house was so large that potential buyers had trouble visualizing how to use the space, said Alice B. Wilson, manager of Antique and Contemporary Leasing. "The living room was huge, about 40 by 50 feet, and people couldn't figure out what to do with it," she said. "So we set up four different seatings to make it look lived in and comfortable."
The property listed at $2.39 million, was reduced to $1.99 million and sold for $1.9 million. The Newmans paid $1.2 million in 1994.
Looking for a smaller-scale example of staging? Consider the "Dress Your House for Success" video or book, marketed by BCW Video in Minneapolis. Author Martha Webb recommends five steps: uncluttering; cleaning; repairing; "neutralizing," which means minimizing outdated decor; and "dynamizing."
The last step, Webb said, is her "secret weapon as well as my trademark." It refers to adding finishing touches to make a house stand out. One example, she said, would be to furnish an extra bedroom as if a child lived there--complete with a stuffed-animal tea party--to draw young buyers to an old house.
The video costs $29.95, including shipping. The book is $12 plus shipping.