How to Sell a Home after 20 Years

Last year, I helped a dear client sell her home that she and her husband had owned for more than 20 years.   He had passed away a few months prior to our discussions and when we first met in August of 2017, I could feel her pain.  Her grown daughter and I walked the house with her and when we were done, it felt like we were standing at the bottom of Mount Everest.  We had some general discussions regarding pricing and then came up with a plan and schedule.  Soon after, she hired a company that helped her go through the possessions in the home, categorize them into things to keep, things to sell, things to donate, and things that could be thrown away.  That same company held an estate sale for furniture and other pieces within the home which lasted a few weeks.  When the estate sale was over, we met at the house again to take new stock of the empty home.

I felt the heaviness and sadness of this empty home and my client finally said, “this is so depressing”.

Luckily, I had a lockbox in my car.  I asked for a key to the house, suggested they not visit again while it was empty, and said I would gather estimates for minor work that needed to be done in order to sell the home in the most ideal way.  (Quickly and profitably.)

Next, I had a contractor come out to estimate repainting the interior of the home, refinishing the hardwood floors, installing new carpet in the bedrooms, living room, and dining room (less expensive than hardwood flooring in those areas), and switching out a few new light fixtures.   They had renovated the kitchen in the early 2000s and the master bathroom had been renovated within the last few years. This was a large home in Fairfax, VA and the estimate ultimately came in close to $20,000 for all the work needed.  We chose a light gray paint for almost every area of the house and varied the saturation slightly for small areas like the bathrooms to give some dimension and make the home feel warm.  When all the work was done, I staged the home very lightly – kitchen and bathroom countertops.  The home ultimately sold for a net of $825,000.  Had we listed the home “as is” prior to doing any of this work, the home would likely have sold in the low $700ks.  That’s about a 400% return on the costs of sprucing up the house.

Sometimes homeowners who are thinking of downsizing or relocating and have lived in a home for many decades simply feel overwhelmed at the prospect of selling.  Sometimes homeowners are watching the homes selling around them, with new kitchens and bathrooms or modern updates, and the idea of conquering major renovations prior to selling leads them to push off the decision for many more years.  Sometimes, homeowners do not know what their home is worth and how much equity they may have – equity that could help them make a change that’s congruent with their current needs and dreams.

The truth is, new paint can go a long way, as well as removing items and staging the home.  For most home buyers, the decision is emotional when it comes to deciding on their purchase.  The details matter but many buyers will see past some flaws if the price the right and it’s in a neighborhood they love.  What a seller wants to do is present a clean canvas that is updated to a reasonable extent or priced in a way that compensates for some deferred maintenance.  Sellers can often help maintain the average home value in their neighborhood simply by painting the walls, maybe painting kitchen cabinetry and cleaning or installing new flooring in the home.  Light fixtures and plumbing fixtures can be purchased at nominal costs and yet can tip the scale on whether a buyer scrolling through online photos will choose to visit your listing, or not.

If a homeowner hasn’t done a renovation in a long time (maybe never) they may not fully understand the cost of doing minor work that can have a big impact on their sale.  It’s possible that a homeowner may need to take out a loan to pay for any updates prior to selling but in most cases the proceeds they receive at settlement will pay off that loan and still protect a substantial nest egg.  An effective Realtor can help develop a plan, facilitate estimates, and help manage the schedule leading up to the marketing of the home.  The time and emotional investment needed to move out of a home that’s been loved for many years is significant.  I myself could barely be a part of helping my parents move out of my childhood home when they retired and moved to Georgia in 2005 – it overwhelmed me.  And I try to bring that sense of empathy and compassion to the kitchen table when I sit with my clients that have a big job ahead of them.

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