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Get Top Dollar for Your Home

The real estate market has cooled, but smart sellers will always find a way to get the best price for their home.

There was a time when a shotgun shack in Toronto’s coveted Riverdale neighbourhood would have sparked a frenzied bidding war, selling within a week for well above the asking price. So when Maria Armstrong’s Riverdale home sat on the market for 40 days this fall, she was “honestly very, very surprised.” Armstrong had done everything right—she painted the house inside and out, staged the basement so that it became more of a family room than a toy-littered play room for her six-year-old twins, and even moved the kids and her three dogs out of the house for almost a month so that the home retained its showplace feel.

When no offers were forthcoming, Armstrong decided to take the house off the market and relist in the spring. That’s when the sole offer came in, and after a bit of negotiating, Armstrong accepted. “I had pushed my agent to list the house at a slightly higher price than she wanted,” admits Armstrong. “She told me that it had a couple of things working against it.” The house didn’t have parking—not unusual in central Toronto—and it was located on a fairly busy street. As it turns out, the agent knew her market well. Says Armstrong: “Her ballpark estimate of what I was going to get for the house was exactly what we ended up getting. She was right on the money.”

The experience persuaded Armstrong of three things: first that Toronto’s overheated housing market may have cooled at least a little; second, that it pays to choose an experienced real estate agent who is intimately acquainted with the neighbourhood where you’re selling; and third, that “if you put your best foot forward it will all work out in the end.”

There’s little doubt that some of the heat has gone out of the real estate market—at least in comparison with 2009 and early 2010. According to the Teranet-National Bank Composite House Price Index, the most recent run of surging prices ended in September, when the national composite price slid 1.1% from the month before, then slid another 0.4% in October (the last month for which stats were available). As for the coming year, even the Canadian Real Estate Association is forecasting that, given “lackluster economic and job growth, muted consumer confidence, and the resumption of interest rate increases,” there will be a 1.3% drop in housing prices and a 9% decline in home sales. It’s hardly cause for panic. But if you’ve got a house for sale, you might actually have to do some selling, instead of just sitting back and collecting bids. Aiming to get top dollar for your home? Read on for expert advice on making maximum cash.

Recognize that the Internet has changed the game In 2001 about 41% of all home buyers checked out houses online. Last year, that number was about 90%, according to the U.S.-based National Association of Realtors’ Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. Although buyers generally use other resources as well, they tend to start the search process online, even before contacting an agent. About 36% of NAR’s respondents said the Internet gave them their first glimpse of the home they eventually bought. Although there are no figures available specifically for Canada, John Andrews, a real estate expert and assistant professor at Queen’s University, reckons the stats would hold true here as well.

“The widespread use of the Internet changes a lot of things,” says Kelowna real estate broker Steven Bergg. The first is the importance of listing photographs. When Bergg lists a house, he insists it be decluttered and then hires a professional photographer. “People go online and narrow down the list of houses they’re going to see based on the pictures,” he says.

Halifax home stager and photographer Kathleen Heithorn-Althoff agrees. The photos should tell a story, she says, beginning with the establishing shot of the front of the house, leading in the front door to the main rooms, the upstairs to the bedrooms and finally down to the basement. Heithorn-Althoff shoots houses in full sunlight, using a wide-angle lens to give an overview of each room, and she turns lamps and lights on inside to ensure a bright appearance. In addition, she asks that cars be removed from the driveway and that lawns and gardens be well-groomed.

Of course, getting great photos isn’t going to help if you don’t get exposure on the net. The MLS system still attracts plenty of buyers, says Craig Stokke, president of Calgary-based discount broker Seller Direct Real Estate Inc. But he also advertises homes for sale on some 250 to 300 other websites, including Kijiji and Craigslist (which attract lots of young people) and real estate sites that allow for virtual tours.

Bergg offers a tip for home sellers listing on the MLS. “I valued a house the other day at $590,000,” he says. “But when I looked between $600,000 and $650,000 on the MLS, there wasn’t much there that was very nice.” So Bergg upped the price to $600,000. His reasoning: that way people searching between $550,000 and $600,000 would find the house, as would those searching between $600,000 and $650,000.

Choose the best time to sell Spring and early fall are prime time for selling homes, says Gregory Klump, chief economist for the Canadian Real Estate Association. Spring generally brings a seasonal peak in demand, largely because people don’t have to fight through the snow to go house-hunting. Early autumn is also a good time, since it gives families a chance to settle in by Christmas.

Other factors may influence timing as well, contends Mark Argentino, a RE/MAX agent in Mississauga, Ont. If you have a house with a pool, for example, you might want to list when the weather is favourable. And when Argentino got a listing for a home in the $600,000 range leading up to the holiday season, he told them emphatically, “This is not the time to list.” December is historically the slowest month of the year, and that means fewer feet through the door, he says. If the listing is on the market for 30 days with no offers, buyers might be encouraged to make a low-ball offer.

Boost your curb appeal When Kathy Scotland co-signed for a house that her son and his wife purchased three years ago in London, Ont., she couldn’t have predicted that the couple would break up, her son would lose his job, and she’d be left paying the mortgage month after month. She had to sell. Fast.

The house had a number of good points: Scotland and her son had renovated it so that it was clean and fresh inside, and it had an upstairs apartment that would cover part of the mortgage. But Scotland was worried that the young couples who were likely to purchase the house would be put off before they even got in the door. “It had absolutely no curb appeal,” she says. “There was a patch of dirt out front where there should have been a garden.”

That’s the sort of thing that can turn a buyer off in a nanosecond, says Linda Stewart, a Certified Canadian Staging Professional (CCSP) and owner of Madison Lane Designs in Barrie, Ont. “You’ve got about 30 seconds to make a good first impression. If your house looks as if it’s not well cared for, some buyers will just move on to the next house.” Scotland couldn’t let that happen, so she picked up two globe cedars and six little trees that the local garden centre was selling off at the end of the season for $5 each. She added some hostas and sedum from her mother’s garden and a bunch of begonias she picked up for 25 cents each. For less than $100, she was able to transform the front of the house. “It made a big difference,” she says.

Other things that will ready your house for sale include sanding and painting the front door, shutters or garage; cutting the lawn and trimming bushes; and perhaps putting some pots out front with flowers in the spring and summer, mums and cabbages in the fall, or pine boughs in winter. Scotland placed pots of begonias and geraniums at the entrance to her son’s home. “It’s at the side,” she says, “so we wanted to clearly mark that this was where people should come in, and also to give them a warm feeling when they entered the house.”

Exit, staged right People sometimes ask why they should spend money on a house they’re going to turn around and sell. But staging a house for sale, says Stewart, is for the seller. “The plan is really to help them sell their house quicker and to get as much equity out of the house as possible.” What’s more, many real estate brokers include a staging consultation as part of the service they offer. “That’s where 90% of my business comes from,” says Stewart. Even if you have to pay for it yourself, a consultation can cost as little as $150. And many of the jobs identified by stagers cost little to complete, but pay off big when it comes time to sell.

Here are 10 low-cost projects that give you maximum bang for your buck:

1. Clean it up. A 2010 Home Sale Maximizer Survey by the blog HomeGain estimated the cost of scouring and organizing a house at about $200 and the expected home price increase at $1,700. That’s a whopping 870% return on your investment and a good enough reason to give your home a thorough once-over. Stewart advises steam-cleaning the carpets and washing the floors and walls, dusting the light fixtures, the baseboards and the cupboards, scrubbing out the fridge and stove, and rendering the tile grout mildew-free.

2. Declutter. Keep counters and furniture free of small appliances, bills and sundry items, and make sure there are no stray socks in the bedroom or out-of-place lipsticks in the bathrooms. Tidy up overstuffed closets by tossing what you can, putting some things in storage, and using baskets and organizers to contain what’s left. “Even if the potential buyers have cluttered closets of their own, they open up a nice clean closet and they say, ‘Oh yeah, this is how I like to live,’” says Bergg. “No one opens a closet that’s a complete disaster and says, ‘Oh, we’ll be fine here. This is how we live.’”

3. Give it a lick of paint. The HomeGain respondents estimated the cost of “lightening and brightening” a home at $230 and the pay-off at $1,300—a 570% return on investment. Heithorn-Althoff recommends repainting in light soft, warm neutrals for starters. “Colour can be very personal and very specific colours, like orange or lime green, may not work as part of your overall marketing strategy,” she points out. But getting the right neutral can be tricky, depending on your furnishings and carpets, as well as the size and brightness level of the rooms. If you’re unsure, get help. And if you don’t want to take on the entire house, even repainting trim in high traffic areas can clean up a space, she says. Good trim choices include Oxford White, Decorator’s White and Cloud White from the Benjamin Moore line.

4. Let there be (trendy) lights. If your lighting fixture is more than 10 to 15 years old and it’s neither retro nor vintage, replace it, advises Stewart. You can get good quality, modern light fixtures for $100 to $150, and they’re capable of “changing a room dramatically.” When the budget is minimal, Stewart has even updated fixtures by spraying them with automotive paint for a lustrous new finish. “You don’t have to spend top dollar,” she says. “That’s one of those tricks of the trade.”

5. Define the rooms. If your dining room has been serving triple-duty as the home office/playroom/eating space, you’ll need to redefine it. Failing to do so will leave potential buyers with the impression that the home just isn’t big enough to meet your family’s needs. Ditto for spare bedrooms that have been converted to yoga studios or ironing rooms. “People count bedrooms,” explains Heithorn-Althoff. “It could make or break a sale if they think you have one less.”

6. Change the hardware. Kitchens and bathrooms sell homes, says Heithorn-Althoff. But investing in new cupboards or a new vanity is costly. Sometimes just replacing dated hardware with new knobs and pulls in brushed nickel or aged brass does the trick. “At $3 a knob, you’re looking at an investment of about $90 to update the look,” she says.

7. Make it smell April-fresh. Few things turn potential buyers off quicker than lingering odours from pets, smoke, must, mould or mildew. (If you’ve got an extensive mould problem, you’ll need to hire a professional.) The good news: you can rent machines that will eliminate almost any smell. Can’t freshen a doggy-smelling carpet? Get rid of it, Stewart advises.

8. Put the crucifix away. Stewart once had Vietnamese clients with a prayer room in their basement family room. She asked them to remove the paraphernalia and put in a couch. “I was apologetic, but I explained to them that it might actually be offensive to some buyers and at the very least, it’s very personal,” she says. The same holds true for most religious imagery, as well as for family pictures and collectibles. “It’s really hard for buyers to focus on being there when they see the other family’s photos on the wall.”

9. Groom the backyard. Keep the lawn, hedges and flower beds manicured. Buy storage containers for gardening tools, kids’ toys and pool supplies and make sure your shed is neat and tidy.

10. Add the finishing touches. Heithorn-Althoff keeps a supply of beautiful artificial flowers to finish the rooms once everything else is done and puts out brand-new towels and soap in the kitchen and bathrooms. “Every room needs a bit of life,” she says.

Play the price is right When interviewing real estate agents, it can be tempting to opt for the one who promises the biggest bucks. But you could be making a big mistake, says Argentino, the RE/MAX agent. “Over-pricing a house doesn’t help anybody,” he says. When your home does get shown, Argentino contends, you’ll be helping to sell the other normal-priced listings in the neighbourhood. “The agents will say, ‘Look you can buy this house for $430,000 or you can go around the corner and buy essentially the same house for $409,000.’ You make the other house look good.” Since your home generates the most attention in its first week on the market, if it’s over-priced you may well miss an opportunity, adds Bergg.

Pricing a house too low, on the other hand, is a strategy that real estate agents sometimes use in a smoking hot market. The basic premise: the market will generate multiple offers that can be played off against each other. But Argentino doesn’t recommend it, particularly when the market is cooling. “If you can price a home at market value, you will sell just as quickly,” he contends, pointing out that if only one person bids on an underpriced home, you could be leaving money on the table.

Relist if necessary Listings for houses that have been on the market for three to five weeks are sometimes terminated, only to mysteriously reappear at a lower price. Agents often do this with houses that aren’t selling quickly in order to “breathe new air into the process,” points out Argentino. “It may also fool the buyers who were not in the market a few weeks ago, because they see it as a new listing and they get excited about it.”

Dealing for dollars “Studies have shown that only one in 21 offers come in and are accepted as written,” says Bergg. “So 20 times out of 21 there’s negotiation involved.” Those negotiations may concern price, timing, conditions of sale and what is or is not included in the sale. “If there’s something you’re really attached to, like the chandelier your grandmother left you, take it down and get it out of the house,” advises Bergg. “Especially in a buyer’s market, people will ask for pieces of furniture that look good in the house.”

If you are willing to part with some furnishings, he suggests leaving them out of the deal and then using them as bargaining chips (“We weren’t going to give you the hot tub, but if you pay an extra $5,000 we’ll throw it in.”). Ditto if the buyer wants a particularly quick closing or an especially long one.

If you get an offer for your home that includes clauses or conditions, consider them carefully with your agent. One fairly common clause is that the offer is conditional on the buyer selling his or her own home. “Generally with conditional sales, the buyer offers slightly more than the market value of the home to make the final bid more attractive,” says Diane Williamson, a real estate broker with Groupe Sutton-Distinction Inc. in St. Lazur, Que.

But despite the extra cash, says Williamson, if you’ve got two fairly close offers and one is conditional, you should accept the firm offer, even if it’s worth slightly less. After all, if the buyer doesn’t sell his own home—something you can’t control—the whole deal could fall through.

If the sale of your house is conditional on an inspection, as it almost always is, Williamson often suggests that the seller be present when the inspector checks out the house. Sometimes there’s a question that the home owner could easily answer, she says. For example, the owner might be able to explain that some minor water damage was caused by a leaky pipe that has since been fixed.

In the end, says Williamson, if you get an offer at the right sale price and with minimal conditions, you’ve probably found the future owner of your home. Break out the champagne!

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