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Counseling Clients on Home Improvements

Before you start advising homeowners on home renovations, remember these two rules:

* First and foremost, never advise before being hired. Counseling takes place after a client relationship has been established. Lawyers do not provide legal advice until their services have been formally retained. Doctors do not diagnose without indemnity insurance. Real estate agents should follow suit. Wait for the enrollment contract to be signed. Then, start giving tips on how the homeowner can achieve a faster sale or a higher price by making recommended home improvements and implementing staging tips.

Too often, agents give their expert advice during listing presentations hoping to prove their ability and expertise to sellers. More often, however, sellers simply take the lawyer with them when partnering with a less competent agent who promises lower fees.

* Second, tell the truth. If the sellers need to clean the house, tell them. If they smoke and the house stinks of cigarettes, tell them.

I once had to convince some clients to hire professional cleaners to rid their homes of the smell of smoke that permeated the carpets, walls, and furniture throughout the house. Then I made them promise not to turn on the lights again as long as they owned the house. They accepted with reservations, but we sold the house, so they were happy. A bad smell in a house can really reduce the chances of a sale.

Likewise, appearances can kill buyer interest. If the house is filled with too many things, say so. If the pink exterior color forces people to walk past it, talk about it. Holding your tongue will only delay the day of judgment. Plus, it’s easier to be completely upfront when you first notice the problem – but only after signing the sign-up contract. If you advise before committing, your advice could offend sellers and cost you the listing. This is another reason to follow rule #1 and get a signature before giving a lawyer.

Improvements that contribute to the sale price

When it comes to preparing a home for sale, useful and necessary improvements fall into three categories:

* Improvements that bring a home up to standard.

* Improvements that fix flaws

* Improvements that improve curb appeal or first impressions.

The following sections provide guidelines in each area.

Bringing a house up to standard

Before presenting a house with horribly dated decor, advise sellers to update the interior appearance to bring it in line with the expectations of buyers in today’s market. Salespeople don’t have to go overboard; they just need to install a reasonable color scheme and implement enough updates that new owners feel they can move in without having to undertake an immediate facelift. Share the following tips with sellers:

* Keep upgrades simple. A total redecoration is not necessary or even advised. The goal is to arrive at a broadly acceptable and reasonably current color palette for paint, countertops and flooring.

* Do not aim to create a centerpiece of design. Be aware that after purchase, buyers will often change a home significantly to make it their own. The goal for sellers is to allow them to feel that their changes can happen over time over the next few years; that they are not manifestly and immediately necessary

* Focus on the big stuff. If a home’s interior looks current, and the landscaping, yard, decks, and patios are well-maintained and usable, the onus is on buyers to make significant and immediate changes. As a result, they will be more likely to buy the house. They will also be more inclined to make a more competitive initial offer than would be the case if the house had obvious exterior or interior color or repair issues. Any changes a buyer needs to make to a home comes from the money they need to have, not the money they can borrow. Many buyers will use this fact as one of the factors why they buy the house now.

* A little paint makes a huge difference. Repainting is one of the most cost-effective ways to refresh the look of a home and even hide design flaws.

* Avoid the latest trends. Advise customers away from the current rage in deep wall colors. Advise them to create a warm, blank canvas that any potential buyer can work with.

Correction of defects

If a house has defects, the seller has two choices: repair them or provide proportional monetary compensation to buyers.

For example, if a roof needs to be repaired or replaced, the improvement will be expected by both the bank and the buyer. The seller may offer one of two remedies:

1. Manage and pay for the repair or replacement.

2. Provide buyers with sufficient compensation to cover the cost and hassle of rectifying the defect themselves. The hassle compensation is money on top of what it costs to professionally correct the problem. The amount awarded for hassle compensation differs depending on the task and the buyer. In most cases, however, if buyers have to collect and decide between contractors’ bids, arrange repairs, and verify the contractor’s work, they will want compensation for their time and effort.

Improve first impressions

Any cost-effective upgrade that adds curb appeal or improves first impressions can increase the selling price. Follow these tips:

* Create dimension on the exterior of the house by adding shutters or fish scales to a garage gable, selecting a better color scheme and, certainly, spending a few hundred dollars planting annuals to color the exterior walkways. The effect will increase the likelihood of a sale and positively influence the sale price.

* Inside the home, after upgrading the home paint color palette, advise sellers to assess the quality of the home’s hard surfaces, including carpets, tiles, vinyl, and countertops . Replacing surfaces is often much less expensive than expected by buyers. Many choices seem rich but are not. A salesperson doesn’t need to put granite slabs on kitchen counters; simply updating old cracked and chipped Formicas will make a big improvement and pay off when it comes to price negotiation. Choose a light, bright surface and the change can make the room feel bigger and brighter.

* When working with a limited budget (as most sellers do), advise sellers to improve surfaces in central areas first. Focus on areas most used by buyers, including the kitchen, family room, dining room, and master bedroom.

Improvements to ignore

As a general rule, I advise sellers to skip any upgrades that aren’t straightforward or affect curb appeal.

Improving curb appeal — the house’s ability to present itself well in a test drive — is key because you want to bring in the potential customer. After that, limit upgrades to necessary repairs, fresh paint, new hard surfaces, and a good cleaning.

When sellers ask about replacing cabinets, remodeling rooms, building shelving, replacing siding, adding decks, and even finishing basements, share the following facts:

* According to Remodeling magazine and the National Association of Realtors, the average major investment update on a home recoups 81% on resale, or just four out of every five dollars spent.

* The highest average rate of return comes from a minor kitchen remodel, which generates 93% of the costs incurred.

* The lowest average rate of return comes from finishing a basement, which yields a return of 76%.

* The more money spent, the higher the risk to the seller and the less likely they are to make a return or even break even.

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