Caregivers take on all sorts of responsibilities beyond what people imagine. One of those is often selling someone else’s home, either when it’s come time for them to move into a safer living situation or after they’ve passed away. Perhaps your loved one kept up with home maintenance and had impeccable taste. If so, read no further. If you find yourself with a property that could use some work, here’s what to do.
Are you saying you have no time for this? People are always on the market for a cheap fixer-upper. If you don’t have some time and effort to invest in fixing things up and you’re ready to accept a lower offer, then stop reading this article and put the house on the market already. This article is for people who are willing to put in some work in hopes of getting an offer that’s thousands of dollars higher. That’s money to go toward medical bills and living expenses.
Are you selling a home using a power of attorney or a court approval because of dementia? Check with an estate attorney before making any big moves. In fact, it’s wise to consult with an attorney and a financial planner before selling a home.
Remember to work with what you’ve got. Take a minute to really think about what’s great about the home and imagine who would be happy living there. I once saw an apartment listed as a handy-man special that was a perfectly preserved 1935 home. I’m still heartbroken that it ended up being gutted instead of restored. If the home is a time capsule, play it up and market it as such – someone will be thrilled to find it. Or at least you’ll get a little more attention for your open house.
If you only have a weekend
Pare things down
Get rid of everything you can. This is the ultimate de-cluttering. Leave only the most basic items in each room – the furniture you need to identify a room. Then add back in the minimum needed to make it feel lived in. Rooms look best when they have slightly less furniture and things than we would really have if we lived in them. Clearing out someone else’s things can be tricky and very emotional. Talk to everyone involved before you start getting rid of things.
Don’t just stuff things in the closets. Storage space is an important selling point, so you don’t want to make things seem cramped. Throw out the crap, sell everything you can, donate what’s left.
When I sold my first apartment I was already mostly living with my girlfriend, so it was easy to pare it down to the minimum. I left a perfectly organized closet with just my dress clothes, books artfully arranged on my desk and next to my bed, just the most basic toiletries, groceries for the weekend in the kitchen. It’s time to put your Instagram skills to work. Having everything just so for the sale worked out when it was time to sell extra furniture. I took a bunch of photos before my open house and used them to list everything on Krrb.
Wash the floors. Rent a carpet steamer. Wash the baseboards. Clean the fridge. Wash the windows. Polish wood furniture. Wipe down the bathroom and kitchen walls with a detergent solution. Dust everything. You’ll be amazed at how much difference a good deep-clean can make. Stains on a granite counter? Water marks on wood? Marks on the marble floor tiles? Totally fixable.
Are you dealing with mysterious odors? Vinegar, charcoal, and baking soda work wonders. If you need something more powerful, try an odor eliminating air purifier. I use one to tame the litterbox smell from my two cats and it’s pretty impressive.
Many homes that aren’t kept up end up becoming a playground for bugs or mice. The safest and simplest method I’ve found for dealing with anything with an exoskeleton is to put down diatomaceous earth. You don’t need very much of this, so one bag will last practically forever. I use a paint brush to apply a very thin coat of dust anywhere bugs might travel. Caulking and sealing any holes or cracks finishes the job. Be sure to wear a mask while applying it – you never want to inhale powder. For mice, I’ll fill any holes I find with steel wool and make sure I’ve removed anything they might be tempted to eat.
Swap out light bulbs for ones with a higher wattage, just make sure the lamp is rated for it. Daylight bulbs can make a big difference in the feel of a room. Don’t be afraid to bring over some lamps from your own home. You can turn just about anything into a lamp and they’re super easy to make. Or you can pick up clip lights from your local hardware store for a few dollars and spray paint them fun colors.
Are there wood floors under the carpets? Unless the carpets are in perfect condition, it’s better to pull them up.
Re-caulk the bathroom and kitchen. I hate regrouting, but it’s totally worth it. If you’re not ready to re-grout, at least touch it up with a grout pen.
Your goal is to help potential buyers envision themselves living here. You want it to look like they already live here, like it’s already the home of their ideal selves. Pull that crib out of your basement to make that third bedroom back into a nursery or set up an impromptu office, depending on who you think your market is. Need inspiration? Head to IKEA and pay attention to how they make their showrooms into a space just about anyone can envision themselves living in.
Don’t be afraid to rearrange the furniture – the goal here is how it looks, not function.
Add plants. Borrow them from the neighbors, bring them over from your own home, whatever you need to do. They make spaces seem brighter and more comfortable. They’re also a great way to fill awkward spaces when you don’t have enough furniture to fill a room.
Put out the nicest things. Bring over your own towels if the ones there are threadbare. Replace the shower curtain if it’s dingy. Remove hideous curtains and replace them with inexpensive sheers. Leave out a nice tea towel. Put fruit in a bowl in the kitchen.
Remove any family photos or anything that’s distracting. Just don’t leave the walls bare – there are tons of easy ways to create wall art. I’ve snagged canvases from the local art school’s dumpsters and painted them with leftover paint. I’ve created groupings of cheap frames with images I printed out from my computer. I’ve hung up empty frames, old windows, and plates I’ve found on the curb. Work with what you have on hand.
Go ahead and put a chair over that scratch on the floor, just be prepared to let buyers (or your realtor) know about it. Minimizing imperfections demonstrates that they’re not a big deal, but check with your local laws (and your conscience) to know what you’re obligated to disclose to potential buyers.
If you have more time
This is when it’s great to have a handyman in your group of friends. I’ve called upon my dad and brother-in-law for all sorts of home improvement projects and they’ve been great at suggesting simple, inexpensive things that have a big impact.
A fresh coat of paint can do wonders. Remember to paint the inside of closets and the molding. When I bought my first place, it hadn’t been painted in maybe 20 years – my friends didn’t believe it was the same apartment after I’d primed it!
Many people will advise you to paint everything antique white, but real white is very ‘in’ right now and makes a space feel clean and bright. Don’t just paint everything white, though. You don’t want it to feel like a sterile box, so leave a little personality. If rooms are painted pleasant neutral tones, just leave them as-is. Most people are happy to take on a room that’s a grey-blue, sage green, or coffee color.
If there’s wallpaper, consider removing it. It can be time consuming, so talk to your realtor to decide if it’s worth the effort. Will it be the deciding factor between someone making an offer or not? It depends on your buyers.
Is the kitchen frozen in time? If it’s in good condition and looks like it could be a period set, just leave it be. Changes rarely increase the value of a home unless they’re actually fixing a problem. People have different tastes and different priorities, but anything that’s broken or falling apart is a big turn-off.
There’s almost always something you can do to improve a dated kitchen. My first kitchen was a hideous mess – missing cabinets, broken cabinets, and cabinets in three styles! I removed the doors on the base cabinets and replaced them with panels sliding on a track resting on a 1×4. That $50 took my kitchen from looking like it belonged in an abandoned building to a place my friends enjoyed hanging out in. Think about painting or staining the cabinets, replacing (or painting) the hardware, swapping out the faucet, replacing light fixtures, or switching the furniture. Linoleum, vinyl, and formica have come a long way, so it may be worth replacing a worn floor or countertop. What will make the biggest difference for the least amount of effort?
You’ve already cleared out all the bathroom clutter, so you may find yourself overwhelmed by those pink and black tiles. You can tile over existing tile or you can paint right over it. Replacing a vanity is usually pretty simple, but in older homes it can turn into an ordeal.
I hear that when you don’t have to get co-op board approval to re-glaze a bathtub, it’s not a big deal. I spent three years wishing that my tub wasn’t peach and, let me tell you, the day my tub was finally white was just as exciting as I’d hoped.
If it’s really awful and you’re not up for a major renovation, just embrace it. So many things eventually come back in style – I had to practically beg my dad not to rip out a claw foot tub a few months ago. Maybe turquoise bathtubs will be back in style one of these days. If my peach tub hadn’t been the lone survivor of a poorly done 90s renovation it would have gotten to stay.
While I never looked forward to the semi-annual ritual of painting the porches, it’s another one of those big-impact moves. Power washing is the answer to most things. Replace the screen and repaint the front door a welcoming color. Add some inexpensive plants. Paint the porch lights or replace cracked glass. Reseal the walkway. Repaint the mailbox.
Don’t be afraid to accentuate the quirks of a home. Online dating has taught us that it’s better to be the funny-looking girl than the one who’s pretty enough. It’s the quirks that set spaces (and people) apart and leave buyers (or suitors) anxious to not let the perfect one get away. Bland homes are always people’s second choices – which is fine, but it’s better to have someone really fall in love with a home.
My first apartment had a weird little entryway, which most people walked through without noticing. I painted it metallic gold, turning an awkward, overlooked space into a bold statement. I renovated my apartment when I was planning on staying there for the long-term, so there were a lot of eccentric flourishes. Luckily, I found buyers who loved it for the same reasons I did and were willing offer over asking to make sure they got it.
If someone is still living in the home
It’s a lot easier to stage a home when it’s not occupied. If someone’s still living there, you’ll still need to do your best to pare things down and freshen up the space. You want potential buyers to imagine themselves growing old in the home, but you don’t want to hit them with the stark realities of illness. One of my most memorable open houses was a mansion that had been built as a 70s swingers paradise – round bed surrounded by mirrors, a bar on every floor, pornographic mermaid etched into the bathroom glass – only everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, except for the former maid’s quarters, which was serving as a dingy home hospital room. It felt like I was walking through a morality play.
It’s imperative that the owner not be home during the open house. No one wants to feel like they’re kicking someone out of their home in their dying days. I’m sure you can think of a few people who would pass over a lovely house for fear of ghosts.
We’ve been to hospital rooms that are dark and depressing, as well as hospitals where the rooms are bright and cheerful. Take hints from the nicer hospitals you’ve been to for how to handle medical equipment and other items. Make the hospital bed with a colorful blanket, leave cheerful books and fresh flowers on the nightstand, tuck the commode into a corner.
Homes that are staged sell faster and for a higher price. Putting some effort into helping a home shine can help make sure buyers see a home’s potential. Now that you’ve cleaned things up, it’s worth it to make sure you get your work professionally photographed so it stands out in the listings. I see far too many terrible cell phone photos make it into MLS listings. If you’re going to make a go of it on your own, at least follow these photography tips.
I’ve had both good and bad experiences with realtors, but in New York I thought it was worth it to pay a realtor so I wouldn’t have to deal with the co-op board. If you’ve been watching the market and have time to show the property, there’s no need to be afraid of listing it yourself. However, established real estate agents have deep networks, so they can sell a home with much less effort than it would take for you to do it yourself. If you hire a real estate agent, don’t just pick the first one who calls you back. Check recent listings to see who knows the area, has happy customers, and gets a good price. Hire someone you feel comfortable with, since they’ll take over selling while you focus on making sure the house is cleared out by closing.