Make prospective buyers' first impressions truly count


By CYNTHIA ANDERSON, Correspondent

Elizabeth Rose remembers the home as attractive and well maintained. The only obvious problem was the roof, which needed repair and which, for the couple to whom Rose was showing the property, signaled red alert.

"The husband was actually a roofer himself, so you'd have thought he'd get past it if anyone could — but he just couldn't," said Rose, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Sarasota. "They didn't even want to go inside."

Indeed, potential buyers often decide whether they're interested in a home within seconds. Whether online or in person, "that first impression sets the tone for the whole experience," said Roger Piro, president of the Sarasota Association of Realtors, and an agent with Town and Country Real Estate. "If it's negative, then they're going to be on the lookout for other things they may not like. They're thinking, 'What else might be wrong with this place?'"

There are several thresholds. Online appeal distinguishes which properties a potential buyer chooses to view in the first place; curb appeal helps get the buyer to the door; and entry appeal drives the buyer's impression of the interior. All three are crucial, and all three are subject to their own particular errors.

Given that nine out of 10 home buyers begin their search online, sellers should first pay attention to how their properties come across electronically. All too often, insufficient effort goes into ensuring that listing photos are of high quality, according to Orlando Realtor Hojin Chang.

Sometimes the problem is the content of the photos: too much focus on the furniture, for instance, or too many distracting details. Technical glitches can result in images that are blurred or distorted. A property photographed at the wrong time of day may look uninviting, and too few photos can suggest the seller has something to hide.

Assuming that a property has made it onto a buyer's list, the next threshold is its curb appeal. "If you want the chance to show them how great the fireplace is, you've got to get them through the door," said Rose.

For minimal expense, sellers can create fresh edges where grass meets mulch and install a contoured flowerbed. Michael Saunders & Co. agent Nancy Phillips suggests adding color with annuals like impatiens and marigolds along with plants that conjure Florida, such as birds of paradise, crepe myrtle, and bougainvillea.

Prime spots to add plants are at the front corners of the yard, along driveways or walkways, and immediately in front of the house. Would-be sellers should also feed the grass and the shrubs. Even a single application of fertilizer helps them green up.

Projects should focus on improvements that are universally appealing; this is not the time to install a waterfall or to paint the exterior aqua. Consider conservative changes: replacing worn gutters, patching cracks in the driveway.

Other outdoor tips:

-Make the front door as appealing as possible. While replacing the door is an option, sanding and repainting the existing one can make a big difference. Remember, too, to freshen up the trim. "You want people to feel welcome, and the front door is an important focal point," said Rose.

-Install exterior lighting, which can enhance curb appeal while also providing safety and security. Fixtures can illuminate vegetation, the house itself, or a walkway. Consider solar fixtures if you don't want to hard-wire.

-Synchronize your entry hardware. House numbers, the lockset, a wall-mounted mailbox, and an overhead light fixture are all elements that can add style and interest to the exterior. They function best as a collective, rather than as mix-and-match pieces.

Assuming the prospective buyer makes it to the door, the next threshold is the entryway. Make sure the space is free of clutter, particularly personal items that may distract buyers from envisioning themselves in the home.

Pay attention too to the all-important sense of smell. Eliminate any potential sources of mold or mildew. Because plug-in scents can be overwhelming, Piro sometimes recommends baking cookies or apples, particularly during an open house, to imbue the place with a homey aroma. "It makes people feel comfortable," he said. "And you can offer them a cookie."

Improvements should focus on substance over style. Avoid trendy enhancements that are more permanent in nature, Rose said. "The life cycle of home improvements ... is much shorter now than in the past, and things can look dated more quickly," she said. "Stick with classic materials and design on things like kitchen cabinets and tile."

An older home that announces its age faces particular challenges. "Every resale is competing with a new-home sale," said Realtor Ellen Quinn of Prudential Lakewood Ranch Realty. "If it's not bright, clean and up-to-date, then it's at a real disadvantage. Why would someone buy something that doesn't sparkle when they can buy something similar that's new?"

Certain items from each decade signal "dated" — hunter-green carpeting from the 1990s, overstuffed floral furniture from the '80s, '70s-style paneling and popcorn ceilings.

According to Wendy Cutrufelli of the Contra Costa, Calif., Real Estate Resource, sellers should invest primarily in the kitchen and bathrooms. Rather than replacing cabinets altogether, Cutrufelli suggests re-facing or refinishing them and updating the hardware. Similarly, change out faucets rather than installing new sinks, she said, and clean or replace all grout.

Lighting can also signal that you haven't paid much heed to your home in recent years. Brass and etched-glass fixtures can be replaced with brushed-nickel or pendant lighting. Large-bulb track lighting is out; consider substituting half-dollar-sized recessed fixtures.

Patterned vinyl flooring can be replaced with neutral tile or laminate. Similarly, substitute patterned wallpaper with something that makes less of a statement, or strip and paint the walls.

Whether indoors, outdoor or online, sellers should keep an eye on the return on their improvement investments. It doesn't make sense to overhaul all the fixtures and finishes when the new buyers might not like your choices — and will probably make changes anyway.

Don't cut corners

Be aware too that all three thresholds must be crossed for a showing to be successful. If a property has great curb appeal but looks dingy inside, for instance, then the photolisting will reveal that — and buyers may avoid it. Conversely, if the interior sparkles but the exterior looks unkempt, potential buyers may well keep driving (or browsing).

"Basically, you want the property to be appealing and inviting," said Rose. "You want things to look neat and clean and reasonably updated. Psychologically, that tells people that someone cares."


Last modified: June 23, 2013
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