Basic improvements and must-do repairs count most when preparing to sell

Selling a home can be fierce competition, in which the best-prepped property in a given neighborhood often wins. Real estate experts agree that a seller today must take stock of the competition to ensure that a home — inside and out — is up to snuff.

And while a seller wants to present a home as fresh and updated, it's critical to avoid overdoing it. Before tackling home improvements with the intent of selling, it's important to look at comparable houses for sale in your market. A complete gutting of the kitchen is rarely recommended; cosmetic changes that contribute to a strong first impression are.

If your home doesn't feel quite 2008, real estate agents suggest that upgrades to the kitchen and bathrooms resonate most with buyers. Make modest improvements, such as replacing your lighting, plumbing fixtures and hardware — door and cabinet handles are an easy target. Swap out shiny brass fixtures for more contemporary and understated bronze or satin nickel.

"The only way you can compete from a marketing standpoint is to enhance what you've got so people say yes to it," says Judy McLellan, a Memphis, Tenn.-based agent with Crye-Leike Realtors.

A fresh coat of interior paint can go a long way toward sprucing up a home — if you select the right shade. Dark wall colors like reds or deep browns make a room appear small. By contrast, rooms painted with light or neutral colors will expand and appear bigger.

McLellan recommends that motivated sellers take responsibility for large-scale repairs such as replacing an aging roof or fixing a water heater on the fritz. Otherwise, plan on swallowing hefty price deductions.

When inventory is high and buyers have plenty of homes from which to choose, enhancing curb appeal (siding, exterior paint, landscaping) is essential to getting buyers in the door. A simple weekend project might include renting a power washer to clean the front door, porch and front gate. Add a coat of touch-up paint to any areas that need it. If you are selling your home in the spring or summer, consider laying new sod in the yard and arranging colorful pots of flowers near the entryway.

"Buyers will not even schedule an appointment to see the interior if they're not attracted to the exterior," says Loyda Paredes-Overton, a sales associate with ProCasa Realty in Chicago. "You can drive down a block and see five or six properties on the market, and people are going to call on the one that looks the nicest."

Now, if your research of comparable properties reveals that all the kitchens selling in your price range feature granite countertops and maple cabinets, you may need to make more effort. Experts recommend focusing on flooring, cabinetry and countertops to add value — as long as it doesnt turn your home selling price into the most expensive in the neighborhood.

To avoid that scenario, stick to a firm budget and have realistic expectations. For example, in a neighborhood where the median home price is $200,000, a seller who upgrades to tile bathrooms and top-notch appliances shouldn't expect to sell for $250,000.

"I've seen this mistake, where the seller will put more money into the property than what a buyer would pay and they never recoup their costs," Paredes-Overton says. "In order to get a return on investment, you have to look at the price that market will bear."

Similarly, sellers with higher-end homes should be on par in terms of amenities of comparably priced properties. "If you want to be competitive with what's on the market — if it's high-end stuff — you can't put in cheap materials and expect to get what everyone else is getting," warns Paredes-Overton. "Pay attention to what the market expectation is there. You want to at least be able to meet that."

By Heather Clark, Cyberhomes Contributor Published: February 20, 2008