City Homes

Don DeBat

Careful staging, pricing lure buyers during winter months, slower market

by Don DeBat

If you are hoping to sell your home before the snow falls for a price close to what you think it’s worth, experts say you’d better do your homework given today’s unpredictable real estate market.

Mortgage rates are still near 40-year lows, but market analysts say that the real estate bubble has popped. Buyers shouldn’t expect double-digit appreciation in the near future, the experts say, because of a multitude of factors, including the slowing economy.

“Home prices have escalated dramatically over the past few years, and we look at the current leveling off as just a correction,” said Mary Ellen Tainer, managing broker of Rubloff Residential Properties’ new North Shore office, in Evanston.

Experts say sellers can’t afford to be greedy in a buyers’ market and should price their homes below the level of similar houses in the neighborhood if they want them to sell quickly.

A home makes the biggest impact on prospective buyers and stands the best chance of attaining the highest possible price when it’s fresh on the market, according to Sara Benson, president of Benson Stanley Realty, which concentrates on North Side neighborhoods such as the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park.

This momentum, which real estate agents refer to as “first-market-impact syndrome,” can’t be recaptured once the home has been on the market more than three weeks, Benson said.

A seller must price the property “under the wave,” otherwise he or she will be “chasing the wave” by repeatedly dropping the price, accumulating market time and watching as the home grows “stale” on the market, said Benson, who has worked as a certified appraiser during her 20 years in real estate.

Sellers should “stage” their homes and yards to maximize curb appeal, experts say. “Staging” is real estate talk for fixing, decorating and generally improving the appearance of a property, and it often has as much to do with creativity and common sense as money.

“Landscaping can add up to 14 percent to the overall value of a home and can decrease the time a house is on the market by as much as six weeks,” said Kevin Marko, landscape division manager of Chalet Landscape Division, in Wilmette. “If you spend 5 percent of the value of your home on landscaping, national averages show that you can get up to a 15 percent return on that investment. In the Chicago area the average is much higher – up to 20 percent.”

Buyers can add value to their homes without spending a lot of money by keeping lawns and plant beds free of weeds, Marko said.

How should sellers market their homes during the frigid winter months when the leaves are gone and the yard is covered with snow? Benson suggested photographing the greenery during the late summer or early fall and displaying the most attractive photos throughout the home.

“Once the prospective buyer steps inside your front door, the vestibule, hallway and foyer must embrace the potential purchaser and give him or her an ‘at-home’ feeling,” Benson said. “If possible, make sure the fireplace is crackling. Keep holiday decorations tasteful and not too overwhelming as to distract from the real estate.”

Benson believes brokers should encourage buyers to “touch” the house before they buy it. “Ask them to touch the granite fireplace and feel its smoothness and solid construction,” she said. “A good broker gives the buyer candy for the senses.”

Here are Benson’s tips for selling a home in a buyer’s market, especially during winter:

Send the children to grandma. Also, board the dog during showings.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Keep floors and carpets clean in winter months and ask potential buyers to remove shoes and boots at the door. Provide a basket of disposable paper booties so feet don’t get dirty and buyers won’t hesitate to look in the attic and the basement.

Declutter, declutter, declutter. Try to reduce knick-knacks by 50 percent or more. Rent a storage locker if necessary. Make your home as “vanilla” as possible, depersonalizing it so buyers can “psychologically move in,” Benson said. Remove kids’ art from the fridge and minimize or eliminate family photos.

Make the kitchen look spacious. Remove all visual clutter, from the toaster and butcher-knife set to the bread machine, the blender and the coffee pot. The idea is to make your countertops look like they’re begging to be used. Leave out one or two essential items.

Give your home the look of a luxury hotel suite. Buy fresh towels for the bathrooms – then hide everything else. “This means no toothbrushes, tooth paste, toilet brushes and plungers, shampoo or body scrubs, bathroom scales, hair brushes or dryers,” Benson said. Next, bring out fragrant bars of bath soap, new bedding with plenty of fluffy pillows, a flickering fire, a wine rack, candles and – of course – plenty of fresh flowers. Bedrooms need to look sexy, voluptuous and soft. “A Rubenesque oil painting or print over the bed is a good start, followed by a satin negligee hanging in the closet,” Benson said.

Real estate columnist and media consultant Don DeBat has written about Chicago-area housing and mortgage markets since 1968. He is chief executive officer of DeBat Media, Inc.,

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