Read an Excerpt
If You Know Something's Broke, Fix It!
Let's start out with a simple truth: Your home probably needs some, if not a lot of, work to prepare it for sale. This is true of any property, including mine. I have no plans to sell, but when I look around my own house, I can quickly spot at least a half-dozen items that would need fixing or finishing before I could sell, including installing the undercounter lights for the kitchen that we bought a year ago, painting a few pieces of trim that were somehow overlooked the last time the interior was painted, installing a screen on a window that's missing one, installing a path to our front door, and building a backyard patio (which, as we went to press, we decided to delay yet again because we still don't know what style and type of surface material we want to use).
Sometimes the loose ends are broken items that need repair. It irks home buyers to see something that's broken, like cracked tile or a wall clock that displays the wrong time because it needs a new set of batteries. Again, failing to fix broken items (especially those that can be easily repaired) sends a message to the buyer that you don't care enough to get these things done. Also, when the home inspector comes through (which he or she inevitably will do), you know these items will come up in the "need-to-do-before-I'll-close-on-your-house" list.
What should you fix? Anything that a prospective home buyer will think should be in working order on the day of sale, including:
*All appliances. They don't have to be new, but everything should work.
*All faucets. If it leaks or doesn't turn on correctly, repair or replaceit.
*All windows. If any windowpanes are cracked, or don't open properly, fix or replace them. And make sure to repair all screen doors and windows.
*All doors. No creaking, no doors that open only partially, no cabinet doors that don't open at all.
*Any exterior problems. Replace missing roof shingles, repair your gutter if it has come apart, and regrade landscaping away from the house if you've been finding puddles or wet walls in your basement.
A Good Start
Throughout this book, you'll need to keep paper and pen-
cil handy to jot down different things. To make the job easier, purchase a small, inexpensive, spiral-bound notebook. This notebook, on which you'll spend less than a dollar, will become the nerve center of your home sale. You could keep a duplicate set of lists in your computer, but it's helpful to have something you can write on and work with while you're walking through the interior and around the exterior of your home.
Open up your notebook to the first page, and start touring your home. You'll want to walk all over the interior (including the basement, the garage, and the attic) and the exterior of your home, looking for anything that's broken. Pay special attention to the furnace (which, depending on its age, type, and condition, should be serviced once a year by a professional heating and air-conditioning expert-be sure it has been serviced within twelve months before you list your home), faucets and drains, and cracked tiles. Make a list of every single item that needs a repair, whether it's a small fix (adding oil to a squeaky door hinge) or peeling wallpaper in the guest bath.
Ideally, you should fix everything on this list before you sell. But just in case, be sure to prioritize the list so that you tackle the most important (i.e., conspicuous) problems first.
This list isn't for updating your home-although peeling wallpaper might count as decorating. Rather, you're specifically looking for items that are broken and need repair. The repairs stage is very different from what you'll do later, when you're decorating your home to show.
Once your list is assembled and prioritized, schedule the necessary repairs. You may need to call in a furnace cleaning and repair company. Or you may need an electrician or plumber. Get the best people you can afford so that the job is done right. And keep your receipts from all the tradespeople who helped you out.
Remember, your buyer isn't going to give you gold stars for the stuff that's supposed to be working in your home. But you certainly will get demerits for the stuff that doesn't.
Web Sites and Other Places to Find Help for Home Repairs
If you need to do work in your home before you sell, the best place to get a referral is to ask your parents, family members, or friends for a recommendation. (Be sure to ask if they liked the person who did the job, how much he or she charged, and if they'd have this individual do another job for them.) But if no one has any recommendations, you'll have to take it a Step further.
To get a referral for a home-related job, go online to Angieslist.com. You might also try AskTheBuilder.com, a site run by syndicated columnist and radio personality Tim Carter. There are other referral sites out there, but my readers have had luck with these two. Check my Web site, ThinkGlink.com, for updates to the referral Web sites list.
After you gather together some names, be sure to outline the scope of the work to be provided, how much you'll pay for this service, when you will pay, and any other specific items. Make sure the subcontractor answers your question, "What happens if you mess up?" to your satisfaction. For many service providers, the answer will be to limit their liability to what you've paid for the service. If this doesn't work for you, find someone else to employ.
Finally, and this goes for anyone you hire to do anything significant for you, spell out your agreement in writing. Be sure the contract specifies how much you will pay, what work is to be performed, and when. You and the service provider should both sign this document-handshake deals aren't worth much if you have to go to court. Keep a copy of the signed contract handy, in case a dispute arises.
Another source of information is your local home-improvement center. For the most part, the people who work at Home Depot, Lewes, Menards, and your local hardware store know quite a lot about the tools they sell and how best to use them. You might even find someone there who moonlights as a general handyman. For do-it-yourself information, Home Depot publishes a line of excellent books that take you through simple and complicated projects Step-by-Step.
A home warranty, sometimes known as a homeowner's warranty, is like an extended service contract that you might buy when you purchase a used car. Its purpose is to give the buyer peace of mind that if something breaks down, the cost of the repair will be covered.
When home buyers purchase an existing home (also known as a "used" home), they worry that appliances and mechanical systems will break and be expensive to fix or replace. When you're spending every dime you have to purchase a home, the last thing you want to worry about is replacing the hot-water heater or an air-conditioner compressor or blower. Replacing a refrigerator could be $500 to $1,000; replacing a compressor could cost twice that.
So a few years ago, insurance companies came up with home warranty plans. The warranty guarantees that all mechanical systems (like the plumbing or electrical systems) and appliances (refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves, and so forth) that are working on the day of closing will continue to work for the first year someone owns your home. If something breaks, the new homeowner has a toll-free number to call. The company will send someone out to fix or replace the broken appliance or mechanical system. The homeowner pays a flat fee (which could be anywhere from around $50 to perhaps $150), and any costs above or beyond that are picked up by the company that issued the home warranty policy.
Home warranties are an excellent marketing tool because they provide a salve for the buyer's biggest worry-that something will go wrong in a house that isn't brand-new. Savvy sellers can use this as a marketing tactic. Purchasing one might reassure a nervous buyer that if something does go wrong, he or she has a place to turn (other than pursuing you, the seller, for cash to fix the problem). But they are also practical because they save the new homeowner time and money when it comes to finding someone to fix basic items in the house. The warranty company has repair contracts with local tradespeople. These are the same folks you would call, but that someone new to the neighborhood might not know.
The problem with home warranties is that the policies are somewhat expensive up front, and you have to pick a reliable and responsive warranty company, which means doing a little research. If you decide to purchase a home warranty, many real-estate agents sell them, or you can purchase one directly on the Web from a company like Countrywide Credit. (Countrywide Credit owns Countrywide Home Loans and also owns insurance and investing subsidiaries; go to www.countrywide.com.) American Home Shield (www.americanhomeshield.com) also sells homeowner's warranties online.
Buying a home warranty policy doesn't mean you don't have to fix things that are broken in your house. It is best used to make a home buyer feel protected in case something breaks after closing.
Don't Lie about What's Wrong with Your House
I don't know what homeowners are thinking when they lie about the true condition of their home. Well, that's not exactly true. I do know what they're thinking: No one is ever going to find out.
But, of course, with so many buyers using professional inspectors to scrutinize every nook and cranny of their future home, most problems will be uncovered. The ones that are missed can cause a much bigger problem down the line.
Consider this true story: A couple was looking to buy a home in the Los Angeles area. The husband and wife had purchased several homes over the years, in different locations, so they had some experience with buying and selling real estate. They had bought and sold several fixer-uppers, as well as several apartment buildings through the years.
They saw a house near Los Angeles, and thought it looked beautiful. But there were problems with the drainage in the garden. They asked the seller to fix the problem. When it came time to review the mandatory transfer disclosure statement the seller had signed, no major problems were indicated on the form. On top of that, the seller was a real-estate agent, well versed in the need for full and proper disclosure. And he worked for one of the biggest, most prestigious real-estate firms in southern California. Satisfied with the results of the disclosure, the buyers weren't too worried that something might be seriously wrong with the property.
They moved in. A short time later, the wife noticed water leaking from the first-floor ceiling. She also started having headaches and other strange aches and pains. Tearing out that one ceiling led to the startling discovery that the entire house was soaking from top to bottom on the inside. Tearing out plasterboard exposed mold that had been growing for a long time everywhere in the structure. And the one repair the buyers had asked the seller to make? The contractor who "fixed" the problem was told by the sellers to make it look like he did something, but not to do anything expensive. The cost of the "fix" was a few hundred dollars.
As we went to press, a legal case was wending its way through the court system. The house is a total loss. From breathing the mold-filled air, the wife claims that her brain function has been permanently damaged. And though the seller claimed he had "no idea" that there were water problems, letters surfaced from his tenants detailing the various problems they had had with water intrusion.
What was this seller thinking? It's difficult to know, and perhaps no one will ever find out. But it looks as though the seller has tried to defraud the buyers. It's true that the seller would have had a difficult, if not impossible, time unloading his moldy home for the same price he received from the buyers, but the damages assigned in a court case like this could completely ruin him, not to mention his reputation and livelihood.
What could this seller have done? He should have been honest from the beginning about the water-intrusion problems in the property. He could have sold the home as a teardown, that is, for its land value only. He should not have covered up the truth.
That's an extreme example, but it points to the simple truth: Lying doesn't pay in real estate. Home buyers get angry and sue, causing a tremendous amount of grief, anger, and expense. Listing agents often get dragged into the fray. Better to be honest up front.
My Home's Problems
Interior ProblemsHow Long?
Exterior ProblemsHow Long?
A GOOD START
Does your home have any problems? Are there issues you wish weren't there? Using the list above, write down all the issues and problems your home has.
Once you've listed all the potential problems with your home, talk to an agent (perhaps the same agent who sold you the home) about what you can do to either cure the problem or make it less of an issue for buyers. For example, if you have a radon problem, you can probably eliminate the health hazard by introducing a system that airs out your basement. If you have a pest infestation problem, you may be able to fix it with common pest control methods.
If you don't know what problems lurk behind the walls in your home, consider having a professional home inspector do a prelisting inspection (for a detailed explanation, see Step 33). If you don't know what your state law says about seller disclosure, ask your agent (or check out Step 23 for details). But never lie. It will always come back to haunt you.