When Monique Prince sold her four-bedroom New Hampshire home in 2008 in the middle of a terrible housing market, she pulled out all the stops to make it buyer-friendly.
She removed all family photos from the walls and replaced them with generic prints. She even bought new towels with matching carpets for each bathroom, which were only put out when prospective buyers arrived for showings. And, she folded every item in every cupboard and cleared her kitchen counters.
Then there were the floors. “I vacuumed starting upstairs, working my way backwards out of each room, so there were no footprints on any carpet anywhere in the house,” said 48-year-old Prince.
Her grueling routine paid off: Prince’s house sold within a month in the middle of a terrible housing market — and in December, typically a slow month for home sales. “I got very close to full price, minus the cost for a foundation repair,” she said.
In comparison to 2008, the housing market is booming — properties in the US sell in an average of 39 days, according to the National Association of Realtors, for an average price of $219,400. In the UK, the number of homes for sale has reached the lowest level in nearly six years, ratcheting up prices for prospective home buyers. The average house price in England and Wales is £192,372 ($294,802), according to the Halifax. In Australia, median house prices in January ranged from AUD$364,400 ($280,898) in Hobart to AUD$850,000 ($655,223) in Sydney, according to CoreLogic RP Data's home price index — an 8% rise over the past year.
But just because it’s a seller’s market doesn’t mean you can cut corners when preparing your property for sale. Here's how to achieve the best price for your home.
What it will take: Think 'curb appeal.’ You’ll have to clean and ruthlessly declutter, as well as tackle small repairs to make the property more appealing. You may have to hire professionals, such as home stagers who can arrange your home attractively, painters and other contractors. And, you'll also need a thick skin, because it’s hard to take less-than-flattering critiques of your home.
How long you need to prepare: You can begin preparing your home the moment you decide to sell. But, ideally you should give yourself 90 to 180 days before listing to allow enough time to complete updates, repairs and decluttering. “That way you can pace yourself and strategise,” said estate agent Brenda Small, an associate broker with Keller Williams Capital Properties in Washington DC in the US, and a representative of the National Association of Realtors.
Do it now: Contact a professional. A local broker or estate agent can provide information on comparable homes in your area, pricing trends and what you can do to show your property off. “We would take a walk through the house to determine what’s appealing, what may not be so appealing and what needs to be fixed up,” Small said. “And then assess, based on pricing, whether or not certain types of repairs or renovations can enhance the sale of the property.”
Go ahead, update the interior. Many sellers hesitate to make improvements before listing a home — such as replacing kitchen countertops or carpeting — because they believe the buyer will want to choose their own decoration. But buyers are often looking for move-in ready homes. “They want the bells and the whistles,” Small said. “And most want to have to do minimal changes and improvements.” In other words, replace that old, worn carpet — just choose something neutral. But, beware of spending too much. You may not recoup renovation costs if you spend on features that house buyers in your area don’t want.
Price it appropriately. What you paid for your home when you bought it is irrelevant. The housing market may have changed since, along with the value of your property. Pricing too high is a good way to keep a ‘For Sale’ sign up for months. “We often see homeowners overvaluing their homes,” said Mark Hayward, managing director of the National Association of Estate Agents in the UK. “Our home is our castle, but just because we think it’s the best property on the market, not everyone will agree.”
Box up your collection of china cats. Buyers should be able to picture themselves living in the home, which means removing your personal effects. That includes family photos, knick-knacks, collections, trophies, and that pile of children’s shoes in the hallway. “Sellers leave too many of their personal things on show,” said Joanna Leggett with Leggett Immobilier, a French estate agent firm. “They need to clear clutter and pack away personal (items) so viewers can actually get a sense of the house and how they would use it.”
Set the stage. A quick Internet search for ‘home staging’ will yield a treasure trove of tips on where to position furniture, the best way to light a room or how to create a reading nook in an awkward corner. If presentation is not your thing, consider working with a professional; if money is tight, you can pay for a consultation only.
Don’t forget the cupboards. Decluttering by shoving things in closets is missing the point—because buyers are going to look in every nook and cranny. “How many times have we opened up doors and had things fall out?” Small said. Think of storage areas as small rooms in your home and declutter them as well.
Look at it from the outside. First impressions are everything, so take a critical view of the front of your home. “I have witnessed first-hand how simple landscaping will really provide a wow factor for homebuyers,” said Diana George, founder of the Vault Realty Group in California. “We’re seeing a trend toward vegetable boxes and fire pits. The boxes don’t necessarily need to be filled with fresh veggies, but the potential homebuyer can imagine themselves planting and creating a garden, which often helps to seal the deal.”
Clean, clean, clean. Your house might be a minimalist’s dream, but if there’s a layer of dust, potential buyers will notice. “The house has to be spotless,” Small said.
Do it later: Make yourself scarce. The last thing most visitors want to see at the open house is the current owner. “Being over-attentive to prospective purchasers viewing the property can put buyers off instantly,” Hayward said. “Let the agent show buyers round the property. They are the professionals.”
Keep up the pace. “The longer the property stays on the market, the more tired and weary homeowners start to get about keeping it in the best condition,” Small said. Even if you’ve shown the house 100 times, keep making the beds, shining the sinks and cleaning bathrooms before prospective buyers arrive. That 101st showing might be the one.
Do it smarter: Use your nose. After you’ve decluttered and cleaned, take a sniff. Does your home smell nice? A bad odour will turn a buyer off even if your home is gorgeous. Get rid of pet smells from your house, and add appealing scents: Bake, light candles or put a fresh pie out. Said Hayward: “The old cliché of baking bread or buying flowers really does work.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us onTwitter.