Curb Appeal: the Difference Between 'For Sale' and 'Sold'

When driving around looking for a house to buy, do you ever judge a home by its cover?

As the housing market has cooled off, making sure that picketfence is freshly painted white and those shrubs are trimmed now can mean the difference between a sale and a potential buyer driving on by.

"We have a saying in real estate: 'If you can't see it you can't sell it,'" said Joanna Radecki, a real estate agent who advises clients on how to spruce up their homes for sale.

Roberta Baldwin, a real estate agent in South Orange, N.J., who is also proactive about fixing up her client's homes, described how she helped one family make their home more saleable.

"I noticed how huge these fir trees were. They were gigantic," Baldwin said. "One was crawling up the house and the other one was obscuring the front door. And I said it was time to trim them down."

Changing Market, Changed Approach

Paying attention to cosmetic details wasn't so important three years ago when Baldwin sold a house to Alice Marie and David Bergman. The market was so hot that buyers knew they had to bid instantly and high on a house, warts and all, to have a chance -- even if they were just considering buying.

"The first day the house was on the market we put in a bid," David Bergen said.

Real estate agents say there are enough houses sitting on the market, that now it's the sellers who have to grab the buyers' attention instantly. They can afford to be picky even before they set foot in the house.

"I've had people drive up and say I don't want to even go in the door," Baldwin said.

That's why Baldwin decided to turn to a real estate industry technique called "staging" to spruce up the front of Alice Marie and David Bergman's house before she put it on the market. As for what needed to be done to the Bergman home -- Baldwin was pretty brutal about it.

"We are going to have the tree in the front of the house trimmed so that when you are driving down here you get to see the house," she said. "We're going to move all the bushes forward and then I have about 12 or 15 small perennials and bushes in my car which we are going to fit around in an appealing matter and I think that at the end of the day the house is going to look younger and more fresh."

When the landscapers arrived, Baldwin even stayed to guide them in their job.

"We have a better chance of getting our asking price or possibly going over with the changes that we are making," she said. "And buyers today are very picky and they want everything just right so we are helping to make the house just right."

"I'm not a Martha Stewart, [my husband] readily admits that he's not a handyman," Alice Marie Bergman said. "How bad is he? We paid $90 to have a light bulb changed."

After living in a house for several years, without an outsider's perspective to give advice, it can be hard for homeowners to know what really needs to be done to make their house appealing to the buyer.

"It's amazing, 'cause once you know people are looking at things as a prospective buyer... even our welcome mat, I was like -- how shabby," Alice Marie said. "Again, things you're not paying attention to in your everyday routine, but now that you know people are looking at it with the intent to buy, possibly you pay attention to it."

Baldwin thinks it's so important to sell a house with good "curb appeal" that she's even willing to dig into her own pocket to spruce up a house she is selling.

"I'll spend up to $200, which I consider a marketing cost for each house that I list on incidentals," Baldwin said. "So this to me creates the sense that I want to have created, so I'm happy to spend it and I'm well compensated for my talents that I have, so why be chintzy?"

This may be considered moderate when compared with what some other agents have done to stage, like spray painting the lawn golf-course green.

It's still hard to predict whether every seller will make back the costs they've paid to improve their home's "curb appeal." But realtors say improving your home's image can be crucial if you want to sell your house quickly in such a competitive markeplace.

Cyberspace "Curb Appeal" Equally Important

The Internet has also become an incredibly important marketing tool, but just because potential buyers may not be physically driving by, it doesn't mean you shouldn't make the outside of your house look appealing.

"Probably the most important reason to landscape your house and to tame the front and to make it look beautiful is so the pictures look good on the Internet," Baldwin said. "This is the first thing they're going to see. So if they like the way it looks, they're going to click on it and call their agent."

And when the big test came for the Bergmans at their open house, their work had really paid off.

"Oh, no, it definitely makes a difference," said one real estate agent attending the Bergman's open house. "It looks like they trimmed and added the mums, which is nice 'cause they'll last a while and definitely did some cleaning up."