Preparing your house

Most houses need to be fixed up before they're put on the market.  How much work should you do? 

The key is to get the most bang for your buck.  You shouldn't spend a dollar unless you're pretty sure it will raise the market value of your home by more than a dollar. You should also think about whether it's wise to postpone listing your house in order to make improvements.  The delay might cost you some sales opportunities.     

These improvements are usually good bets:  

  • Move lots of your stuff off the premises.  Make trips to the dump and the thrift store.  Pack some of your moving boxes early and put them in a rented storage locker.   Almost all homes look nicer and larger when they’re sparsely furnished and uncluttered.  Closets and storage cabinets seem more generous when they’re half empty.

  • Clean the house thoroughly.  Don’t forget to steam clean the carpets and wash the windows inside and out.  Kitchens and bathrooms should be immaculate.

  • Tidy up the landscaping.  Trim the bushes, mow the lawn, and plant lots of flowers.  

  • Paint the interior if the house seems dingy or the room colors are out of date.  

  • Replace inexpensive things that are ugly or worn out.  Toilet seats, microwave ovens, screens, switch plates, faucets, window coverings, and light fixtures may be worth replacing.

  • Power wash the exterior of the house if it’s dirty and touch up any chipped paint.

  • Repair problems with major appliances, and the air conditioning, heating, electrical, and plumbing systems.  

  • Fix the roof if it leaks.  

Packing up most of the stuff in your closets will make them seem larger.

Instead of cramming lots of boxes into your garage, move them into a storage locker.  This will not only make your garage seem larger, but help convince buyers that you're serious about selling your property.

A home that's sparsely furnished with tasteful furniture shows best.  If you don't own nice furniture, consider renting it. 

Once you’ve done these things, the decisions become harder.  Here are some guidelines:

  • If you think your house will appeal to first-time homebuyers, scrimp on additional improvements.  These buyers often seek out fixer-uppers in good neighborhoods that they can lovingly restore as they put money aside over the years.  If you make the improvements yourself, you may price the house out of their reach. 

  • If you think your house will appeal to mature homebuyers, like retirees or empty-nesters, consider making additional improvements.  These kinds of buyers have already gone through the nesting phase and they’ve probably had their fill of it.  They’re often seeking a well-maintained attractive home that’s move-in ready.

  • If a lot of improvements need to be made and you're short of time, consider doing nothing and selling the house "as-is."  Contractors often seek out these kinds of homes.  Be aware, though, that "as-is" homes often sell at a big discount because it can be difficult for buyers to get loans to buy them.  Click here to read more.

If you’re aesthetically challenged, use an online resource like Martha Stewart (try her Color Visualizer at the bottom of the page) to help you develop a color scheme that works with the colors you can’t change.

Renting furniture

You can rent attractive furniture from companies like Cort Furniture Rental.  The prices vary by zip code, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, Cort offers a "whole house package" (living room, dining room, and bedroom) for $300 to $800 a month.  This can be a wise investment if your house is vacant or if your own furniture is dowdy.

Empty rooms aren't as inviting as furnished ones.  They also signal to buyers that the seller may be desperate.   

Professional stagers

If your house is worth more than $400,000, you may want to consider hiring a professional stager.  Click here to read an article about the advantages of staging.


Even if you're a good photographer, it may be worthwhile to get professional photos of your home for these reasons:

  • Beautiful photos help prospective buyers bond with your house. 
  • Professional photographers have wide-angle lenses that can make small rooms seem larger.
  • Professional photographers know how to create photos that correctly expose both the interior of a room and the view through the windows.  It's worthwhile to get these shots if your house has nice views.

You can often get a set of professional still photos for about $100.  Virtual tour providers will usually add still photographs to their package for a small additional charge.  

If you have a point-and-shoot camera and don't want to hire a professional photographer, here are some photo tips:

Tip #1:  Make sure the vertical lines in the photo are vertical.  Don't worry so much about the horizontal lines.
Tip #2:  Keep your camera level.  Instead of aiming the camera upward or downward, get on a ladder or bend your knees.  
Tip #3:  Stand in the corner of a room and use a wide-angle lens if you want to capture more of it.  
Tip #4:  If you aim your camera at a window when taking a photo, the interior will likely be too dark.  To prevent this, aim the camera at a dark interior wall and press the shutter release button halfway down to lock in the exposure.  Then (with the button still halfway down) point the camera towards the windows and take the shot.  This will "blow out" the windows but expose the interior properly.
Tip #5:  If you're skilled at a graphics imaging program like Photoshop®, you can show the view out of windows by combining two shots.  Put your camera on a tripod and take one shot exposed for the interior and one shot exposed for the view.  


A lockbox is used to hold a key to your house so that people can get inside when you're not home.  They're usually placed on front doorknobs or on pipes or railings nearby.  Here are some tips:

  • You can buy an ordinary combination lockbox at home improvement stores or at a locksmith’s shop.  These come in handy if you want pest inspectors or contractors to be able to get into your house when you're not there.  You can also give the combination to buyers’ agents who call, but I don't recommend this since anyone can call and claim to be a buyers' agent.  
  • If you're cooperating with buyers' agents, I recommend you also get a "Realtor Lockbox."  These can be opened with special electronic devices that are made available only to licensed agents.  You may be able to rent this kind of lockbox from the flat-fee MLS broker who puts your property on the MLS. 
  • If you get both kinds of lockboxes, I recommend you put the Realtor lockbox on the front doorknob and the combination lockbox on a pipe somewhere out of view.  Buyers' agents will usually expect to see a lockbox near the front door.
I like to use two lockboxes:  a combination lockbox for inspectors and contractors and a "realtor" lockbox for buyers' agents.  If you only have a combination lockbox, you may find yourself repeatedly giving out the combination over the phone without being able to verify that the caller is indeed an agent. 
One problem with using Realtor lockboxes is that only agents can unlock them.  This can be a problem when the house sells and it's time to return the lockbox.  If you have a thumb latch entry (as in the picture), just disassemble it to remove the lockbox.  On my Sacramento rental, the lockbox was attached to a doorknob, and I ended up replacing the doorknob and shipping both the lockbox and the old doorknob to the MLS broker who'd rented it to me. 

Once when I was at work I got a call from a prospective buyer who was in town for the day and very much interested in my house.  He'd noticed that I had a combination lockbox and wondered if he could have the combination so he could take a look inside.  I declined and told him that he should instead visit any real estate office and ask the buyer's agent to show him the house.   I recommend that you NOT give combinations out to prospective buyers, unless you're sure they're legitimate.  

Virtual tours

A virtual tour gives an online user the illusion of being in the middle of different rooms and spinning around slowly.  A tour can be attached to your webpage.  Many FSBO website businesses can also accommodate virtual tours.  

A virtual tour with four scenes will normally cost you between $80 and $200.  This can be a good investment for a FSBO seller, for several reasons:

  • It allows buyers to screen your house before asking for a personal tour.  This can save you and them a lot of time.

  • Virtual tours can show what your house looks like when it's tidy and at its best. 

  • Virtual tours make your rooms look larger than they are.

  • People searching for homes online like to look at virtual tours.  Having one gives your property more exposure.

  • Buyers often seek advice and reassurance from friends and relatives before they commit to buying a home.  Making a virtual tour available helps them do this.

Other preparations

  • Get a fax machine, answering machine, and color printer  if you don't already have them.  

  • Consider getting a temporary e-mail address and phone number for your marketing campaign.  In order to sell your FSBO property, you'll want to disseminate your contact information as widely as possible.  Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to unwanted e-mails and phone calls long after your home has sold.  This article tells you where you can get free web-based e-mail accounts.  You can get an inexpensive temporary phone number at

  • If you have appliance warranties and blueprints of the house, dig them out.  Buyers will sometimes want to see them.

  • Get a parcel map of your lot and make copies.  You can often get parcel maps from county or parish planning departments.  

  • Make photocopies of your utility bills over the past year, so buyers can know what to expect.

  • Register the phone number you plan to give out to prospective buyers with the do not call registry.  This may protect you from an avalanche of calls from listing agents after you put your property on the market.      

  • If your area is prone to natural disasters (e.g., flooding or fires), order a C.L.U.E. (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange) report for the house.  This lists all insurance claims that have been made on the house for the past five years.  Buyers will sometimes want to see this.

  • Start visiting open houses in your area, so that you can get a sense of what your asking price should be. 

Next topic:  Pricing

©Lori Alden, 2008.  All rights reserved.