Staging for fast sale

By on 5 November, 2012 in Kate and Stephen, Real Estate with 0 Comments

Some very sad circumstances recently put us in the position of having to sell a house in another state. Unfortunately, it was about 4,000 square feet and full of several decades’ worth of barely-organized things. Also, we only had a few weeks before we had to return to Alabama to go back to work. Also, we were feeling very sad.

Many of us, if we haven’t had a circumstance like this in our lives yet, will one day either have to deal with the passing of a loved one and the disposition of their stuff, or will at least have to help someone who is dealing with it. While we can’t pretend to offer any emotional advice or help with grieving, and we’re still trying to figure out how to navigate the various postmortem bureaucratic mazes that ensnare the living, we did learn a few things over the last month that are practical for getting a home ready to sell. Fast.

We were in Albuquerque, selling a house in a nice part of town. We decided we weren’t leaving town until we listed the house, then worked backward from that goal to figure out how to proceed.

First and foremost, it’s essential to surround yourself with good help. This isn’t just helpful and willing family and friends, but serious trained professionals. Our Realtor gave us a list of trusted people, to which we added selected contractors vetted through Angie’s List reviews and the advice of family friends. Over three hectic weeks, we employed the services of a painter, a team of window washers, professional house cleaners (twice, once for upstairs and once for downstairs), professional movers (for the heavy stuff), a pest control service (Hector Morales, our tech, is also a painter — so very New Mexico), a truck rental place (twice), carpet cleaners, a plumber (twice, both times for the same pipe), a landscaper, a locksmith, a garage door repair technician and a professional stager. We also rented two storage units.

Second, you need to create an intentional chain of events. There’s no point in having the windows washed after the floor cleaners have come, otherwise the window folks will scuff up your nice clean floors. The landscaper may have to be called well in advance. If you have carpets to clean, you’ll want to consider placement of furniture before doing that – so as to avoid moving a heavy cabinet to reveal a less-than-clean square of floor. It’s important to plan the sequencing of things.

Third, while it’s tempting to just go on a cleaning rampage (or alternately, sit there doing nothing), it’s important to purge with purpose. You’re trying to clear space in the house, remembering that buyers like houses that are clutter-free and inviting. For a house that has been especially lived in, you’ll definitely want to hire cleaners for a deep clean. But before you do that,  you’re going to have to pre-clean. This means getting all the surfaces basically clear for dusting, freeing up floor space by getting all of the trash out of the house, emptying drawers where possible, and donating stuff that could find a new home. The cleaners can’t go through your receipts and piles. Make space. Your goal here is not to empty the house; that’ll come later after the house sells. Your short-term goal is to empty it enough that it can be efficiently cleaned and attractively staged. We were lucky to be able to rearrange the garage for storage, even though we ended up still renting external units for surplus stuff.

Fourth, as you clean, make sure everything goes to its proper place. Some things will be passed down in the family. Others can be donated. Others might be sold in an estate sale. Still others will just need to be thrown away. Albuquerque’s sanitation website is comprehensive — it helped us find everything from where to drop hazardous household waste and e-waste to where to take old pills and pharmaceuticals. Montgomery’s city services could learn a lot. In Albuquerque, you can schedule large item pickup or extra trash pickup through the city’s super-efficient 311 service. As part of our cleaning, we took two full loads to the dump in a rented U-Haul truck. As a side note, this was extremely fun. The “Convenience Centers” are set up so that you fling your waste over a fence onto a large, wide strip of concrete, which is being manaically patrolled by a very fast-driving person in a front loader, scooping up trash and funneling it into a huge compactor. We got to throw a TV! And all kinds of other things that looked pretty amazing as they were broken. It was like a video game except with disgusting toxic fumes. Also, we found out later that they evidently have chickens at the convenience centers!

Fifth, a professional stager is worth every penny (especially if you don’t argue with her decisions). We figured that between our stager and our Realtor, they’d know best about what buyers want. After all, we weren’t buying the house – someone else (hopefully) would be. So, it didn’t really matter whether we liked a rug or whether we thought a cabinet looked best where it always had been, and so forth. We tried to be good clients and let the professionals do their work. Our stager Judy was amazing. We weren’t sure what to expect from working with a professional designer – a decade or so of HGTV (including a mild Trading Spaces addiction) has led us to suspect that design is equal parts quirk, half hour “art projects” and entirely too much painting. Judy’s approach, however, was to use what we already had in new ways, only buying a few additional materials (a few rugs, a chair, some fake flowers) at places like Ross and Target. She wanted to draw the potential buyers’ eyes to certain features of the house and helped go over each surface to make sure the rooms were “tied together.” She helped us to stage the back yard too, encouraging us to plant pansies, geraniums and boxwoods in well-positioned planters. Those flowers would hold through the fall, and the boxwoods would last through the winter.

Fifth, even in the whirlwind, don’t forget to stop and be totally amazed at what professionals can do. Our carpet cleaners got out stains that we were sure would leave us paying for new carpets. The Realtor reminded us that most people would take the carpets up anyway for the wood floors underneath; all we had to do was make them look good. We were a little skeptical of hiring window washers, but their work left us gaping at the way clean windows open up a space. If you’re happy with the service being provided, don’t forget to leave a positive review on Angie’s List. It’s how we know who does a good job and who doesn’t.

Finally, after it’s all staged and organized, one last clean is worth every bit of your remaining energy. All the little things (baseboards, corners of ceilings) that you’re used to overlooking will be the first thing a buyer sees – like when your mother visits your house and immediately notices dust.

After several weeks of exhausting work, we were proud to be ready to list the house on a Monday. That Sunday, our Realtor asked if it might be show-ready later for interested buyers. That’s when the one last clean happened, and we even got some big-band music to play at his request (we thought jazz, but he was quite specific about the big band). We thought maybe they’d be in and out in 30 minutes, but they stayed around for an hour and a half and even took some measurements. Did we dare to hope? The next day, when the house was scheduled to go on the market, we got a full price offer. Of course, we’re still working out the details of the sale – the inspection, minor repairs, the appraisal – but are hopeful that the sale may go through next month. Then there will be an estate sale to plan and hold, the final removal of stuff from the house, and a last clean before handing the keys to someone who will hopefully love the house as much as we have. And that’s the last thing – it’s so key to have a great Realtor who will be in your corner, especially when you’re feeling sad and overwhelmed.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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