Buyers must dig deep to find that cream puff


September 13, 1992|By ELLEN JAMES MARTIN

Was the home you're thinking of buying dearly beloved?

The answer to that question could decide whether, as future owners, your days will be filled with costly, troublesome home repairs or whether you could coast through the next half decade with relative ease.

"Buying from someone who takes great pride in their home is like investing in blue-chip stocks," contends Lynn Creager, who sells real estate through Coldwell Banker's Phoenix-Hunt Valley office.

Fewer than a third of for-sale properties have benefited from the meticulous maintenance of their owners, real estate experts say. And the so-called "gems" are becoming fewer in number as demands on people's time increase, they say.

"We live in a fast-moving society where everything is 'hurry-up,' " says Therese Redmond, a sales manager for Century 21-Diana Realty Inc. in Bel Air. Ms. Redmond has logged 17 years in residential home sales and each year she finds fewer gems on the market.

"The dual-income family is taking away from the time people have tomaintain a home or bring it up to a higher standard," speculates Daryl Jesperson, a senior vice president for the RE/MAX International realty chain.

There are obvious signs of a "cream puff," as many agents call well-kept homes, realty specialists say. The trick is to focus on the fundamentals -- rather than getting carried away with superficial components of the property -- such as the seller's choice of furniture, draperies or other ornamentation.

One of the easiest ways for people to get sidetracked is to become emotionally committed to a property before they take a close look at the place or have a professional home inspector examine it, Mr. Jesperson contends.

Some prospective buyers are so tenacious in their emotional commitment to a particular property that they will defend it against any evidence that it's suffered poor maintenance for years, says Ms. Redmond, the Bel Air sales manager.

"They see the sizzle instead of the steak," she says.

There are some buyers who are equipped to take on a home in poor condition.

But if you're as busy as most people or wish to spend more time on the golf course than at the hardware store, you may welcome these recommendations from the experts on how to buy a gem:

* Look for signs of affection on the part of the homeowner.

You may not be able to tell immediately that the cobwebs between the windows have been faithfully cleared or that the filters for the heating-cooling unit have been dutifully changed each month. But a doting owner will demonstrate his concern with perfectly pruned shrubbery, tight-fitting window screens not allowed to tatter, and a kitchen sink that has obviously experienced plenty of Ajax.

* Don't confuse love of family with love of house.

A property can seem warm and homey to a visitor and still have had only average to poor upkeep. Wonderful people with well-tended children can be neglectful of their properties. Don't allow yourself to be swayed by sentimental items such as homemade quilts or family photos. Check, instead, for mildew around the bathtub, gardens that have gone unweeded or gutters that have gone uncleaned.

* Look out for the "cosmetic seller."

The reality is that most sellers these days are coached by their agents on how best to prepare a property for market. They know, for instance, that their sales prospects are improved if they clean the wall-to-wall carpet.

But remember to distinguish between a seller who makes superficial pre-sale improvements and one who has been faithful to his tasks all along. Examine that carpet, for example, to see whether it was allowed to get spots in ways that even the most diligent eleventh-our cleaning couldn't remove.

* Realize that an over-improved home may well be a loved home.

Know the couple who added the fancy, all-glass family room that no one else in the neighborhood could match? Know the guy who bought top-of-the-line kitchen appliances that are the envy of others on your street?

Such people are known as "over-improvers" because it's unlikely they'll ever get their full investment out of the house when they sell. While it's bad to be an over-improver with a house on the market, it's smart to be the buyer of an over-improved property.

When you buy an over-improved house you not only get major improvements for less than 100 cents on the dollar invested by the previous owner. In all probability, you also get a home that was well maintained, because a fanatic about improvements is usually also a fanatic about repairs, Mr. Jesperson asserts.

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