When Andrew and Zoe White decided this month to sell their Federal Hill house, they knew it was time to fix what they called the home's black eye.
The upstairs bathroom, although perfectly functional, was in need of an overhaul. Should they sink the money into the bathroom and remodel it?
Ultimately, they decided to spend the money. Aesthetics aside, the reason was a feeling the real estate market had changed.
"Right now the market has shifted a lot. It used to be such a seller's market and I think it has evened out a bit," said Andrew White. "Even with a good property like this one, right in Federal Hill next to the park, you don't want to market a home with a black eye."
Updating the bathroom meant they could confidently set a price - $299,900 - and not worry about a buyer "low balling" them because of a possible detriment.
"It might cost me $2,000 to redo the bathroom, but if I don't, it might cost me $10,000 or $12,000 by a person reducing their offer," Andrew White said.
Over the last few years, sellers didn't have to work very hard to prepare their homes for sale. The real estate market has been so hot that homes were attracting multiple offers and bids often exceeded asking prices.
But as the economy continues to slow, real estate agents may again be coaching their clients on how to ready their homes for the market.
"Purging - getting rid of clutter - is always good," said Cindy Conklin of the Federal Hill office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA. "Particularly with smaller homes. A seller with a house that is pristine will get a premium for the property."
But because timing is so important in markets like Federal Hill, Conklin said, many times she will address eyesores only if a house has trouble selling.
For example, Conklin said, a house that recently went to settlement had very strong colors. She had suggested the seller get an estimate for painting the house in more neutral tones, but the owner ended up deciding not to repaint. The buyers of the house loved the colors and would have been disappointed if it were painted white or beige.
"A Realtor really has to assess the situation on a case-by-case basis," Conklin said. "I have to decide if the seller has the resources and inclination to make the changes."
Like the Whites, Andrew and Gwen Twillman wanted to list their house in the best condition possible. So they began prepping their home almost a year in advance of listing it.
"We wanted the house to be in tip-top shape to get the highest price possible," said Andrew Twillman.
In the end, they were able to get about $10,000 more for their townhouse in Russett, a planned community in Anne Arundel County.
"We were competing against other townhouses that were for sale and were larger than ours. But some of the others needed painting or carpeting, and the buyers said they would much rather buy our house because they could just move right in," he said.
"Also there's peace of mind knowing we did everything we could do. We got everything together for the house that we could."
Their house sold in three weeks.
"In the past when we were in a tougher market, any room in the house that was a strange color would always be painted white," said Pat Hiban, an associated broker with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia and the Twillmans' agent.
"Then the market changed and it was not as important anymore to have neutral rooms. There weren't many houses to choose from so the buyers saw past that."
But now as the spring selling season nears, the need for neutral colors may again become much more important, Hiban says, to attract as many qualified buyers as possible. A good trick is to look at the house through a buyer's eyes.
"A house with beige walls, tasteful colors, carpet less than 5 years old and in good shape, no matter how good or bad the market is, it's always going to sell faster than a house with personal colors and dated carpet. But as the inventory begins to grow, it will be more important to have a house that is neutral."
If it's time to sell and you still haven't remodeled your family room or finished the basement, don't. Distinctions should be made between making minor inexpensive repairs and costly renovations, real estate agents say.
In fact, the two biggest improvements homeowners should think about doing before hitting the market are painting and carpeting, Hiban said. Beside the improved appearance, a fresh coat of paint and new carpet will give the whole house a clean smell.
"Those are the two things that can sell your house quicker and make you more money," he said. "And they are [comparatively] minimal in cost, but if you put that in your home, it can sometimes be a night and day difference."
But not all improvements cost money. Cleaning the house and putting things away can have a huge effect on the overall appearance, Hiban said.
"What I tell people is nothing should touch the floor unless it's a piece of furniture," he said. "The more things the human eye has to look at, the smaller that room feels."