Inspect, fix, then list

Sellers can head off surprises and impress buyers by finding and fixing potential problems before listing a house for sale.

December 04, 2005|By NANCY JONES-BONBREST | NANCY JONES-BONBREST,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is advice home sellers often hear before the for-sale sign goes into the ground.

It's usually followed by suggestions to paint the front door, de-clutter the house and repaint the interior a neutral shade.

But some homeowners are going beyond the first impression and sprucing up the guts of the house by opting for a home inspection before it hits the market or taking it upon themselves to repair faulty or dated household items.

The idea is simple, say real estate experts: Deal with any potential problems with the house before it is listed for sale.

And with real estate inventory inching up, buyers have more houses to choose from and sellers have less leverage, say experts. Heading off any potential deal-killers lurking behind the scenes - like an old furnace, aging roof or leaky basement - is a way to differentiate the house and close the deal.

For Jessup residents Wes and Dorothy Jones, fixing possible problems before they put their house on the market for $349,900 gave them confidence that they would sail through their home inspection and have the upper hand in negotiations with potential buyers.

Good maintenance during the 18 years that they lived in the house made it easier, said Wes Jones. Windows and doors were replaced, gutter guards were installed and the house was repainted.

When they decided to move to North Carolina and sell their house, they made improvements before putting it on the market. Those behind-the-scenes items included replacing their hot water heater that was in fine working condition, but at nine years old looked as if it could be a problem. And $5,000 went into completely replacing their polybutylene plumbing because of high-profile problems with that type of pipe.

"We were pretty sure someone would come by and spot that and think they were buying problems," said Jones. "We didn't want to pass along a potential problem. We didn't want to feel like we would have to back off our asking price."

And they didn't have to. Their house is under contract with a closing date later this month. The buyers were so impressed with the condition of the house and the repairs that were made, Jones said, they waived a home inspection.

Most experts agree that while the local housing market remains strong, the frenzy has faded. One indicator is the growing number of available houses. In October, there were 10,585 active listings in the Baltimore metropolitan area - up 8.5 percent from September and 40 percent over a year earlier, according the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., which tracks home sales.

Janice Mattson, a Realtor with Pat Hiban Real Estate Group in Ellicott City who is the Joneses' agent, said it's important that buyers get the impression that a house has been cared for.

"As the market slows, the sellers are going to need to primp and fix all those little things that make them stand out in a crowd," said Mattson.

She said that the number of buyers requesting home inspections and asking for repairs to be made has increased as the market has softened.

"Home inspections had gone by the wayside, but they are back," said Mattson. "Someone who has been maintaining their home all along will get through the home inspection much easier."

Getting ready

To prepare for a home inspection she tells sellers to clean gutters, clean or replace the HVAC filter, get windows and doors in proper operating condition, check plumbing fixtures for leaks and replace burned-out light bulbs.

James Schreiber, owner of HomeBiz Inspection Team in Chester, agrees. He also offers up a checklist for sellers preparing for a home inspection. Tips are broken down into four categories: interior, exterior, plumbing and electrical.

Individually the items on his list are not a big issue, but collectively they could discourage a buyer. Some of the tips include general maintenance items such as making sure electrical receptacles and window latches work and looking for cracked bathroom or kitchen tiles. He suggests that basic upkeep is the key.

"You need to find out if anything is wrong with your house, mechanically or structurally, so when the buyer comes in you don't have any surprises," said Schreiber. "If you clean up your act before you put your house on the market, you are still in the driver's seat."

He said the majority of his business is performing home inspections for buyers, but that about 20 percent of his work includes pre-listing inspections for homeowners.

Nationally, prelisting inspections make up an average of 2.6 percent of home inspectors' annual business, while 7.9 percent of their inspections are of new-home construction and 7.6 percent are relocation inspections, according to a recent survey from the Illinois-based American Society of Home Inspectors. This represents a slight increase since 2002, when 2.5 percent of home inspectors' annual inspection business was prelisting inspections.

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