Even in a seller's market, smart homebuyers aren't going to make a purchase without having a property professionally inspected first.
"Today's buyers are really very savvy," says Robin Kencel, associate broker with the Robin Kencel Group of Compass Real Estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. That's why it's important for sellers to know where their house may fall short of a buyer's expectations. "The more we can head off anything that can be a negotiation point, the better."
To do that, sellers should do their own property review to identify potential problem areas, from potential water leaks to dangerous mold. Then, they can make inexpensive repairs and avoid unpleasant surprises during an inspection. "When you own a home, you become blind to some of the little things," says Deborah Savoie, a realtor with Long and Foster Real Estate, Inc. in Annapolis, Maryland.
For first-time homebuyers, an inspection is a crucial part of the process. It offers the chance to discover any flaws in a property and back out of a sale, if needed. Your real estate broker may recommend a trusted inspector. Otherwise, look for an experienced professional who can provide references, has positive reviews online and a good score with the Better Business Bureau. Also request a copy of their inspection form, so you can see what items are covered in a standard inspection.
While inspectors provide a vital service, both buyers and sellers should understand their limitations. "Our job is not to upgrade a house," says Bob McKinley, owner of Healthy Home Inspections in Baltimore. An inspector isn't going to recommend how a house can be improved. "We just make sure everything they have (in the house) is working properly."
With that in mind, use the following checklist to stay prepared before a home inspection.
Ensure lights are working and switches are covered. McKinley says nonworking lights are a common problem he encounters when performing inspections. A general home inspection will include a visual review of the electrical system. The cover to the electrical panel will be removed and wiring inspected to determine if the workmanship meets industry and state standards. If anything about the electrical system raises concerns, an inspector will recommend bringing in a licensed electrician for further review.
Likewise, make sure all electrical outlets and switches have intact covers. While electrical receptacles are often in good condition in living spaces, McKinley says he often sees cracked or missing covers in basements. It only costs 49 cents to buy a new one at the hardware store and installing them yourself can avoid another ding on the inspection report.
Perform routine maintenance tasks. Replace the filters on furnaces and air conditioning units and make sure smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order.
If buyers see these maintenance tasks have been neglected, "They are going to assume other things aren't maintained either," says J.B. Sassano, president of home improvement firm Mr. Handyman, a Neighborly company. Also keep in mind inspectors may check the condition of build-in appliances and will likely note any obvious maintenance defects in their report.
Clean out the mechanical room. Take time to clean out the mechanical room and check for any problems with your HVAC system such as leaks. "Inspectors are going to look for the big-dollar items," Sassano says. Keeping the room clean makes it easy for inspectors to get a clear look at a system's connecting pipes and check for required safety features.
Ensure appliances and fireplaces can be tested. Inspectors want to test appliances but can't always do that if washers and dryers are full of clothes, McKinley says. They'll also want to see that a gas fireplace is in working order, but that means the pilot has to be lit. "Home inspectors aren't going to go and light a pilot light," he says.
If an inspector can't test an appliance or fireplace, he may note that a seller should demonstrate it to the buyer before a sale. That means one more thing to put on your to-do list prior to closing, so it's best to ensure everything is accessible and in working order before an inspection.
Walk around the exterior. Buyers should review the exterior of their house and look for peeling paint, loose siding and hanging gutters. "They need to look at their house like they are going to buy it again," Savoie says. Then, correct problems before they become an issue for a potential buyer. An inspector and buyer will be wary of standing pools of water or a crumbling foundation.
Check windows and doors. "Windows are one of the biggest bugaboos for houses that are 30 to 40 years old," McKinley says. Vinyl windows can become sticky and difficult to open. However, buying inexpensive silicone spray from a home improvement store is an easy way to ensure inspectors will be able to open and close all windows.
McKinley also recommends checking that all interior and exterior doors open and close easily. Clear out the tracks of sliding doors and lubricate those as needed as well. If you have wood-framed windows, be sure they don't have any soft or rotten spots. In addition to ensuring windows are working properly, an inspector will also look for gaps in the framing that should be caulked and rotted wood.
Cover up old water stains. Long after a pipe or roof leak has been addressed, a stain may remain on the ceiling or drywall. If an inspector sees a stain, he or she will use a moisture meter to determine whether it is recent. However, even if there is no moisture found, the mere presence of a stain can make people leery of a home.
"An old stain scares people are much as a new stain," McKinley says. Fortunately, stains are easy to cover with paint, so put this task on your pre-inspection checklist.
Look for mold. Mold is another thing that can scare away a potential buyer. "It used to be radon was a hot-button issue," Kencel says. "The new issue seems to be mold."
Check basements, attics, bathrooms and garages for mold. Fortunately, most mold can be killed with a fungicide found at home improvement stores, McKinley says. Adding a dehumidifier to a room will help reduce moisture and prevent future mold from growing in the area.
Declutter the interior. While an inspector isn't going to be scoring your house on how it's staged, keeping the property clean and free of clutter will make it easy for all rooms to be accessed.
If you're worried that cleaning up a house will uncover undesirable elements, Savoie says there are often simple and inexpensive ways to address a questionable area. "You don't have to re-stain your floor," she says as an example. "You just have to clean it with (the cleaning product) Old English." Work with your real estate agent to determine how best to address unsightly features without breaking the bank.
Be upfront about home issues. Should your review turn up a problem that can't be easily fixed, notify a prospective buyer. You don't want a potential buyer to feel you're not honest or are trying to conceal known flaws. While it's always nice to be able to correct problems before an inspection, that's not always possible. "Some people don't have a couple thousand dollars right now," Savoie says. A good alternative can be offering a credit at closing so buyers can make needed updates themselves.
As for buyers, once they receive an inspection report, they can consult with their broker to determine which defects, such as sticky windows, they are willing to overlook and which may take them back to the negotiating table.
The weather may be getting colder but that doesn't mean buyers' bids have to.
While spring may be the best time to put your home on the market, that’s not possible for every homeowner. If you missed out on the height of buying season, you can still sell your home for a good price in fall and even winter. But Scott McGillivray, real estate investor and host of the HGTV show “Income Property,” notes that selling a home during this time of year can be a whole new ball game. Here are 13 things you should know about putting your home on the market in fall and winter.Photos from spring look better.
Photos from spring look better.
It’s particularly beneficial to have marketing photos for the property done before the weather turns cold and trees go bare. Photos from spring or summer show a buyer what the home looks like in other seasons, when the exterior may appear more lush. “The last thing you want is no leaves on the trees or snow on the ground or dead grass [in the photos],” McGillivray says.Curb appeal still matters.
Curb appeal still matters.
While you can’t force the leaves to stay on the trees, it’s important to keep up on yard work while your home is on the market. “The grass should be mowed [and] there should be no leaves on the ground,” says Anslie Stokes, a Realtor at McEnearney Associates Inc., a real estate firm covering the District of Columbia metro area. Even if frost or other weather keeps you from planting colorful flowers or plants, a well-tended look will boost your curb appeal.There's little room for indoor maintenance mishaps.
There's little room for indoor maintenance mishaps.
You’ll need to be even more proactive with maintenance inside the home. Before the weather turns cold, make sure your boiler and other heating systems are functioning properly; most homeowners don’t discover heating problems until the weather prompts them to turn these systems on. “If you happen to have a showing on the first cold day and the boiler goes out, that’s not a good situation,” Stokes says.The more light, the better.
The more light, the better.
As the U.S. inches closer to winter the days continue to get shorter – and the end of daylight saving time (Nov. 6, 2016) means the sun sets even earlier, which can wreak havoc on showings to potential buyers. “It’s really hard to sell a house that’s dark,” says Eric Boyenga, who leads the Boyenga Team with his wife for Keller Williams Realty in the San Francisco Bay Area. He often brings additional floor lamps into homes he’s listing, and he recommends sellers install landscape lighting around the yard if it’s not there already.There will be fewer showings.
There will be fewer showings.
The market is always hottest in spring, so you shouldn’t expect the same foot traffic at an open house in October as in May. Boyenga says listings will typically see half or even a third as many showings in fall, but that doesn’t mean the homebuyers who do come aren’t ready to make a deal. “Though it’s tougher for sellers in the sense that there’s less of a buyer’s pool, the buyers who are out there tend to be the ones that are showing up and are serious and are pretty motivated,” Boyenga says.Marketing may need a further reach.
Marketing may need a further reach.
To help widen your pool of potential buyers, McGillivray recommends targeting people relocating to your area for work or those looking to have a second home in a different climate. If you live in a southern state, for example, market your home to appeal to snowbirds from northern states looking for a winter getaway, he says. McGillivray also notes businesses commonly relocate employees during the fall, so reaching out to relocation specialists or major employers in the area could give you some leads.Flexibility helps.
Winter can create additional obstacles for buyers, from kids' sports and clubs taking up evening and weekend hours to surprise storms that can throw off a scheduled meeting. It helps to be flexible when setting a closing date, which can range from taking four months to seal the deal to the buyer needing the home as quickly as possible. “I’ve seen as fast as a 20-day closing for someone who’s in a rush,” McGillivray says. The more flexible you are, the easier it is for everyone involved.Don't expect a price explosion.
Don't expect a price explosion.
As a seller you shouldn’t have to settle for less than the home is worth just because you’re marketing it in the fall, but be prepared for a little less fire behind the offers. Boyenga notes that fall listings are “still getting multiple offers, they just don’t necessarily go over asking [price].” Some buyers may think they can submit lowball offers because of the late season, but Boyenga says those aren’t offers worth taking unless you’re desperate to sell.Taking on more responsibility may make things easier.
Taking on more responsibility may make things easier.
Fall is a busy time for everyone, not just homebuyers. McGillivray notes your listing agent is likely to have personal commitments like kids’ football or soccer games, which can complicate showing your home or holding an open house. He says taking on some additional showing tasks or forgoing a real estate agent and selling the home yourself may help to avoid scheduling problems.Too much seasonal decor can be a turnoff.
Too much seasonal decor can be a turnoff.
Fall and winter are prime time for holiday decorations, and while a nod to the season can often work in your favor, Boyenga and Stokes stress avoiding religious themes or distracting decorations. Effective staging will “follow the holiday spirit or the wintertime spirit,” Boyenga says, with garlands or place settings made to look like the home is ready to host Thanksgiving dinner. A Christmas tree in the living room might work, but nativity scenes or menorahs are likely best put away before anyone tours the home. Pumpkins work for Halloween, but McGillivray warns against “spray painting spider webs” all over the front of your house.Highlight seasonal pluses.
Highlight seasonal pluses.
To push your home’s wintertime appeal, highlight rooms and features that serve as a great place to hang out while you’re stuck inside for the colder months. Stokes says a lit fireplace during a house showing on a cold day helps to create a cozy atmosphere, and a finished basement showcases room for kids to play when their outside activity is limited. “You want buyers to go down in the basement and say this would be a great play space,” she says.There's a point where you might want to hold off.
There's a point where you might want to hold off.
As we go deeper and deeper into fall, buyers actively searching for homes become fewer and fewer. And once it gets to Thanksgiving, it’s often wise to pull your home off the market or wait to list your property until after the new year because the number of buyers drops off during the major holidays. “Unless you really have to sell, we recommend waiting until … late January before [putting] it on the market,” Boyenga says.There are some local market exceptions.
There are some local market exceptions.
If you live in an especially hot neighborhood of a particularly hot market, the time of year may take second fiddle to the number of people vying to own on your street. Stokes uses the District of Columbia's Mount Pleasant neighborhood as an example: “There has been such a lack of inventory that everything that comes on the market has multiple offers.” The buyers who lose out in a bidding war are likely to jump at any chance to get the right house in the right neighborhood, it doesn’t matter if it’s the day after Christmas.Read More
With more than a decade of reporting experience, Ms. LaPonsie’s work has been featured on MSN, CBS MoneyWatch, Yahoo Finance, NerdWallet and numerous other sites on the web. She has been a guest of Consumer Talk with Michael Finney and The Steve Pomeranz Show.
A native of Michigan, Ms. LaPonsie received her bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.