By Debra Alban
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(CNN) -- Spring is the perfect time to sell a home. Families who want to move before the school year begins often look for new homes in the spring, and sellers jump at the chance to list their houses as soon as winter ends.
The outlook for the 2007 real estate market is mixed.
The National Association of Realtors expects sales of existing homes to remain essentially flat, declining a slight 0.6 percent from 6.48 million in 2006 to 6.44 million in 2007. New home sales are expected to fall about 10.4 percent, from 1.06 million in 2006 to 950,000 this year.
In January, when the Federal Reserve voted to keep interest rates steady, it cited "tentative signs of stabilization" in the housing market.
However, Merrill Lynch issued a statement suggesting that the market hasn't fully stabilized and could face another downturn.
"Now that oil prices and mortgage rates have stopped falling, we will be back lamenting the downturn in the housing market and its spreading effects on the economy in the second quarter," Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg wrote. "This story is far from over."
Even the Realtors association's chief economist, David Lereah, said unusual weather and subprime lending problems are "skewing home sales and clouding the picture."
"Lending problems in our nation's subprime marketplace are building, which could inhibit future housing activity and further dampen our forecast," Lereah said in a recent statement. "Even so, these problems are likely to be contained and not spill over into the prime mortgage market."
Whatever the forecast, houses are seldom able to sell themselves.
If sellers want to make top dollar, they need to take an honest, hard look at their home, leave unrealistic expectations behind and get it ready for sale. If they don't, they risk having their house on the market for many months with little buyer interest.
In Hawaii, for instance, unsuccessful sellers ignored rats nesting in their oven while their home was on the market, as Roger Hazard, home design expert for A&E television's "Sell This House," discovered. And while Hazard and his team had no problem helping a certified witch sell her home, they did have a problem with the dozens of brooms she kept around her house that had buyers stumbling.
To successfully market their homes, sellers need to "let go of the strings of attachment," said Barb Schwarz, CEO of Stagedhomes.com and author of "Home Staging: The Winning Way to Sell Your House for More Money." Otherwise, sellers think, "This is my home, I don't want to change anything," she said.
Curb appeal and Q-tips
Before buyers even open the door, they judge a home's exterior.
Sellers should get an outsider's perspective of the home by standing across the street, Schwarz said. They should ask, "How much of my house can I see? Is it overgrown? Is there a gutter hanging down? Is there a shutter coming down?"
A streamlined appearance with evenly cut grass and pressure-washed walks is key, she said. She urges sellers to give the front door a fresh coat of paint and add plants to either side.
Inside, cleaning may seem like an obvious and simple way to make a home look its best, but buyers often focus on blemishes homeowners overlook.
Schwarz recommends "Q-tip cleaning." A cotton swab wiped on forgotten surfaces, such as around toilets, faucets and light switches, can reveal dirt a homeowner may have missed.
Say goodbye to clutter
Homeowners often personalize their rooms with "things that make [them] feel good, but ... at the same time, camouflage the house," Hazard said.
Successful depersonalizing and clutter control means taking away 25 to 40 percent of the furnishings. This way, people can see what they're buying, Hazard said.
He also suggests removing any personal items on display that are smaller than a breadbox.
Consolidate clutter control and packing time by boxing items for the next home before putting the house on the market, Hazard said. Sellers can rent a storage unit for their packed belongings or use a room in the current house -- a space of secondary importance to the buyer, such as a child's room. Just be sure that the room stays neat, he added.
Highlight the positives
Staging, or merchandising, the home lets buyers see the best it has to offer.
When it comes to staging rooms for open houses, showcase them as they were originally intended, Schwarz said. If owners converted a dining room into an office, they should show it as a dining room.
"Buyers only know what they see, not what it's going to be," Schwarz said.
It's all about highlighting the positives and downplaying the negatives, Hazard said.
"We use color to highlight and to distract," he said. "If we have orange dated shag carpet, we'll try to pick a [paint] color that neutralizes it a little bit or tones it down."
Use white, creams and taupes to make rooms seem as large as possible, Schwarz said.
Using white sheets as drapes gives rooms a fresh and clean look, and hanging them close to the ceiling will make rooms appear taller, Hazard said.
Neutralizing nasty odors
Pet owners and smokers may have gotten used to the smell of their homes, but buyers haven't.
Simple sprays won't undo years of damage, so it may be necessary to remove or replace carpet where pets have had accidents, Hazard said. Because nicotine sticks to surfaces, he usually primes and paints walls to get rid of the cigarette smell.
Hazard also recommends misting scented water on linens before ironing, using cleaning products with a lemon scent and wiping all surfaces before an open house. Even the scent of bleach is better than the scent of pets, he said.
During your open house, keep barking dogs or other distracting animals out of the house, Hazard said, or buyers will have a hard time focusing on the home.
While effective home staging may not necessarily add dollars to the asking price, it can sell houses more quickly, said Pat Vredevoogd Combs, president of the National Association of Realtors.
Also, the faster a home gets off the market, the more money goes in the seller's pocket.
"Longevity on the market means one thing: reduction in price," Schwarz said.