On the House: Want a quick sale? Repair the major things first

Posted: May 01, 2011

In a recent "Home Economics" article I wrote for The Inquirer's Business section, an expert recommended that homeowners keep at least $5,000 in easy-to-liquidate assets, to cover emergency repairs or replacement costs.

Although no one objected to that number - the expert said it was a minimum, and more like $10,000 in the bank would be better - I assume that very few people, especially those on fixed incomes or who have children in college, have even $5,000 to set aside for emergencies these days.

With the economy still in disarray, there is a tendency to postpone repairs if they don't disrupt day-to-day living. If a pipe bursts, you shut off the water and call the plumber immediately. But if the faucet in the bathroom sink drips a bit, you try not to think about it, even though you're wasting lots of water and probably adding to your monthly bill.

Sometimes, even if there is enough money to pay for the minor repair, you postpone it - learning to live with the situation, as Eichler & Moffly Real Estate agent Marilou Buffum put it, until it becomes so much a part of your life you forget about it.

Until you list your house for sale, that is.

In a market where there are still too few home buyers, sellers are less likely than ever to find someone as tolerant of a dripping bathroom faucet as they are, Buffum said.

A few weeks back, I wrote about a five-bedroom Colonial for sale for $234,900 that prospective buyers had described as "too blah," and that even the agent had considered "boring."

The owners had spent a lot of money trying to make the house, built and purchased in 1971, look appealing, but it had spent the winter sitting empty.

Finally, an agreement of sale was negotiated with first-time buyers for $225,000, with a $5,000 sellers' assist at the settlement table.

The subsequent home inspection uncovered needed plumbing and electrical repairs, including bringing the septic system up to code.

Then, there was the water pressure, which the owners said had always been problematically low, though the family of nine had managed to get by on it for three decades.

The repairs were not that expensive, but the angst created by the inspector's report was high, as was the concern that the best opportunity for selling the house might be lost to things that were known and left uncorrected because its owners had learned to live with them.

Weichert Realtors Media office manager Noelle M. Barbone recently sold in just two weeks her parents' home of 40 years in Springfield, Delaware County.

Sure, they gave each room a fresh coat of paint, but her father also had the roof replaced. Because they knew the house would have to pass the township's use-and-occupancy inspection, "we had everything taken care of from that checklist," Barbone said.

In preparing the Colonial for sale, however, the owners of that house had focused on cosmetics first rather than on the systems, which were in greater need of attention.

If all they had to do to sell the house was paint it, they might have hired a decorator or a professional stager, but that wasn't the problem. The roadblocks to a smooth sale were deferred-maintenance issues, not colors.

Most buyers want to pick their own colors after they move in anyway. They buy the house, so why shouldn't they purchase the paint?

What aren't on most buyers' lists of desirable features are roofs in need of replacement and major plumbing and electrical issues. They want those fixed, or there's no sale.

Best advice: Deal with deferred-maintenance issues before you list your house for sale. If you can't remember what they are, start at the bathroom sink.

"On the House" appears Sundays. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or Twitter: @alheavens.

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