'Tis the Season to Fix Up Your House

If you're planning to sell your home next spring, you need to start planning now.

WHEN ERIK TAROS, a 44-year-old graphic designer, bought his turn-of-the-century Victorian house in 1992, it was the eyesore of the block. He planned to restore the home to its original beauty over many years.

But in February 2002, his son's charter school announced it would close its doors at the end of the academic year. Suddenly, Taros was forced to speed up his renovation plans so he could sell his Lynn, Mass., home and move to a better school district by late summer.

Over the next five months, he and his wife spent every weekend getting their property ready to sell. They updated electrical wiring and plumbing, and laid new sod outside. They built a new porch. They even moved excess furniture to relatives' homes so the place would look airy. The hard work paid off: the house went on the market in June, and sold in August. Taros said he nearly quadrupled his initial investment in a decade.

Any realtor will tell you that the spring and summer are the best times of the year to sell a home, because that's when buyers are the hungriest. According to the most recent data from the National Association of Realtors, or NAR, roughly 350,000 transactions closed during January and February of this year, compared with 650,000 to 700,000 a month in June, July and August.

If you want to take advantage of next spring's selling season, you should start prepping your house now. If you wait too long, you might not have the time to make necessary repairs — and that could cost you.

"Buyers are very savvy today," says Walter Molony, spokesman for the NAR. "If there's something wrong in your house, you had better take care of it. All things being equal, if you have a home that needs a new roof, it can make it somewhat less attractive to a buyer than another home on the market."

Here's a plan to help you get your home ready for a spring listing.

Fix the Exterior
As the cliché goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That's why it's crucial to maximize your home's curb appeal. Something as simple as a new exterior paint job with updated colors goes a long way toward luring in a buyer. (Those stained wood shingles are so 1970s.) Presenting a lush lawn with tasteful landscaping is helpful, too.

Even if you live in a cold climate, you can get a jump-start on the exterior now. Taros, who lived by the damp and foggy New England coast, stripped and sanded the outside wood on his house during the winter so that he was ready to paint once the warmer weather arrived. Another idea: plant bulbs now that will sprout flowers by the time potential buyers begin scouting the neighborhood.

Spruce Up the Inside
Make it easy for potential buyers to envision how their furniture and belongings would look in your home. You can do this by simply painting the rooms a neutral color, getting rid of clutter and opening the windows to let in light, says Colby Sambrotto, chief operating officer of ForSaleByOwner.com, a real estate Web site.

It's also a good idea to make simple repairs, such as fixing a kitchen cabinet hinge or replacing a cracked tile. If you don't, potential buyers might wonder if these oversights are symptoms of a larger upkeep problem, warns NAR's Molony. Perhaps the boiler needs fixing or the roof needs patching, they might wonder.

Repair the Interior
One of the most important things you should do is hire a tough home inspector to detail every problem he encounters. Once you have a list, make all the necessary repairs that could come between you and a possible sale. The last thing you want is a qualified buyer to walk away from the deal because his inspector uncovers a leaky roof or asbestos in the basement.

In some cases, you might decide that some repairs are too costly or too much of a hassle to fix. That's OK, too. Just disclose any known issues (a law in many states) and discount the price accordingly, says NAR's Molony. This is something a real-estate agent can help you do.

Pricing It Right
Experts agree that a home will sell in just about any market if it's priced right. So start doing your homework during the winter months. A good way to get a feel for home values in your neighborhood is to start going to open houses and surfing Web listings, says ForSaleByOwner.com's Sambrotto. There you can see firsthand what neighbors are asking for their homes and how their properties compare with yours.

For a more scientific snapshot, you can also start meeting with local realtors who can provide you with a list of comparable sales in your neighborhood. Also, take advantage of Web resources, including online appraisals (for a fee), and recently-sold home data in your local newspaper.

Picture Perfect
Seventy percent of home buyers start their search online, says ForSaleByOwner.com's Sambrotto. And the majority of them click on ads with photos. So it's a good idea to post some good digital pictures of your house on the popular Web sites in your area.

Presenting your home in the best possible way is key. A small, grainy photo could actually discourage potential buyers from picking up the phone and scheduling a showing — especially when an increasing number of your competitors are hiring professional shutterbugs to capture the essence of their properties. So unless you're ready to shell out $100 or more for these services, you'd better get snapping. Crop and optimize the pictures carefully on your PC. Remember, the goal is to make your home appear as if it is out of the pages of Architectural Digest, not This Old House.