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On the House: Buyers are picky in this market

In real estate, there are many maxims, the most important of which is: "Location, location . . . " You know the rest.

In real estate, there are many maxims, the most important of which is: "Location, location . . . " You know the rest.

Another is: "Curb appeal sells about 49 percent of existing homes." If you're a prospective buyer driving past a house for sale, how nice the place looks from your car, or not, will determine whether you stop in for a closer look.

That's the story from the nation's Realtors, anyway. "Because today's buyers have much more to choose from in the way of inventory, any home for sale must make a positive first impression," says national Realtors' president Charles McMillan.

These days, it's what's beyond the curb that counts. Yet some sellers still think people will buy anything.

That was true during the "Buy it now because you'll never get another chance" era. Folks showed up, checks for the full asking price in hand, never moving past the front door to see whether the rest of the house was there.

Today, however, with sales in this region down 25 percent from last year, buyers - when there are such creatures - are giving houses the white-glove test. Woe be to the homeowner who hasn't dusted the tops of the doors.

Cookie Thurman looked at twins and townhouses along the southern edge of Montgomery County, from Lower Merion through to Chestnut Hill and over to Jenkintown, for months, but she has given up for now.

"There seem to be hundreds of nonserious sellers out there putting their properties on the market as though throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks," Thurman says. "I'm talking about places that are filthy, cluttered, little or no maintenance, let alone updates. People with 'For Sale' signs on their lawns should at least bother to clear their counters and vacuum their floors."

Sellers seem to think "cosmetic upgrades" alone sell houses, Thurman says.

"New granite countertops and tile in the bathroom don't compensate for a wet basement, old electrical systems that can't support today's needs, cracked porches and walkways, poor insulation, rickety indoor stair rails [and] stairs - need I go on?"

Thomas Kelly sold his Collegeville townhouse last summer for $182,000 - just $3,000 less than he asked - after spending $5,000 for paint and updating bathrooms and flooring.

When he searched for a new house, Kelly expected similar treatment.

"I was completely astounded at the general outlook at most of the sellers we encountered," he says. "You'd think we were back in the buyer's market of '03. Most didn't do much to spruce up their homes and seemed to be of the opinion that if we didn't buy it, someone else would."

Ultimately, the Kellys found a house they liked and bought it, but only after dealing with two other sellers who wouldn't budge. When one was told his attic was filled with asbestos-laden insulation, he offered to cover it with plywood.

"It's all about fundamentals," Kelly says. Sticking to fundamentals - location, price and move-in condition - is what sells houses in a down market.