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What you should and shouldn’t fix before selling a house

Realtors share expert advice on what you should and shouldn’t renovate before selling your home.

The Aguirre family moved to Roxborough in August from Phoenix. They liked the open floor plan on the first floor, but didn't like the lack of a bannister on the stairway.
The Aguirre family moved to Roxborough in August from Phoenix. They liked the open floor plan on the first floor, but didn't like the lack of a bannister on the stairway.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

When Elisa and Craig Greenberg sold their Bella Vista condo in October, they thought about renovating their kitchen and powder room. Their Realtor, Rachel Rothbard Heller of Coldwell Banker, talked them out of it.

“She said a fresh coat of paint will make everything bigger and brighter but if you redo your kitchen you run the risk that the buyer may not love it,” Elisa recalled. “The housing market started to slow down so we wanted to list it sooner than later. A renovation might have set us back months.”

They repainted the powder room and updated the mirror, lights and rug. Their goal was to refresh and declutter, leaving an open, airy space.

Yet, not all experts agree. If you have the time and financial resources to renovate, those upgrades can lead to a higher asking price and a leg up on the competition. The tricky part is deciding whether to invest in repairs or renovations in the hopes of increasing your home’s selling price or doing as little as necessary to keep the price lower.

About two-thirds of recent sellers took on at least two home improvement projects to prepare their home for sale, according to research by Zillow and conducted by the Harris Poll. Thumbtack, a home services website, found that sellers can invest about $5,400 on average when hiring a professional to complete the most common projects: interior painting, carpet cleaning and landscaping.

Remodeling projects that typically offer poor resale value include kid’s spaces, pools, wine rooms, minor additions, and removing features, according to Houzz, an interior design and home improvement online community.

Large renovations may not pay off

The goal for homeowners looking to sell should be to get the most return on the investment.

“The things that are going to bring you more money are an updated kitchen, a finished basement (which adds space to the property), and adding another bathroom or updating the primary bathroom,” said Carol McCann, a RE/MAX associate broker based in Huntingdon Valley and Northeast Philadelphia.

These big-ticket items can return 70% to 100% of your investment, she said. But it’s important to keep the colors neutral. In a kitchen, for example, use white shaker cabinets, a stone countertop and stainless steel appliances to try to appeal to the taste of most people. The update will sell the home faster, she said.

Yet, given the increased costs of labor and materials, large renovations may not always pay off, said Rothbard Heller, who is based in Old City.

“In these times, with prices so high, less is more,” she said.

Freshening up paint and replacing hardware can give the kitchen an updated look inexpensively. When choosing paint colors throughout the house, think neutral — whites, eggshell, light gray or beige to appeal to more prospective buyers.

The outside of the house provides a buyer’s first impression, so be sure to spruce that up. That may be as simple as putting attractive potted flowers on either side of the door and making sure the lawn is mowed.

Instead of a full primary bathroom renovation, consider replacing an outdated or chipped sink, toilet and vanity and refinishing the existing bathtub.

“One of the biggest costs is redoing your shower area,” said Andrew Graham, president of AB Graham Contracting, based in Huntingdon Valley. By keeping the shower as is, you can save several thousand dollars.

If carpet is on top of hardwood floors, McCann recommends ripping the carpet out of just a closet, to show buyers what’s underneath. That will save the seller the expense of redoing the floors and protect the floor during showings. Unless the carpet is in bad shape. Then you should have it cleaned or replaced.

“If something is broken, fix it,” said Rothbard Heller. “If something is just old, I would price accordingly.”

Beware (some) cheap fixes

Hire reputable contractors and be sure to save all receipts and share them with the buyer. Ask the contractor if it will warranty the work for the new homeowner.

“If a seller wants to do something to save money in a way I don’t advise, I will void the warranty because the customer was advised that this work wasn’t done in the manner recommended,” Graham said.

That’s a situation Sonnet and Chris Aguirre found themselves in. When they moved their family to Philly from Phoenix last summer, they had hoped to find a house that needed a bit of fixing up. They figured that would help keep the price down and Sonnet’s father, a contractor, could help with any needed repairs or renovations. But the housing market was especially hot and finding homes in their price range was challenging.

They settled on a 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom townhouse in Roxborough that had been flipped — the seller gutted and renovated it before putting it on the market. During the inspection, the Aguirres discovered some issues, including no railings on the staircase, roof problems and shoddy electrical and drywall work. They got a small price break to account for these things but still needed to repair them.

They didn’t find out that the refrigerator wasn’t connected to the water line until after they moved in. Sonnet tried to reach out to the sellers to get it fixed but there was no reply. Her father is going to end up helping, after all, but not in the way she had hoped. Yet she’s taking it in stride.

“Even though we found things unfinished in the home, we feel very grateful that we were able to buy one,” she said.