Get Your House Ready for Sale: Top 5 Areas to Focus

If you are reading this guide, the time is coming. You are starting to think about moving. Whether next month or next year, that kind of thing can preoccupy your mind.

It is often an exciting, sometimes difficult time.

There are many steps in selling your home. Preparing your home for sale is one of the more stressful parts of selling for many people because they are not sure where to direct their focus.

A properly prepared home can mean more money in your pocket when you do go to closing and see the final numbers. Alternatively, if some things are left undone or improperly done, it can be a financial mistake.

I have been closely involved in over 100 real estate transactions, and have walked through plenty more homes. I have seen the reaction of buyers as they walk through each part of a home.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. And the weird.

This guide has been slowly written in my head over my years in the industry as a Northern VA real estate agent. Every home is different. Every real estate situation is different.

By reading this, I am sure you will gain some good knowledge on how to apply it to your specific goals at this time in your life, considering your specific property.

For an in depth look on the full selling process, see this guide next.

Know your local real estate market

As you are preparing, it is important to get a feel for the local market around you—both in your state and your neighborhood.

A shortcut is to talk with a local Realtor who has experience in your area and good market knowledge. Look for someone who has done their research.

If the home values are increasing and most homes are selling quickly, this is a signal that it is a seller’s market. If you can get it ready properly, your home will likely sell quickly near the top of the market.

If you do not get it ready properly, your home will also likely sell…just for less money and take more time.

Comparable sales in your neighborhood will tell you what the range is between a home that is less fixed up and ready for market, versus one that did everything.

In a market that favors the seller, you can afford to be less updated.

In a buyer’s market, where there are lots of homes for sale and not as many buyers, you are entering into a more intense competition, and you approach it that way.

Go to some open houses around you; see what sells and what does not.

Then make your house look like the ones that sell, and price them competitively. Before you list, you will want to have a look (online and/or in person) at what other homes are available in your immediate area.

For example, if you are selling a townhome in Fairfax VA, go look at the other townhomes in the same zip code. These will be the homes that buyers see while they go tour homes.

OK, here we go…..first, I am going to give you the top 5 places to focus on that buyers will care about when going through your home.

I will then clarify some topics that home sellers have often asked about. I will also give some recommendations on what NOT to do when preparing your home for sale.

Lastly, I will discuss some special circumstances where it would be better to consider selling “as-is” and doing nothing to the property at all.

Where to focus: Top 5 places buyers look

A custom single family home in Fairfax VA with a large front porch, landscaping and hardscaping and lots of mature trees.
This is your chance to make a first impression. Make sure the exterior really shines.

#1 “Curb Appeal”

Curb appeal is exactly what it sounds like: how the home looks to the buyer from the time they park their car to the time they walk through the front door.

I like to compare this to being on a first date…with someone who is going on two more dates that day (and somehow you know this and want to impress).

Having the front of your home unkempt would be like wearing a coffee stained t-shirt and gym shorts to that date.

You might be a really great person and would make a really great partner. But the only thing that your date is going to think is, “what else is wrong with this person that they cannot look nice for a date?”

Buying cannot help but to think this about your home. It is human nature.

Imagine that the buyers are going on a date with your home. What is inside is important, but first impressions are everything. Here is what to focus on with the exterior.

-Landscaping. Make sure that it looks fresh and vibrant with grass and bushes trimmed, fresh mulch, and pleasant flowers and plants. If it is winter, make sure it looks well maintained without areas of neglect.

-Powerwashing & Debris Removal. The front of your home should be power washed if brick or vinyl, and maintained with paint if wood siding with no areas of rot. Gutters should be cleaned and any debris removed from the roof area.

-“The Front Door Pause”. Once you take care of the walk up to the door, keep in mind the buyers are going to have about a full minute to look around while the agent opens the lockbox.

Make sure all the trim is painted and rotten areas repaired. Caulk around the windows should be fresh. The front door should be recently painted and the door trim should look fresh as well.

A breakfast area of a luxury home with a fancy chandelier, small table and chairs.
Staging a home, either with your own belonging or professionally, can be a great tool to help buyers visualize their life in your house.

#2 Decluttering & Cleaning/Staging

You can always tell when a buyer falls in love with a home, because they start to think about what it would be like to live in the home. In order for this to happen, the home has to have a certain set up.

-Decluttering & Staging. Your home does not need to be completely empty, but there should not be excess furniture or any storage or mess outside of storage areas. Furniture in each room should be only what would be expected to be in that room.

Any pieces of furniture that are distracting or a little too unique should be removed. As for decorations, keep them neutral. Personal photos and keepsakes will look great in your next home, but the buyer will want to start to think about their own experiences they will have in your house.

Excess clutter in the home, consider getting a separate storage unit.

-Do I need professional staging? This is often debated. Many agents will advocate staging or have a background in staging and therefore will say it is necessary or that it will make you money.

There are advantages and disadvantages to professional staging.

For me, the time and money to get professional staging are often not worth it in a very hot seller’s market if your home shows well how it is. For a vacant home, often the home will sell just as quickly vacant as it will staged.

However, if you have a unique home, a very large home or the market is more balanced, professional staging can help your potential buyers visualize your home’s potential.

-Cleaning. The home should be as clean as it has ever been. If you are able to clean, go for it. If you do not have time or are just not up for it, professional cleaning before going to market is worth it.

A freshly painted home, the family room is seen with a bay window, newly refinished floors and the entry.
Fresh paint and newly refinished floors go a long way.

#3 Paint & Floors

I put these two together because I think they are equally important.

If your floors look good, but your paint color is the classic “formerly white now yellow with black marks” or some bright orange color, chances are your newly refinished floors won’t be noticed.

Same goes for if you have a nice fresh neutral paint color but your carpets have a worn down pad and stains from years of gatherings.  If both are new, or at the very least recent, your home will have a new finished feel.

-Floors. This an update that should be done to the level of the neighborhood. If you have a luxury home in McLean VA, you are most likely looking at resurfacing hardwood floors or replacing them if needed.

If you are in an older townhome in Fairfax VA, laminate or luxury vinyl is a good option. It looks great to the new buyer and is cheaper to install than hardwood.

Carpet in most cases is fine in bedrooms, where many buyers prefer the soft surfaces. Entryways, kitchens and bathrooms are usually tiled.

-Paint. Neutral or soft colors are key. Any dark or overly bright colors can be distracting and make a room look smaller.

Some buyers may like a bold color, but most will not. And your goal is to appeal to the highest number of buyers possible.

A luxury kitchen with white cabinets, grey backsplash, hardwood floors and white quartz counters and island.
An updated functional kitchen will attract lots of attention on the market.

#4 Kitchen

The kitchen is one room in which most buyers will be spending a lot of time.

For buyers who cook, this is usually the number one area they look at first.

Even buyers who do not do a lot of cooking will want to know the kitchen looks good for their lifestyle, as they still will spend a lot of time in there.

What kind of updates do you want to do? You can ask us about what is in style for your type of home

Another easy way to do it is to look up new construction in your area. Look at the photos of the kitchens. These are the trends that current buyers are looking for.

-Cabinets. These can be new or resurfaced, depending on their condition and also your neighborhood. As of this writing, white cabinets are what appeals to most buyers.

-Counters. Go with what is in style. For many years, granite ruled the counter world. However, more and more buyers after that preferred quartz.

It is a harder manmade surface that requires less maintenance. It can also be made to look like marble, which is how a lot is manufactured at the time.

Actual marble stains more easily and is expensive, but some markets call for it.

Different surfaces come and go as functionality, looks and technology change.

Remember before installing to install what is sought after, make sure you are up to date. This is why getting a Realtor involved early on in the selling process can help as we see the latest trends.

-Floors. Tile floors add value to a kitchen if your current tile or other flooring is very dated.

-Backsplash. You can put in a backsplash between the counters and cabinets, though I personally think this is the last thing to focus on.

You can also have a counter person put a small backsplash against the wall of the counter. This is what a lot of sellers do, as long as the paint is fresh and a good color.

A master bathroom in a new construction home in Northern VA. Marble and decorative tile with a separate soaking tub.

#5 Owner’s Bathroom

This says “owner’s bathroom”, and not “bathrooms” for a reason.

This makes #5 on the list of top places because the owner(s) who are going to be writing a check/ taking a mortgage for your house will be using this bathroom.

The other bathrooms are a bonus if they are updated, but the owner’s bathroom is where to focus your money.

Just like the kitchen and other updates, make sure the bathroom is in line with what currently sells in the marketplace.

Other important factors

Take care of the “eye sores”.

Listed above are the top areas that help a home sell. But if you have a part of your home that has not been updated in 40 years, you will want to strongly consider putting that on your list as well.

Let’s say that a buyer walks into the upstairs hall bath.

What you want them to think is “nice, this will work”.

What you do not want them to think is “oh wow I have not seen that tile since I was a kid at my grandparents house”. If there are some forgettable parts of your home, that is normal.

What you do not want is for something to be memorable in a bad way. This can impact the buyer’s decision when considering your house.

Maintenance items.

Hopefully, you have been taking care of your home while you lived in it, but it is not a perfect world and you probably have some items you have put off. Now is the time to take care of them.

Any broken toilets, leaks, bad outlets, etc. should be addressed.

In Virginia, the buyer has to do due diligence to find out all information they can about the home.

Unless you sell the home “as-is” or can negotiate an inspection without repairs, many of these items will need to be addressed at the home inspection anyway.

What about roof, windows, and HVAC? 

If they are in working condition, going new on these items is not one of the big factors that excites most buyers enough to choose your home over another.

Although buyers should be super excited about these big ticket items, most usually do not notice until their agent or inspector mentions them.

Regardless, as mentioned above you still want to take care of maintenance on them. For example, windows should open and not have cracked panes.

Roof should not have leaks. HVAC should actually cool your house and not make any high-pitch dog whistle noises.

If they function well, money is better spent elsewhere.

What NOT to do when preparing

-Do not try to have the absolute nicest house in the whole neighborhood. 

You do not want to update more than the other homes that have sold in your neighborhood. First of all, your buyer will most likely get an appraisal of the home from a third party if they get a mortgage.

If your home is under contract for more money than anything else in the area because you put in a whole lot of new updates, it sometimes causes problems with the appraisal.

With that said, you are usually safe doing some of the most sought after updates: kitchen, owner’s bath, flooring, paint, etc.

Tip: save your receipts and make a list of all the updates you did to the home since you bought it. This is good info for both the new buyer and the appraiser.

-Never try to cover up any latent defects. 

VA is currently a “buyer beware” state, but this does not mean you can intentionally deceive a buyer. The buyer is responsible to do inspections and do their due diligence.

But you do not want to actively try to conceal latent defects, etc. and/or lie about the condition of the home.

For example, if you have a leak in a pipe in the ceiling, do not just paint over the stain. Fix the leak. If a buyer asks a question about the home, be honest if you know the answer.

When to consider selling “as-is” and not updating

-Your home needs a LOT of work, and you do not have the capability to do it.

If you are overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done, and your time or finances (or both) will not allow for it, it may be time to consider selling the property “as-is” and forgo any updating.

This could be a situation where it needs both extensive maintenance and updating.

Even in this case, it is usually best to get it live on the market than to sell it to just one cash investor. If you do decide to take an offer from an investor, it is a good idea to talk to a trusted agent as well to see what you could get listing the home and marketing it to general public.

-There are too many decision makers and not everyone agrees. 

This often comes up when heirs of an estate are selling a family house. Many times there is no agreement on what updates to do or who will be responsible for managing everything.

Sometimes selling “as-is” will just make everyone’s lives easier and help you to move on to the next chapter without it becoming a headache.

-You are in an area with lots of new construction, and are thinking of selling to a builder. 

If you live in an older home and you see new homes in your neighborhood, you may be open to selling to a developer. You will not want to do any updating or preparing as they will be buying your home only for the land.

Get an expert in your home

Everyone situation is unique. This guide was written to get you on the right path as your start to prepare your home. And the market is also unique at different times.

If you are selling a house in Northern VA, the next step logical step is to get a real estate expert to go over your goals and see your specific property.

We have always been a problem solvers, as real estate agents with a consultant approach, we pride ourselves on helping clients get from where they are to where they want to be with their real estate goals.

We offer no obligation consultations where we can discuss getting your home ready for sale.

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Will Rodgers

Will Rodgers is a real estate expert, creator of this site and partner at the Alper Real Estate Group. Will has been sought after by many major publications for his expertise and creates sought after content for buyers, sellers and investors.