Trying to sell your home? Don't leave it vacant

Most real estate agents would rather endure a root canal than have to show a vacant house for one simple reason: Buyers lack imagination.

Part of selling a home, agents say, is selling a lifestyle. You want prospective buyers to be able to envision themselves living in this new space. The general advice agents tell sellers is to depersonalize the home -- put away things like family photos or soccer trophies which only serve as distractions. But please, most agents say, don't move out and leave it empty. And if you must move, rent some furniture and stage the home.

For one thing, empty homes tend to show every nick and ding. The paint around where a piece of art once hung screams out how much the room needs to be repainted. Scratches that were hidden behind the sofa now wave hello to all who enter the room. And the spot on the floor where the rug once laid now only shows how faded the hardwood floors have become.

"When a home is completely empty," said Lynn Whitley, a Realtor and professional stager in the Jacksonville, Florida area, "it lacks the warmth and character that makes a house a home. Buyers enjoy the homes that have the furniture and decorating that they would like to own, and these homes often command higher prices."

Her experience of showing an empty house is to a family is classic: The kids ran through the rooms testing out how loud they could make an echo in the large empty spaces. Not a good thing, and it gets worse, Whitley said. "I am often asked, 'What is this room supposed to be?'"

Valerie Fitzgerald, who specializes in luxury real estate in Beverly Hills and surrounding high-end communities, is in the midst of staging two properties right now listed at $11.5 million and $6,950,000. "Good staging," she said, "helps buyers see how the home 'lives.'"

Last week she showed several properties to a client, who Fitzgerald says, often can't recall details of homes that are empty. "When my client sees a vacant/empty house, after she tours it she often forgets the rooms and layout. She'll ask, 'Did the kitchen have an eat-in area?" or say something like "I can't remember how big the master was."

"A staged home helps the memory be clear," said Fitzgerald, who is the author of Heart and Sold: How to Survive and Build a Recession-Proof Business.

Roberta Ross, who coaches real estate agents, also invests in properties herself. When she is the buyer, she prefers to see units that are vacant. But when she is selling the house, she makes sure they are furnished and decorated. "Most buyers are not visionaries, meaning they are not well-skilled at imagining the home with their belongings or seeing it for the potential it may have," she said. "Most buyers view a lot of houses before they make a decision and after a while, empty houses start to run together in the mind."

Ross, who is an author and national speaker, recalls a house she flipped years ago that was a top-of-the-line renovation. She thought it would sell like a hotcake, but instead it sat for months on the market until she spent about $200 at Target on towels, flowers, rugs and a few accessories. The house was in escrow in a week.

"I always knew staging was a powerful tool for selling a house, but its power amazed even me."

Eugenia Lockett, an agent with Re/Max Fine Properties in Virginia, brings some psychology to the situation. She says beautifully decorated homes sell faster and for more -- even though the buyers know that all that stuff won't be staying -- because the purchase of a home is an "emotional decision." People, she said, are "looking for a dream, a lifestyle." And then of course, they move their own real lives into the fantasy.

There's another real concern about leaving a house vacant: squatters. Santiago recalls walking into an empty house with some trepidation that she'd find a mess. What she found was that someone had moved in -- illegally.

On the other hand, maybe you do want somebody in the house, especially if it helps with the fantasy you're trying to create. Some agents have gone so far as to "stage" the family "living" in the home they're showing. Allison Harper of Crye-Leike Realtors in Little Rock, Ark., once listed a 3,000-square-foot home that, despite substantial price drops, never got an offer. A stager was brought in who not only furnished the home, but installed a home manager who lived in the home, paid the utilities, kept up the yard and made sure it was in tip-top shape for showings.

But not all agents prefer furnished homes to unfurnished ones. Chris Swanson of BCS Real Estate Services in San Diego, would take a vacant house to show any day over an occupied one.

You don't need to make appointments for showings when nobody lives there, said Swanson, and because of that, he believes vacant homes get shown a whole lot more. Plus buyers are more relaxed when the place is empty, Swanson said. They get down on the floor with their tape measures and go to town, not wondering in the back of their minds when the owner might show up.

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